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Inside a micro-unit: Living small, sharing more, and creating affordable urban housing

January 16, 2017

Part six of our 10-part Stantec R&D Fund 10th Anniversary Series takes us into the world of small urban living

ollowing the 2008 recession, Boston was facing the same good news/bad news dilemma as many urban centers in the United States. Great jobs were moving in, and with them, young professionals. But a lack of affordable housing soon began pushing all but the wealthiest out of the most dynamic urban cores. So Boston, Massachusetts, mayor Marty Walsh issued a call for new ideas on urban housing.

As affordable urban living spaces get smaller, designing areas where people can gather becomes more important. Enter Stantec’s R&D fund.


A group of young Stantec architects and interior designers gathered for an after-hours brainstorming session to address the Mayor’s challenge. The group found itself immediately commiserating over the soaring cost of housing and a shared, disheartening observation: It didn’t really matter what type of innovations they discussed, because nobody could afford them. “That was a wake-up call for our designers,” recalls the team leader Aeron Hodges. “Because if we can’t design for the people who actually need the housing, what’s the point?”

Aeron and the group quickly moved past their disillusionment and decided to think small about this growing problem. With the support of company leadership, they began what turned out to be a long-term research and development (R&D) project to study diminutive dwellings, or micro-units, and their place in the urban fabric.

A cost-saving challenge

In downtown Boston, rental accommodations cost about $5 per square foot. So a 500-square-foot apartment runs about $2,500 per month—too expensive for many young professionals. However, a 300-square-foot unit in the same location comes in at a far more affordable $1,500 per month. “After realizing the cost-saving benefits, we set out to take on the design challenge to make a small unit livable,” says Aeron.

The team first tackled the obvious question: Can you design and build an attractive and affordable apartment with less than 450 square feet in downtown Boston? To help them with the answer, Aeron recruited partners from housing, technology, and civic organizations, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Media Lab, to form the WHAT’S IN(novative) collaborative. The collaborative researched how people adapt to living small, the innovative projects that are challenging the perception of smallness, and how smart design and technology could upgrade tiny apartments. 

WHAT’S IN aims to find affordable living solutions through research, design, and policy change. Meet some of the WHAT’S IN 2016 Team: (L to R) Chris Moyer, Aeron Hodges, Sara Zettler, Eric Smoczynski, Natalia Escobar, and Adam Gonzalez. (Photo courtesy Sara Zettler)

That research led to the debut of a full-scale micro-unit prototype—the 350-square-foot Urban Living Lab—at the Architecture Boston Expo (ABX) in 2012. Says Aeron, “We wanted to see how people experienced the space when it is well designed. The response was very positive.” 

Meeting the neighbors

Once WHAT’S IN had shown that people could live in micro-units, they explored the financial feasibility of living small from a real estate perspective. They reached out to civic leaders, developers, and builders to identify city-owned land in transit-oriented neighborhoods, public/private partnerships, current housing stock, and other factors impacting the viability of micro-units.

“We compiled a list of these sites and categorized them by location, desirability, light and noise levels, safety, and other factors,” explains Aeron. “This matrix helps developers who are interested in developing micro-unit buildings but may not know the best place to start.”

Backed by Stantec’s R&D program (now Greenlight), Aeron’s team continued to research this emerging housing style. One current initiative with mayor Marty Walsh’s Housing Innovation Lab and the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) is helping to generate greater awareness and acceptance of micro-unit living.

During the fall of 2016, WHAT’S IN volunteers gathered feedback from more than 2,000 people who visited a full-scale, furnished micro-unit model as it traveled to various neighborhoods around Boston. They also hosted focus groups and conducted an online survey on amenities for micro-units. 

WHAT'S IN members designed a series of interactive games around the themes of communal spaces, compact living areas, and cost of renting a place in the city to help gather information from visitors during the UHU Boston tour.

