InsightsMicro Units: The Essential Ingredients
By Carl Malcolm
In my last column (“Micro Units Break Into New Settings,” posted May 14), I explained how the design and construction of micro units has gone beyond the 400-square-foot, urban, high-density model one normally associates with these homes.
I then went on to discuss some new, “outside-the-box” alternatives to the typical micro unit using three sample projects to which my firm, JHP Architecture/Urban Design, contributed: White Buffalo, a three-story, 63-unit, micro-unit complex in Fort Worth, Texas, developed by Lang Partners; phase two of CanalSide, a walkable, urban, multifamily housing community in Columbia, S.C., developed by The Beach Co.; and Riviera at Seaside, also by The Beach Co., a coastal suburban community in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
In the following article, we’ll take a broader look at micro units in general; specifically, the ingredients each must have in order to succeed, regardless of whether the home fits a conventional or more unorthodox definition of a micro unit.
Location Trumps Size
Whether the micro-unit community is located in an urban core or a suburb, it must be accessible to jobs, health care, and attractive amenities—retail, cultural, historic, recreational, etc. In fact, location tends to be the major amenity associated with micro units. Indeed, micro-unit communities attract residents for whom location is more important than square footage.
Many of these residents are recent college graduates and young professionals in the Millennial generation, many of whom have had quite enough of roommates and will happily trade space for location and affordability. But micro units also hold an attraction for singles and couples of all ages, including empty-nesters who are eager to give up their 2,500-square-foot, single-family home in the suburbs and rediscover the city.
The common denominators among these disparate demographic groups? They appreciate urban living, value location over space, and enjoy the social interaction associated with population density. But they’re not likely to make the move unless the unit is attractively priced, designed to optimize every square foot of space, and equipped with luxurious, high-quality finishes, fixtures, and furnishings.
An Effective Price Point
The micro-unit community’s higher density appeals to developers, as well, who can generally expect a higher yield from the design. Developers of communities with prototypical units ranging from 350 to 650 square feet have found that the cost to build is lower while the price per square foot exceeds the average for their market. Renters have found that the monthly rental price is lower than that of a typical apartment in the same market, perhaps as much 20 percent to 30 percent less. So everybody’s happy.
For example, in Fort Worth, the traditional product pro forma is $1.60 per square foot for a 950-square-foot unit, for a rent of $1,520, on average. Meanwhile, micro units at the White Buffalo are priced at $2.00 per square foot. Residents of the development’s 560-square-foot units get to live in the same neighborhood, with the same amenities, but at a rent of only $1,120 per month.
Balancing Price and Luxury
While the price is attractive, residents don’t necessarily have to sacrifice luxury for affordability in a well-designed micro unit.
The key to optimizing the space in a successful micro-unit design is eliminating dedicated circulation space: The living space itself provides circulation throughout the apartment instead. It is designed with few stationary dividing walls, and with sliding instead of swinging doors. Efficient units are also designed with modular kitchens and baths, and modular components, that can be reconfigured by the developer over the development’s size range.
And the project need not be an industrial-property conversion or a high-rise to provide the volume that makes small feel spacious: The prototypical micro units in the low-rise infill projects described earlier have 9- or 10-foot ceilings and large windows that admit ample natural light. As a result, a 500-square-foot apartment looks and feels like a 700-square-foot space.
The higher density and cost-effective space planning and design also enable the use of luxurious, high-quality materials, fixtures, and finishes. Depending on the prevailing preferences of the target market, these may include stained concrete and wood-laminate flooring, high-quality/efficiency windows, custom European-style cabinetry, stainless steel or granite countertops, high-end Energy Star appliances, designer lighting, framed rather than flush-mounted mirrors, and so on.
How small is too small, then? If it looks and feels too small, then it probably is. We draw the line at about 400 square feet in our projects. Aside from simply moving a sliding barn door, residents shouldn’t have to “reassemble” their apartment interior or fold and unfold their furniture to sit on a sofa or go to bed, access the bathroom, or work in the kitchen.
The design of the prototypical low-rise, infill micro-unit complex is flexible for a range of urban locations, sites, and target markets. For example, the White Buffalo has a predominantly stucco exterior, wood accents, and a metal roof, as well as sustainable landscaping using native Texas plants. The interior finishes and fixtures are a contemporary urban style.
In contrast, the exteriors of the two Beach Co. micro-unit complexes in South Carolina are predominantly brick, in keeping with their architectural context. Similarly, their interior finishes and fixtures blend contemporary style with Southern charm.
The mostly brick exterior at Riviera at Seaside in coastal South Carolina fits the area’s Southern architectural context. PHOTO: © Jason Stemple
The micro-unit concept also works well in terms of sustainability, including materials, mechanical/electrical/plumbing systems, permeable parking surfaces, electric-car outlets, xeriscaping, bicycle racks/storage, and residential recycling centers.
Parking and Zoning Challenges
While the small, infill micro unit is equally at home in either an urban core or the suburbs, parking and zoning conventions in the suburbs can pose challenges.
Take surface parking. While it’s desirable in terms of development cost and resident convenience, the typical low-rise, infill micro-unit complex is designed with parking space for one car per bedroom, to yield the generally desired density of 50 to 60 units per acre. However, some suburban residents who are accustomed to garden-apartment living expect additional parking space—up to an average of 1.5 cars per bedroom. If the developer were to provide it, however, the density would decrease below the optimal level. So developers need to sell prospective residents on the high-end boutique apartment concept, instead.
Good Design Fuels Strong Demand
The small, low-rise micro-unit concept also enables a municipality to provide a housing alternative that fits a broader spectrum of a person’s life. This may help avoid the drain on first-tier suburbs that otherwise often occurs when new college grads and empty-nesters move to the city.
Taking the White Buffalo as an example, demand can exceed supply when well-designed micro-unit apartments and townhome-style units are involved. Considering the current trend toward the redevelopment of urban-core neighborhoods and first-tier suburbs, as well as smaller, more efficiently designed dwellings, demand for well-designed micro-unit housing should remain strong.
Where do we go from here? Until recently, most of the conversation has been about the micro-unit trend in the context of the urban core. But, as the projects discussed here show, the leading edge of the micro-unit trend is pushing those boundaries—even into the suburbs.
From a design standpoint, it’s relatively easy to achieve high density in a heavily urban area: Just build a high-rise or convert an industrial property. It takes a different kind of design solution, however, to achieve high density outside of that box, especially in a suburban context. The low-rise, infill micro-unit community is such a solution.