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From the Design Quarterly: Living small means the city is your living room

February 26, 2018

By Aeron Hodges

Compact urban dwellings—think 450-square-foot studio apartments—promote community and sustainability

Humans are flocking to cities. The United Nations projects that by 2050, more than 66% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. North America, where sprawl flourished, is urbanizing, too. Most of the 20 largest cities in the US continue to grow in population. In Boston, for example, the population growth is driven by a continuing influx of single professionals, bringing with it an increase in racial and ethnic diversity. The housing markets in North American cities are challenged with luxury housing approaching saturation and few viable models of affordable housing. 

Advantages of compact urban living

In cities like Boston, compact urban living presents an affordable option for young professionals or students, provides luxury without the upkeep for some urbanites, and encourages behavior that supports community life. Compact living promotes social interaction, optimizes the urban housing mix, and counters age segregation. It celebrates the idea of the city as a dynamic place where one can access culture, services, and community—without driving or even owning a car. Less talked about, but just as important, is that compact living is a big step toward sustainable living.

Troy Boston is a twin-tower complex with 378 rental apartments. 

What do we mean when we say compact urban living? Typically, we’re talking about micro-apartments, which are studios less than 450 square feet. In Stantec’s design for the Hearth House compact living concept, we created a system of interlocking 250-SF studios for Boston. The compact 1 bedroom is less than 650 SF and 2 bedrooms top out at 850 SF. This type of housing is best suited for individuals who are willing to downsize so that they can live closer to urban cores, trading in some space and in-unit amenities for friendlier rents and mortgages.

Micro-units and compact living enable city dwellers to live a dynamic lifestyle within their means. Compact living enables access to life in the city with all its amenities. It’s a good fit for those that see the city as their living room, entertainment space, gym, and laundry room—and don’t need a private version of all of the above in their dwelling.

Troy Boston is 400,000 square feet and includes a rooftop garden and enclosed courtyard.

But for those that desire it, luxury micro residences can feature more space devoted to upscale amenities, pools, gyms, and social space—or laundry rooms. Ideally, compact living optimizes the mix of singles, students, and families in city.

Existing family housing in cities like Boston is often occupied by student roommates or young singles who can pool together and afford the higher rent better than a single family. As a result, families who prefer urban living are priced out of cities. If we utilize empty lots in an existing urban community to build compact urban living units, and house our students and young professionals there, we will free up traditional housing. Micro apartments are a better fit for early career single professionals, allowing families to occupy the city’s single-family homes.

Compact living promotes social interaction, optimizes the urban housing mix, and counters age segregation.

Do micro-apartments benefit the environment and our wellness?

Compact living supports sustainability and wellness. The data backs this up.

Based on a study conducted by the University of California Berkeley, the average carbon footprint of households living in the center of large, population-dense urban cities is about 50 percent below average, while households in distant suburbs are up to twice the average. Compact living means relying more on public transit, cycling, or walking to get around—as parking space is generally not included in compact living units. Living small in the city puts us closer to public transit and amenities vs. commuting from a suburb. The shorter distance the commute, the less driving we do, generally, and the lower our daily carbon emissions. Compact living requires less climate control to maintain comfort (30K BTUs for a house vs. 7K BTUs to cool a micro-apartment). Smaller dwellings mean less material required for construction and less construction waste per person.

Troy Boston.

Physical activity

The micro-apartment lifestyle means getting out of the home on foot more often for things like groceries, laundry, or a workout. This is important.

Lack of physical activity contributes to numerous health problems, higher health costs and an estimated 200,000 annual deaths in the US. The U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends that adults average at least 22 daily minutes of moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, to stay fit and healthy. Among physically able adults, average annual medical expenditures are 32% lower for those who achieve physical activity targets ($1,019 per year) than for those who are sedentary ($1,349 per year). Cities with high walkability, bike-ability, public transit quality, and nice parks such as Boston are best suited for those living compact to reap rewards in terms of wellness.

Life in the street

Compact living promotes interaction in the building, walkable communities, and social interaction at the street level. Smaller units allow same number of units with additional spaces for social interaction, without adding more building area, which would increase cost. Social interaction through well-programed spaces are key to providing a strong sense of community, forging genuine connection beyond what one can achieve through social media.

  • 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

    Contact Aeron
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