Micro-Units: What’s a Proper Living Space

Micro-units were all the rage in DC this year. About a dozen projects are in the works.

Proposed units at The Wharf. What makes micro-units work is good design to maximize use, which requires most people to ditch their suburban hand me down furniture.

Proposed units at The Wharf. What makes micro-units work is good design to maximize use, which requires most people to ditch their suburban hand me down furniture.

There is nothing too new about this marketing label for what are essentially studios or efficiencies, but I was surprised at the unit floor configurations proposed.  The typical rule of a micro unit is to be below 400 square feet.  In loft speak, this was basically giving you an open room where kitchen appliances would be stacked along the wall with a small bathroom alcove.

But why the elongated unit proportion?  The golden rule for rooms are a comfortable 4:3 rectangle with the entrance on the shorter wall.  This gives orientation into a space, and that seems to be exaggerated much as today’s micro units are best called hallways.   “Activated hallways” perhaps.

Yesterday’s Studio

I currently live in a 1920s version of an efficiency building and my studio is basically a 400 square foot rectangle.  In cities like New York, this is actually the zoning mandated minimum for a residential unit.   My main living area is 23 feet by 12 feet, about 275 square feet, while the remaining rectangle is divided between bathroom, walk-in closet and kitchen.

It already feels pretty narrow but there was intention behind this.  It’s meant to allow easy subdivision between one side and the other, for example a sleeping area and a living room area.  Too open a space and one feels uneasy about the expanse. Although my Midwestern sensibilities say 12 feet already approaches claustrophobic.

My little DC studio

My little DC studio. Just enough to spread your wings out for one person.  Maybe two people if you really really really each others company.

Micro units take at most 350 sf space and smashes it down to say 10 feet, leaving one to configure 35 feet into a home abode.    In a way, it’s taking most millennial’s suburban bedroom and just doubling it. As a result most architects end up having to shove all the required sub rooms such as bathroom and closet toward one end of the unit, and having an open kitchen if not combined concept with the living/sleeping area.   A sliver of a hallway connects everything to the entrance.

These dimensions tend to evolve out of pre-fabrication, where units are building blocks to be stacked and configured. In the case of nArchitects for My Micro NY, it feels pretty standard, just alright, about the feeling of a minimalist hotel room with room for storage.

When I moved in to my place, I had this visceral reaction as if I was in the trenches of the Somme.  The living area was basically my mother’s living room, and the kitchen walkway just enough room to open the fridge door completely.  A single thankfully large bay-like window on one end gave just enough light and air to keep my spidey senses aback.

Is This Too Small?

This SOMA SMARTSPACES at 38 Harriet. The picture on the left is on the CCA dorms website while the right picture is typically used in micro unit marketing.

This SOMA SMARTSPACES at 38 Harriet. The picture on the left is on the CCA dorms website while the right picture is typically used in micro unit marketing.

My studio reimagined as a true micro unit. Had to ditch some things and now my "living room" is not likely to be viable anymore. At least I got my queen in!

My studio reimagined as a true micro unit. Had to ditch some things and now my “living room” is not likely to be viable anymore. At least I got my queen in!

The NY Times asks “How Small is Too Small” and points out a failed 2008 micro-unit building in SF’s FiDi.  But that was almost a decade ago in a weak real estate and job market, and today we are assured that building would be full on day 1.  Housing activists tend to dislike micro units, citing they’re too small to support families, they keep the tech workers here, and that they invite the tenement fears of early industrial cities.

After a year living in essentially an early 20th century micro unit, I’ve fallen in love with my studio.  My ability to keep clutter free has dramatically improved, and maintenance of the space is at a minimum.  I even find it’s easier to “plug in” at night as I’ve efficiently parsed out the space to specific functions like sleeping, reading, TV watching, and eating.  In a way I find I am using a small amount of space more efficiently and enjoying the square feet.   Maybe this sounds rather dystopian, but in a world of limited resources, I still feel good.

Yes I would love a larger space and likely find infinite ways to have my very own personal drawing room, Downton Abbey library, and butcher block island, but for now, this works just fine.

Ok, This is Too Small

For me, anything below 300 square feet is suspect unless it’s just a dorm (sleeping area with sink).  I just can’t love this design proposal for 230 square feet to accommodate a typical New York infill lot.  The use of vertical space over horizontal produces this uneasy canyon feeling.  The relative comfort of the renderings predicate people have built-in organization and are Dwell magazine minimalists.

Also people most likely cloth themselves with a replicator instead of the massive closets I know almost every person has.

Also, fear of heights.

Love Thy Neighbor

A living space is a biological need for security and merely a transitionary period to the outside world.  We do spend at minimum 10 hours outside the home.    A space should allow one’s senses to cool off, recharge, and rejuvenate.  Ultimately the apartment is a retreat that let’s one appreciate their neighborhood.

For my century-old building, this still works and I think we’ve gotten the dimensions right with some variation to go depending on the right architect.  Just don’t squish it any more.