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March 30, 2016

Micro is the New Black

John Sheehan

This cultural tendency toward the tiny has even extended to the multi-family development world, which is a-buzz this spring with discussions about Micro-Flats. Tiny dwelling units are turning up on the pages of lifestyle magazines & blogs, real estate industry journals, and – of course – in the architectural press. There is an increased demand for smaller, less expensive living quarters for one- and two-person households that is not being met by the available supply of conventional housing types – particularly in urban centers. Indeed, this demand is so great and so underserved in major cities that the Mayor’s offices of both New York City and Boston held competitions/exhibitions last year to promote the production of downsized digs. So what does a person really need to know about the design and development of these diminutive dwellings? At Studio E Architects, we have done quite a lot of noodling on (and designing of-) compact units over the past 25 years. From our experience in the trenches – we offer these 10 tips to anyone considering super-small apartments:

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1.) Definition Please?

There is small… and then there is small. In California, 160 square feet is the legal minimum size for a dwelling unit. There are folks out there experimenting with ultra-compacts in that range – however most developers are looking at units that average between 250 to 400 square feet. Experience tells us that 350 to 425 square feet is a sweet spot for avoiding special appliances and fixtures.


Compact is a relative term

2.) Bathing

“Euro-baths” and wet rooms (think motorhome bathrooms) are neat ideas that don’t really fly in the States. Too messy. Hard water leaves scale and spots on fixtures and walls. ADA requirements make it difficult to squeeze down the overall dimensions. We have seen SRO (Single Room Occupancy)units that relied on a common sink shared between the bathroom and the kitchen. Definitely a space (and cost) saver – but does anybody really want to brush their teeth where they drain their pasta? Splurge on two separate sinks!

“Euro-Baths” are convenient for small enclosures

3.) Go Vertical

Floor-to-ceiling storage is a must. We all have stuff – it has to go somewhere. Getting things up off the floor in a small space makes it feel larger. Upper kitchen cabinets should extend all the way up to the ceiling. Storage above the toilet is another opportunity. We also like built-in shelving and closets with low drawers – especially handy for short folks.





Floor-to-ceiling shelving allows for maximum storage in a minimal footprint, and adds character to a space

4.) A Room With a View

Big Windows – that open. We like using sliding glass doors. These can open up the whole end of a room. They can open on to a small balcony – which extends the living space. We also like bay windows, which offer a sub-space within the overall unit that can be used as a sleeping/sitting niche or dining alcove.



Sliding glass doors and juliette balconies help to open up a small space.

5.) The Social Network

As unit size diminishes, pressure grows to provide alternate venues for gathering and socializing. New micro-flats offer places to mix, mingle and rub elbows. Gyms, “business centers”, “screening rooms”, billiard lounges, party kitchens, shared decks, terraces, patios and rooftops – should be considered in any good design scheme.

Stay tuned for more in next week’s post, when we’ll conclude with our final 5 musings on living large in small spaces. Until then… are we missing anything? What essential qualities do you look for in a small space? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Courtyard cabanas, sandbox, and fire pit bring the beach to downtown San Diego at G Lofts West.