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July 5, 2016

Bigger Thoughts, Smaller Spaces

John Sheehan

Micro-units – rental dwelling units that are 300 square feet or less in floor area – continue to be a hot topic in the press and on the web. Micro-fever is catching here at Studio E Architects as well, with two projects on the boards that will offer two distinct approaches to living small.

The first is Parkside Studios in Sunnyvale, California: a sixty-one unit micro-unit project in the mold of Archer Studios, will use the latest in prefab construction technology. The second is the renovation of the historic Hotel Churchill in downtown San Diego: a seven-story, seventy-three unit single-room-occupancy (SRO) residential hotel in downtown’s East Village, built in 1913 in anticipation of the Panama-California Exposition.

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 Economics is a major reason for the uptick in micro-unit – as the U.S. population becomes increasingly urban, the supply of conventional housing in urban areas is strained to keep pace with increased demand, and rents are skyrocketing. As a result, significant portion of the population’s fastest growing demographic – one- & two-person households – is effectively priced out of the market. These renters are left with a choice between two alternatives – find less expensive housing further away from the urban core and commute, or subsidize the cost of expensive housing in the city by packing in additional roommates. Micro-unit apartments are being touted within the development community and by the leaders of our cities as a solution to this problem.


This shift of favor toward the compact extends beyond the bounds of urban real estate and planning, however, and can be at least partially credited to a cultural shift in our attitudes toward “stuff” – the acquisition and storage of which is major driver in our needs for dwelling space. Advances in technology have reduced the spatial footprints of entire libraries into that of an iPad, allowing for access to a wealth of culture, media, and entertainment at the touch of a button – with less residual clutter and expense. Combine this with an elevated eco-consciousness that has lead people in recent generations to more carefully consider the impacts of their decisions on the world around them, and you have the necessary ingredients for the emergence of creative new solutions to accomplish more with less.

In our research for our micro-unit projects, we’ve come across a pair of interesting case studies/videos that resonate with this second explanation. The first video, from the folks at LifeEdited, profiles a self-built micro unit in Seattle – whose creator has christened it the “pico dwelling”. While it seems to ingeniously accommodate all of life’s necessary functions in task-specific compartments (#Lifestyle as designed by an Engineer), and is an impressive exercise in DIY – it has a patchwork quality that lacks the Architect’s sense of the “greater-whole”…or the quality that takes something beyond mere problem solving into art. Adds John: “Can you really trust a man that wears capri pants? (Manpris?)”

This second video is a TED talk about scaling down – a short pitch for going “anti-materialist”. While it sort of ignores the fact that a lot of folks have hobbies, pets, partners, (maybe even kids!) that would require some accommodation of “stuff” – the basic idea of thinking hard about what you need and what is of real value seems a worthwhile and noble pursuit.

What are your thoughts? What are the things in your life that have proven the most purge-resistant and would have to be accommodated in any dwelling space, no matter how small? How small is too small? Let us know how you feel in the comments section below!