Building small: Micro Loft designers answer your questions

BY newsdesk  November 16, 2013 at 1:49 PM EDT

A couple months ago we ran a story on the micro-apartment movement. That video and the slideshow that accompanied it are among the most popular features we at NewsHour Weekend have published. 3m Architecture’s Chris Marciano, Ryan Matthew, Mark Munroe, of Boston, graciously answered some of your viewer questions and explained why they are dedicated to this form of development.

The 3-M’s Micro Loft design Do you consider people living in the Micro Loft roommates? Neighbors? How does the leasing work?

The coupling of two Micro Lofts together (per the adjacent diagram)
allows for an interstitial social space that can be converted, via sliding
doors, into a larger space. This was the premise for our Micro Loft
proposal and the gained efficiency of our overall model. In this context,
the person living in adjacency to you does become a sort of “Micro Loft
Roommate”. This is an interesting social relationship and one that could
be abrasive if not handled properly. It is, however, justified in the removal
of an entire program from the conventional model. The Living/Dining is no
longer rentable space, and thus provides a reduction in rent.

The provision of Multipurpose Rooms (MPR) in high-density housing is not a new concept, but what we are presenting is a nuanced scale. The efficiency is gained through the design of the living/dining space. What would normally be required for two leased spaces is instead shared, reducing the square footage. As we have seen in projects elsewhere, including here in Boston, a large-scale MPR located in the basement or some extremity of the building becomes underutilized. The prototype we have proposed
responds to this issue by compartmentalizing the shared space. Certainly, there is a need to democratize space when living in shared quarters. The programs we have deemed as ‘dirty’ (those requiring frequent cleaning) are contained within each lessor’s respective unit, so the usage of that is discretionary, but what about the living/dining room?

To avoid this potentially abrasive scenario of two mismatched loft-mates, potential residents could apply as a pair. This is not a post-rationalization of the adjacency as it is an answer to the larger issue of this typology. This is a nuanced residential typology with an innate social mission – giving people such as graduate students and young professionals the ability to live close to Central Business Districts (CBD). As stands currently, micro-apartment building are receiving lukewarm success rates from San
Francisco to Boston simply because they are priced too high for the target demographic. This is a model that must include a type of rent control, for it is solving a social mission – to maintain knowledge capital within cities by providing young talent with a diverse range of housing options. The density of this typology offers an unparalleled Dwelling Units/Acre factor, however to deliver a reasonable return on investment to the developer would require alternative strategies such as cross subsidization.

How often do zoning laws interfere with your plans?

The major zoning issues that we run up against are size-related. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) handles the standards of minimum square footages in Boston. This past June, the rules for developing micro-apartments became slightly more lenient and new laws were passed concerning the downtown transit-oriented developments. The BRA identified three housing types subject for change:
Metro-studio units, Metro 1 units, and Metro 2 units. While not explicitly stated as ‘micro-apartments’, the Metro-studio units are specified as having a minimum of 450 sq ft. The Micro Lofts we have proposed are 419 sq ft, so even with this change in policy zoning laws in Boston are still not holistically revamped for the inclusion of Micro Lofts. The exception to this rule is South Boston’s Seaport District, an area that has been classified as the ‘Innovation District’. It is here that the city has begun to approve plans for
micro-apartments. One such proposal at 399 Congress Street is a 414-unit residential building of which sixty units are classified as ‘Innovation Units’ ranging from 330-450 sq ft. Even with the Seaport District as a testing ground for micro-apartments in Boston, zoning remains an issue. Our belief is that the last thing that Boston, or any city, needs are neighborhoods composed disproportionately of micro-apartments. The Micro Loft typology relies on the surrounding urban fabric. It is necessary that the Micro Loft typology be inserted into established communities and does not become homogenous
neighborhoods of their own. The Seaport District is essentially a blank canvas as much of the neighborhood is still composed of surface lot parking, so its character is still being shaped. Our concern is simply that in any implementation of micro-apartments, there is a heterogenous mix of units. Micro-apartments are certainly metro-centric units, however, in Boston, they cannot be limited to only the Seaport District. Our hope is to see the type of zoning leniencies used in the case of 399 Congress be applied to other areas adjacent to the Central Business District of Boston.

