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Making a case for living small and sharing more

Research is showing that going small can make living in a city affordable and comfortable

By Aeron Hodges, Architect (Boston, MA)

I have lived in Boston for the past five years. I love my city; it is beautiful, diverse, and rich in culture and history. At the same time, I am also worried about its future. Like many other urban hubs, housing costs in Boston have significantly increased. In 2015, the amount of renters who pay over 30% of their income on housing has reached 50%. Many young professionals are also burdened with student loans and other high living costs. While urban living is appealing to many, most of us simply cannot afford it.

Three years ago, a few of us at the office decided to start a research initiative (WHAT’S IN) to investigate how we can change this situation. We came up with a potential solution we call “living small and sharing more.” By reducing individual living spaces, the total rental cost can be lowered. At $5/sf rental cost, a 500sf unit costs $2,500, while a 300sf unit only cost $1,500 a month. After realizing the cost-saving benefits, we set out to take on the design challenge to make a small unit livable, to find the right balance between private and shared amenity spaces. In the last three years, we tested our designs through a full-scale mockup and identified city-owned land in transit-oriented neighborhoods where these new housing types can be developed at a lower cost.

Our full-scale mockup unit was exhibited at Architecture Boston Expo (ABX) in 2012. The response was very positive, and many expressed they would live in such a unit with spaces for every function. Three years later, our team has grown to be multi-disciplinary with members from multiple firms and industries, and we have been invited back to ABX every year, this year presenting our fourth exhibit on our research on small urban living.

On November 17-19th, the Urban Living Lab exhibit welcomed its visitors with research and data on Boston housing, small living design solutions, robotic architecture from MIT Media Lab, and a virtual mock-up showcasing all the designs the WHAT'S IN team came up with over the past year.

The exhibit structure is composed of 17 bays of L-Shape 2x4 lumber connected on hinges. When each bay is expanded and placed 3 feet apart, the structure takes the shape of a series of truss-like gable pavilions. The display boards, painted on the exterior and laminated with our graphics on the interior, acts as a rigid diaphragm for the structure. Overall, each pavilion is themed with a research topic and is turned open on plan to allow entrance into the interior.

Each of the four pavilions takes on a specific topic from WHAT'S IN design research. Pavilion one asks how to address growing housing demands by the year 2030, revealing the dire shortage of housing stock in Boston and the rapid increase in rental prices. Pavilion two proposes using "small living" as a model for more affordable urban living, surveying exciting projects and proposing new designs in this relatively new typology. This pavilion also includes studio work from Roger Williams University students on their designs for a small-urban living project in South Boston.

Pavilion three looks for technology solutions to make small living spaces feel larger, showcasing the Architecture Robotics project from MIT Media Lab, and the Multiwall product that could be customized for a variety of purposes. Pavilion four investigates solutions to building more small-living units for affordable workforce housing in Boston, including policy changes proposed by the Mayor's Housing Innovation Lab, prefab and modular construction method comparisons, as well as a discussion on the appropriate scale and structural system for this new housing typology.

A great many thanks to everyone that made this exhibit happen. We are really grateful for the Boston Society of Architects for including us again at ABX; Castle OS, HIL, Cubiq, RWU and MIT Media Lab for content collaboration; Whitney Veigas for donating time and resources for our graphics application; HBF/Davis/Lowenstein/Bernhardt/Redthread for their beautiful furniture pieces; and Stantec for all its continued support through the R&D Fund and much more beyond. Making our cities affordable and livable will take more than just design; we had good discussions during the exhibit with students, housing experts, disruptive innovators, and policy makers. As a research group, we will keep exploring key aspects of the topic, and keep a platform of discussion going across different fields. See you next year!

Aeron Hodges is an architect in our Boston, Mass. office and leader of the WHAT’S IN initiative.

The WHAT’S IN team: They’re excited about small living

While urban living is appealing to many, most of us simply cannot afford it.

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