Living small, sharing more

An Iroquois longhouse, a dormitory hallway, a Roman courtyard—what do they all have in common? Aeron believes they are all places where humans connect and, unconsciously over time, create a sense of community. But can you translate these concepts in a dense urban environment?

The indefatigable Aeron is now turning her attention to this aspect of living small. “We are making the units smaller and smaller. That means we should put more focus on the shared spaces outside of the unit—spaces that might evoke the proverbial campus quad. Although we take away some living space to lower costs, it doesn’t mean we must sacrifice quality of life for these residents. We say it’s living small, sharing more.”

To help answer that question, the team used Stantec’s Greenlight funding to launch the 2016 Quad Competition, an international call to develop shared space concepts for residential developments. Participants were asked to design a 20-foot by 70-foot (6-metre by 21-metre) area.

Flexible spaces, says Aeron, are key. “A space that can do double- or triple-duty, such as a lounge with flexible seating that can accommodate different types of activities, is a great example. Interior finishes do not have to be excessive, but they must reflect an identity and create a sense of belonging,” she explains.

The team received more than 70 interpretations of this social sphere in the Quad Competition. The winning project, "Folding Paper," was designed by KiKi ARCHi, a Tokyo-based architecture design firm led by Yoshihiko Seki. Aeron says “It’s a humble space, but it’s beautiful and memorable at the same time.”

Once a design was selected, assembly was required. Lots of it. Stantec design coordinator and WHAT’S IN team member Adam Gonzalez recruited local college students to help. He’s an unabashed fan of the program. “Throughout the whole process, we worked weeks and weekends. The project was a great experience and truly amazing to be a part of,” he says.

KiKi ARCHi’s winning QUAD 2016 competition entry, “Folding Paper,” impressed the WHAT’s IN judges with its “inventive use of a lightweight material, the thoughtful integration of research display, and the spatial quality the design is able to create.”

Finding a voice

Close collaboration with allied groups in Boston is essential to the success of WHAT’S IN. Bill Craig, managing director of the BSA, notes that “Aeron, and Stantec, have created a great avenue for emerging professionals to become engaged with the social, economic, and environmental conversations surrounding affordable housing. She is fully invested in the effort and cares about pursuing real solutions. The BSA is happy to support this innovative yet pragmatic work.”

Today, WHAT’S IN has a far better understanding of micro-units, the potential market, and the key players than they did four years ago. But much more remains to be done. “We, as an architecture practice, really want to dig deeper into how to elevate the product we deliver and make sure it is unique and considerate of the market need, including affordability,” says Aeron

Since that small group of designers first gathered five years ago, the market for micro-units has taken off, says Aeron, who herself shares a 375-square-foot apartment with her husband. Last year, Mayor Walsh and his OneIn3 Council honored Aeron for her work incorporating affordable housing for young professionals into the mayor’s Imagine Boston 2030 (IB2030) vision.

“As the City of Boston works toward meeting the goals in the Housing Plan and IB2030, we look to partnerships with creative, thoughtful designers like Aeron to help us best meet the needs of Boston's current and future residents,” says Susan Nguyen, chief of staff for the Office of New Urban Mechanics for the City of Boston.

For Aeron, access to funding from the Greenlight program is helping WHAT’S IN become a leading voice in this national urban conversation. “Back in 2012, when we talked to developers about building smaller units, we didn’t get a lot of traction,” says Aeron. “But lately, the idea is spreading like wildfire. For every new residential project we are working on, developers are interested in how and where we can include some micro-units.”

About this article

In 2017, Stantec celebrated the 10th anniversary of our Research and Development (R&D) Fund—now called Greenlight. Through Greenlight, Stantec invests $2 million annually into our employees’ big ideas, with half the funds earmarked for scientific R&D initiatives. Greenlight is part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, which nurtures the efforts of our people to apply any idea that benefits us, our clients, or our communities, and enhances our reputation, competitive position, and ultimately our financial performance. In the coming months, we’ll be profiling 10 of our R&D grant recipients and their work, so check back often for more stories. 

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