What’s the trade-off in carbon footprint?

The question of Micro Lofts is a social, fiscal, and environmental one. Their social justification comes
from their ability to house the young professional and graduate student population, both of whom are
currently lacking options for affordably-priced housing in the city. Their fiscal justification comes from our
proposal to construct these units in a modular fashion. The ability to construct the units off-site while
the site is being prepared corresponds to a reduction in construction time and cost. This type of
construction has significant environmental advantages as well. Because buildings account for 40% of
all material use, the amount of waste material could be greatly reduced within the confines of modular
production. The danger of modular construction, in terms of carbon footprint, is in the distance the
assembled units must travel. The shipping distance is the single largest contributor to the carbon
footprint of an modular Micro Loft. For this reason, it is necessary that cities capable of supporting this
nuanced typology can also support facilities to construct these units. The fear that these newly created
manufacturing facilities may take jobs away from general contractors is a fallacy, as they will inevitably
be managed by the very same construction companies and operated by union-based labor. The
highly-controlled conditions of a manufacturing facility for Micro Lofts represents an improvement in the work environment of the laborers as compared to conditions of on-site construction. The production of
units in this matter represents a fiscal and environmental benefit, adding to the developer incentives for
the creation of Micro Lofts.

Is there a place for micro-apartment living that isn’t somewhere with good transportation? How?

There has to be some form of public transportation within a reasonable distance and cities are
beginning to recognize this. The BRA approval for the Metro-studios is dependent on public transit
access within one radial mile, which we agree is a fair requirement. Proximity to public transit is
intrinsically necessary for the Micro Loft typology as their viability is largely reliant on urban amenities not
provided within the building. It favors location over space, granting residents access to the job
opportunities and social capital of metropolitan
areas without the burdens of car ownership. The
injection of a young professional population into
central business districts would also significantly
benefit the neighborhoods themselves. Districts
such as Downtown Crossing in Boston or the
Financial District in New York are hubs for
commerce and transportation but are deserted
during non-business hours. We believe this is a
result of a low residential population. (See the
image below.)

3mpicture.jpg

What’s the option for middle class, working class and car-centric living? What cities/countries are you looking to for models?

Tied in with the question of unit heterogeneity is the answer for middle class residents. All Micro Lofts
are to be implemented in urban-centric communities with access to public transportation – it is a
typology that simply does not fit within suburban areas or non-dense cities. The question of the middle
class is an interesting and necessary one. Aside from the cost-savings of prefabrication, one way to
keep the rental prices of the Micro Lofts down and within reach of young professionals is through a
practice known as cross-subsidization. This is when one group of residents is charged a higher price to
offset the subsidization of other group. By implementing this practice, rent control can be instilled upon
Micro Lofts. Micro Lofts are very much a typology for young professionals who have few personal
possessions, but we are also seeing a rise in the number of empty nested baby boomers looking to
downsize and return to cities. The downsizing in their case might not be to the degree of leaving a 2,000
sq ft home for a 450 sq ft Micro Loft, but nonetheless the city must be prepared to handle the influx of
residents they will bring when combined with the retention of recent graduates. By some accounts,
Boston alone is required to produce 70,000 new units of housing by 2020 just to meet the demand of
these two populations.

Coincidently, investment must be directed to an urban residential typology that
caters to these downsizing baby boomers. It is towards them that we are targeting the 1BD and 2BD
units that are to be aggregated within buildings containing Micro Lofts. The heightened prices that these
larger units beckon will help to offset the return on investment of the Micro Lofts. It is critical to lure
developers to this type of building and this is one of many ways to do so. We expect a cross-section of
socioeconomic diversity within these buildings such that we see: young professionals, affluent
professions (able to afford 1BD/2BD units), and a percentage of baby boomers looking to return to the
city. For this last demographic we understand their two primary needs to be the following: access to a
building that is serviced by an elevator, and access to a vibrant walkable city in which to spent their
years of retirement. There will be an interesting trichotomy to these new building types that will enrich
the urban environment and further the accessibility of the city to all peoples. It is of interest that young
professionals (working in urban environments) and retirees are the least car-dependent demographic,
making them most suitable for what we are proposing. We hope that the intersections of the two
differentiated populations act as inspiration for each other. Baby Boomers can take advantage of the
innovation and knowledge capital of the young professionals, and the young professional is framed
within a sort of context that prevents the micro-apartment building from become a post-collegiate ghetto.

