Industry Trends: Micro Houses as a market viable solution?

By: Duong Huynh, Project Manager

A home – a beacon of economic and personal stability to which one returns after a hard day’s work to rest and relax in relative privacy. Such a beacon takes on shapes, textures and sizes as malleable and diverse as the ecosystems in which their owners reside.

Two generations of Hong Kong resident in a typically sized "home" for the working class.

Hong Kong: Two generations of Hong Kong residents in a typically sized “home” for the working class. Part of an intriguing series of photographs by Benny Lam, posted via the Telegraph.

Traditional Mongolia ger (photograph property of AHI).

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: Traditional ger housing (photograph property of AHI).

6 Fort Street, Quincy MA. 34 units of affordable family housing designed by Davis Square Architects. Adaptive reuse from a church and an office building.

Massachusetts, US: 6 Fort Street, Quincy. 34 units of affordable family housing designed by Davis Square Architects. Adaptive reuse from a church and an office building.

Dubai: Citizen housing constructed by the Mohammad Bin Rashid Housing Establishment (an AHI client).

Dubai: Citizen housing constructed by the Mohammad Bin Rashid Housing Establishment (an AHI client).

For centuries, markets and their participants have all subconsciously lived by a practical and logical rule when it comes to housing obtainment: money = location, quality of housing, and space. Hence, affordability, when left to the market and without policy or financial intervention, fluctuates depending on those three critical factors. Cheaper homes possess any single or combination of (a) distance far from centers of commerce and jobs, (b) quality sub-par to mid-market products and/or (c) size smaller than mid-market homes. Let us assess each of the three components exclusively:

  • Location: critical in accessing employment and critical services such as healthcare, food, and education.
  • Quality: critical to health via its direct link to structural integrity, ventilation, and electrical and plumbing systems, among other key engineering, visual and operational components of a home.
  • Space: critical to essential needs (i.e. enough room to sleep, eat, bathe and rest in) and sense of comfort.

Upon the above inspection, Space stands out as a component most flexible in facilitating affordability. People can be tolerant and even preferable of living with less, but still functional, space if they can trade that for a quality and structurally sound home within a desirable location.

Enter the recent active research, dialogue and breakthroughs in micro housing design, development and construction. Oh wait – what’s a micro unit, you ask?

Micro Unit 101

Now on to the imagination-wired feast for the eyes.

Winner of NYC Micro Units competition. Also utilizes modular construction technology. nArchitects (though I don't see much anarchy in the monochromatic style of that design... or is it just the light?)

Winner of NYC Micro Units competition. Also utilizes modular construction technology. nArchitects (though I don’t see much anarchy in the monochromatic style of that design… oh, is it just the lighting?)

Micro apartment-thumb-535x359-103772

Micro apartment unit on display last spring at the Boston Society of Architects. ADD Inc. design.

“Manhattan Micro Loft” by Specht Harpman Architects, winner of the Architizer A + Award in the Small Living category. Though, in NYC, the savings from the small footprint of this home is nothing compared to the cost associated with the roof access to open air critical for its design success.

“Manhattan Micro Loft” by Specht Harpman Architects, winner of the Architizer A + Award in the Small Living category. Though, in NYC, the savings from the small footprint of this home is nothing compared to the cost associated with the roof access to open air critical to its design success.

Often times, it is difficult to draw that thread-thin boundary between certain micro-homes and SRO’s (single room occupancy units).

Micro home with adjustable/foldable furniture in San Francisco, CA.

Micro home with adjustable/foldable furniture in San Francisco, CA.

Rendering of a typical SRO with a shared bathroom.

Rendering of a typical SRO with a shared bathroom.

Oh wait.. did I just mix up the captions of the two above images? I honestly can’t tell.. The true difference to a normal consumer is in the finishings, furniture accessories and branding.

Here's a real life SRO picture to take the sheen off of those shiny renderings. It's definitely a decent living arrangement, but nothing close to glamour.

Here’s a real life SRO picture to take the sheen off of those shiny renderings. It’s definitely a decent living arrangement, but nothing close to glamour.

A marked success of the innovators in micro-housing design definitely lies in the branding they’ve built up. As soon as you say “micro houses” in New York, Boston, or San Francisco, you will draw the attention of young working professionals (I am looking at you, yuppy bachelors) who consider the concept cool and trendy. In fact, many of them have signed on the dotted line to cement their interest in micro homes.

Check out Factory 63. A hip, young, and classy brand and development in Boston’s Innovation District (whose name is derived from a trendy rebranding of the historically industrious waterfront, courtesy of former Boston Mayor Tom Menino). The project features Boston’s smallest units to date – result of a permitting and zoning exemption from the Mayor’s team. When someone asks you where you live, just simply answer “Factory 63.” If they are not hip, they will respond “You live in a factory?” And if they are hip, “Cool dude, you live in a factory!”

Versatility for the win.

Versatility for the win.

They sure sell up the Small factor.

They sure sell up the Small factor.

Of course, the fact that YOU lie at the heart of the project's success, that's also played up.

Of course, the fact that YOU lie at the heart of the project’s success, that’s also played up.

The future of micro houses, their market affordability, and to-be-tested practicality and functionality are still unopened cards. However, the research and exploration surrounding them, and other housing innovations, are critical to keeping the affordable housing world at a competitive forefront alongside the rest of the residential real estate market.

And now for my 5 seconds of glamour and glitz as I play up my project team’s 2nd place entry for last year’s Boston Affordable Housing Development Competition.

BAM! Interlocking micro units to save space. Please ignore the non-glittery design. Remember, practical = rooms are are not shiny!

BAM! Interlocking micro units to save space. Please ignore the non-glittery design. Remember, practical = less sheen!

Okay, so there was not really much glamour and glitz in the above, but it was practical and we had a sustainable pro forma that was real AND works! Unfortunately, in the world of design, pro formas are not considered pieces of art and cannot be readily displayed to draw immediate gasps of awe from visually-inclined audiences. And thus ends my moment of glory.

 

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2 thoughts on “Industry Trends: Micro Houses as a market viable solution?

  1. johnberk

    They all look amazing and I believe that it is the way we should think about the future of our living. With diminishing space in big cities, as well as with the neverending battle against the poverty, it is important to support this kind of projects. Another possible are the container homes build from old shipping containers.

    Reply
    1. ahiglobal Post author

      Dear John,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I wholeheartedly agree. A slum dweller’s innovative approach that’s similar to container homes can be seen in the flattening of oil drums, and the reuse of that flattened metal as walls, siding, and roof for dwellings in Kibera. I can’t find a good picture of this example now, but will write back if I end up finding one.

      Best,
      Duong

      Reply

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