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What’s In? Micro-Units

From the AIA Young Architects Forum journal Connection comes the story of emerging professionals surveying their own generation of design-savvy urban dwellers to formulate a solution for an omnipresent problem: the mismatch between constricted urban real estate prices and appropriately sized rental units. The Boston architecture firm ADD Inc. looked for a way to alter the rental market in their city to make downtown, urban living more possible for the young designers, entrepreneurs, and creative professionals all cities need to attract to maintain their vitality. The solution was a very, very small discovery.

Q’s story
On the surface, this essay is about an emerging building typology called the “micro-unit” and the diverse team of people tasked with bringing the typology to life. The subtext is about young architect named Q whose story is unfolding in cities across America where housing and transportation costs consume 45 percent or more of household income. Maybe you know someone like Q who left college with some credentials and a mountain of debt in search of a town with cheap rent and a decent nightlife. Maybe you are someone like Q who envisions affording an apartment from which you can walk to work and have cash left over for craft beers and art museums. Q doesn’t need a luxury penthouse with harbor views. He doesn’t want a doorman, a town car, or even laundry service. He wants to know his neighbors, afford his rent, walk to the store, and make a basic apartment feel like home. Yet as simple as that sounds, Q can’t find a place to live in downtown Boston.

The call to innovate
Believe it or not, the city in which you work wants you – the driven, young entrepreneur – to live downtown because you drive economic growth and spur community development. It just doesn’t yet know how to accommodate you. In 2010, the year that Q took his Boston-earned degree and moved to Seattle in search of a job and more affordable housing, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino created an “Innovation District” along the waterfront to create new ideas, new services and new products. He invited five architects, including Tamara Roy, AIA, from ADD Inc., to speak to area developers and his staff about what innovative housing could be. Tamara, a great believer in crowd-sourcing and collaboration, asked her colleagues about innovation , and the answer was a resounding: “We can’t afford to live in Boston, so what does it matter?” It was apparent that designers, developers, and policy makers needed to think beyond current luxury housing models to make Boston attractive and affordable. Tamara outlined several areas where the city could help: allow smaller units, focus on shared common spaces, replace cars with bikes, and create more opportunities for developers to experiment.

The mayor’s staff responded by requiring any residential proposal in the waterfront area to have an innovation component, a policy change that kicked off a surge in smaller units, shared amenities, urban agriculture, and other new housing ideas. ADD Inc. was tasked with designing four of these projects and Tamara (with B.K. Boley, Design Principal-in-charge) realized that her team was lacking demographic information about emerging professionals on which to base their designs. With that, a housing research initiative called “What’s In?” was born.

By mid-2011, Q had had enough rainy days to warrant a move back to Beantown. He landed his dream job at ADD Inc. and was asked to lead the What’s In task force with Aeron Hodges. The team set out to answer one question: What is the appropriate design response to an emerging urban living environment where city-living is preferred but prohibitively costly for most people?

The big idea is little
At first, What’s In was just a handful of architects committed to finding a building typology that could provide a solution to the problem of affordability. They looked at the sheer cost of urban land and theorized that using less real estate per person would be the best way to achieve decent rents and encourage diversity in downtown Boston. In the beginning days, Q and his team felt certain about three big “if-then” ideas. First, if traditional studio apartments were 600-square-feet, then the emerging unit typology would have to be much smaller, yet not feel cramped. Second, if renters were going to live in walk-in-closet-sized apartments, then they need a new style of city living – one in which creative and accessible shared spaces would ameliorate the reduction in private space and add value to the urban experience. Third, if the micro-unit typology was going to be adopted by forward-thinking municipalities, then it would have to support innovative behavior.

As work progressed on Boston’s new housing projects, What’s In solicited feedback from outside voices to ensure that ADD Inc.’s designs would fit the needs of emerging professionals. Sure, 300-square-feet apartments worked on paper, but would developers and end users buy into the idea that going micro was the new way to live big? Even though Q didn’t want much more than a small space to sleep, What’s In needed to know if his peers had other demands for downtown digs. To find out, the group invited the target demographic, young professional aged 21-34, to participate in interactive forums designed to address three levels of urban living in Boston: neighborhood amenities, building amenities and apartment amenities.

Bringing the big idea to life
Armed with end-user data confirming the existence of a market for simple and affordable micro-units in downtown Boston, the What’s In team set out to share this big idea on micro-housing. What they needed was something bold, informative, and experiential – something like a full scale mock-up exhibit that thousands of people could walk through and learn from. So Q and his colleagues got to work on a 300-square-foot mock-unit (named “Luan” after its plywood shell) that would go on display at the 2012 ArchitectureBoston Expo, one of the largest events for the design and construction industries in the country. Luan sprang to life as a digital 3D model, shaped by the collaborative efforts of the What’s In team. Its modular design accommodated the program elements generated by the emerging professionals forum, used standard sizes of inexpensive building materials, displayed the What’s In research, and provided a physical space for public discussion. After months of planning and off-site construction, Luan was ready for action. For three days in November, a bright orange, fully accessorized micro-unit mock-up generated buzz on the floor of the convention center. Developers, city-officials, architects and renters were excitedly discussing micro-living, urban affordability, and the future of residential rental development.

What’s In is emerging architectural practice
Over the course of the What’s In research initiative, Q moved from his walk-up apartment on the outskirts of Boston to an affordable but amenity starved suburban location that now places him 45 minutes away from work. His story is a reminder that the cost of urban housing is a complex problem that deserves the attention of the people drafting housing legislation, buying city land, laying out new neighborhoods, and designing residential buildings. To Q and the What’s In team, emerging architectural practice means approaching an issue in a cyclical manner with the help of a diverse group of stakeholders. It means asking new questions when the old ones are answered so that the “Qs” among us may someday pay rent in the city, afford to go out on the town, and contribute to the knowledge spillover that keeps cities and innovation alive.


Unlike conventional buildings that pack all common amenities on the ground floor, micro-unit buildings situate amenity spaces amongst the apartments on different levels to activate the structure in a new way. Fresh patterns of circulation for residents increase opportunities for interaction. Image courtesy of ADD Inc.

The most important features singled out by the What’s In Project were a modern bath, a kitchenette, polished concrete floors, basic finishes, a bed alcove, decent storage, lots of natural light, and the opportunity for tenant-to-tenant customization. Image courtesy of ADD Inc.

ADD Inc.’s micro unit model interior. Photo courtesy of B.K. Boley.

The interior corridor of ADD Inc.’s micro unit model. Photo courtesy of B.K. Boley.


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This article excerpt was originally published in the January 2013 edition (30 MB PDF) of the Young Architects Forum journal Connection.


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