What’s comfortable, what’s the amount of “stuff” that people really need. How do you pitch smaller living to Americans?

A well-designed space does not need to be large. This is a common misconception and arguably an
excusable one as we are undoubtedly a consumerist society. One must ask themselves how many of
the rooms in their suburban home are ancillary and which are simply auxiliary. Most would be surprised
by the degree of excess, and this is not a critique, but simply a reality; especially for empty nesters.
These is no ‘answer’ to housing that can be applied to all persons, but there have been certain trends in
American society (take for instance the concept of the McMansion) that have skewed the common
perception of what is ‘enough’. As a person downsizes, as a matter of practicality, when entering the
urban environment, they are upscaling in many other ways: access to differing cultures, access to arts
and entertainment, and to a multitude of restaurants. These are elements of life that help to broaden our
horizon and broaden our understanding.
Such a reduction of living space can seem daunting, but certain architectural tactics can be employed to
maximize one’s sense of space and enhance overall quality of life. Large windows and high ceilings
make a world of difference, and that very fact adds to the etymology of the word ‘Micro Loft’ itself, which
is the term we came up with to illustrate this typology. Lofted apartments are something we are use to
seeing in historic cities with an abundance of 19th and 20th century manufacturing buildings. The
uniquely high ceilings that once housed large machinery have resulted in escalated unit prices. The
Micro Lofts we are proposing have ceiling heights of 10′ or taller, helping to alleviate any sort of cramped
feeling. Another architectural tactic in our model would be on-site, deeded storage to offer reassurance
to those unprepared to part with their ‘stuff’. On-site, deeded storage is already used to a degree in
urban residences, but is particularly crucial when living in a 450 sq ft space.

Some of our viewers make the equation that space = social status — suggesting that only the lower echelons will be the ones going micro. Thoughts?

The three of us have all lived in both suburban and urban environments and based on these
experiences, we would argue that location is a more sought-after commodity than space. It is easy to
quantify value solely based on square footage, but one must consider much more than this number
alone when evaluating a space. Factors such as local amenities (be it a town center), social capital,
intellectual capital or density are all reasons why an acre of land in Manhattan is not equivalent to an
acre in a rural environment.
Starting a family in a Micro Loft is not realistic, although it may be in the aforementioned 1BR and 2BR
units that facilitate cross-subsidization. It is unrealistic to expect young families to make sacrifices in
terms of space. Contrastingly, if young singles/couples were to honestly ask themselves, “How much of
my “stuff” is really necessary?”, the degree of excess may surprise them. It is an intriguing self-exercise
for those not even considering the Micro Loft lifestyle; creating a physical list can reveal many things
about our possessions, in particular which of them would be better off sold at a yard-sale. The thought is
that everyone has ‘stuff’ that they cannot be parted from, and for that reason it is crucial that Micro Loft
come with storage options.
As we create the new template for the 21st century city, a city offering vast knowledge and social
capital, we must consider the Micro Loft as part of that equation. It results in the democratization of the
residential housing stock, keeps a degree of investment within cities in contrast to the suburban/urban
divide that we see today, and helps to keep all persons open-minded and exposed to different cultures.
The Micro Loft is not a singular solution, but rather an architectural typology that can be used in cities
that are already relatively dense, but still must accommodate young talented professionals. We hope
that our designs, along with the designs of other innovative practices, are considered as part of this new
template, and that together we may be able to make the most of the urban fabric.

Thanks 3-M!