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Micro-apartments: Are these tiny units coming to the suburbs?

February 13, 2019

By Aeron Hodges

Q&A: Micro-apartments have been a fast-growing trend in urban areas, but can they work well in the suburbs too? Our expert shares her insights.

With human population on the rise, and along with it the price of housing, city planners have increasingly looked at micro-apartments as options for alternative living solutions to meet the changing demand of the market. A micro-loft is typically less than 350-square-feet with a fully-functioning kitchen and bathroom, although “micro” size is relative based on geography—a micro unit in Boston could be 250-square-feet while it could be twice that size in Colorado.

Developers and design professionals have implemented several creative solutions to meet compliance regulations and the needs of the end consumer. The micro-loft trend has been primarily in dense, urban areas, but is there a need for micro-apartments to expand to the suburbs?

Watermark Seaport in Boston, Massachusetts, is a combination of luxury high-rise apartments, modern lofts, and micro-units. When the building opened, the micro-units rented first.

Housing expert Aeron Hodges and her architecture team in Boston focus on designing spaces for living small in urban areas by researching and testing new models. She also lived in a 375-square-foot apartment with her husband, so she has first-hand micro-loft experience.

What trends are you seeing in micro living?

Aeron: The driving force for micro-loft popularity is affordability for renters. Millennials and young professionals don’t have high starting salaries but still want the experience and accessibility of living in a city. On the ownership side, we’ve seen micro-units renting almost immediately when the building opens. We know of a couple condos in Boston that had a waitlist within a week of going on the market.

Design is a big factor in micro-units since the square footage is so small. Our Boston team has done quite a bit of research since 2010 to continually improve our designs. We’ve looked at how to create a space for every function, opportunities to increase sustainability, the amount of daylight suitable for a small space, and we even worked with an MIT graduate program to review robotic technology options (such as beds that disappear into a closet or closets that open to create another room.)

We have heard hesitancy of developing micro-unit buildings, but we have the research to prove that these types of units sell, and they sell incredibly quickly.

There has also been an increase in public perception of micro-apartments over the years. In the past, we’ve seen projects with low neighborhood approval impact the feasibility of a project. Since then, our team has worked hard—especially in the Boston area—to improve the public’s understanding of micro units. Our team worked with the Housing Innovation Lab to develop a full-scale, traveling Urban Housing Unit mock-up that has been showcased in several neighborhoods. We also worked with the Housing Innovation Lab and the City of Boston to create a policy that has been approved by the City that allows for small units to be built outside of the Innovation District. We helped the City write the design guidelines.

Are micro-apartments staying in urban areas or spreading into the suburbs?

Aeron: I think the urban vs. suburban debate for micro-apartments depends on transportation and amenity accessibility. In addition to the affordability, being close to public transit and urban amenities is a big selling point for micro-apartments in urban areas. In urban areas along the coasts, many people don’t have cars, while people in less dense suburbs tend to rely on cars. I believe micro-apartments work well in any area, if there are reliable transportation options and at least a couple urban amenities—grocery store, restaurant—nearby. Suburban micro units can also become a social hub for their rather scattered neighborhoods.

TROY Boston has reinvigorated the community in Boston’s South End. Its 378 units are consistently more compact than other similar projects built at the time, allowing for them to operate 25% more efficiently.

What are the benefits to developers to build micro-unit facilities?

Aeron: There’s a stronger need for this typology, and we encourage developers to think about the demand and success stories. If you look at market reports, there is a supply and demand gap for this type of unit. This is due to a surging millennial population who are looking for mostly single or double occupancy, as many millennials are having children later in life, combined with the issue of not being able to afford the largely overstocked two-bedroom options in urban cores. We have heard hesitancy of developing micro-unit buildings, but we have the research to prove that these types of units sell, and they sell incredibly quickly.

  • Aeron Hodges

    Aeron believes that all architects are an integral part of that, whether they’re working on buildings, infrastructure, public art, or even social policy—each is intricately connected

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