Livin’ Small In The Big City With Micro-Apartments

Many of us city-dwelling students live in laughably small apartments. And now, for those who love to laugh, here’s something to get you clutching at your sides in no time. Construction of the city’s first micro-apartments are underway in Kips Bay in a city-sponsored effort to pilot shoebox-sized “affordable” housing for the city’s young, single and broke to the tune of 300 sq ft.

Last summer, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development with mayor Michael Bloomberg at the helm, presented the adAPT NYC competition seeking the best proposal for the first micro-apartment complex to be built in New York. The firm nARCHITECTS, in collaboration with Monadock Development, brought the winning design to the table; each of the proposed complex’s 55 apartments will range in size from only 250 to 370 sq ft.

To allow the micro-units at 335 East 27th Street to go through to completion, a zoning restriction from 1987 that bans the construction of apartments smaller than 450 sq ft had to be waived for this particular complex. In order to fit a kitchen, bathroom, “bedroom,” and living space in these micro-studios, clever storage solutions had to be thought up (see day/night floor plans below). In a manner that resembles cruise ship cabins, the beds will fold up into closets or sofa beds and counter tops will fold up to the kitchen wall.

HPD Commissioner Matthew Wambua stated last week that the city is already requesting new proposals for more micro-apartments–on the whole, the project is meant to help combat the city’s housing shortage. By September 2015, the Kips Bay apartments will be on the market with just under half being dubbed the affordable options at $940 – $1,800 a month. All 55 will be rent stabilized.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that the size and prices are meant to attract the growing single-and-under-30 demographic, “Young people from around the country or around the world — those are our future, and they don’t have a lot of money. You have to change the rules along with the requirements.”

This is not the first time that urban residents have been offered teeny tiny apartments. San Francisco and Boston are also developing micro-apartment complexes for their similarly expanding one-to-two person demographic.

One of the very interesting points about this new complex of micro-apartments is how they are being built. Instead of on-site construction, the apartment cubicles will be pre-fabricated at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then driven over and stacked more or less like Legos–snapping together and supposedly providing exceptional soundproofing since each unit has it’s own floor and ceiling.

We asked Jon Ritter, professor of architecture and urban design in NYU’s Art History department to lend us some insight into whether this modular construction would pose any challenges to the structural integrity of the building.

“There is some risk here in experimenting with new technology, but I would not expect that this would be greater than with other new building technology, such as windows, construction panels, or walling systems. The risk is not with pre-fabrication itself, but with cost-cutting. Building failure most often occurs when builders substitute materials or cut corners in order to save money. Historically, one of the problems of pre-fabrication has been that it has not been as cheap as hoped–that traditional methods remain competitive.” 

Yet this method of construction would seem ideal, wouldn’t it? To be able to carry over whole apartments! To skip all that mess with debris and dust polluting the surrounding couple blocks; skip all the intrusive pedestrian walkways that cut into avenues; skip all the 6 am jackhammer oh-my-god-I’m-calling-Bloomberg-this-shit-sucks nuisances! Except that as Professor Ritter points out, all the invasive and annoying things about local construction would really be in someone else’s backyard instead of in the middle of Manhattan.

“In order to calculate the impact of pre-fabrication,” Ritter says, “one would need to research the aggregate impact of construction, pollution, environmental cost, etc. at the sites of production and transit. Given that production is often located in industrial sites in low-income neighborhoods, and the truck routes tend also to go through these areas, it is possible that the impacts of pre-fabrication construction will be diverted to the places least able to regulate or resist them… On the other hand, one claim being made for this method is that it will create new industries and jobs in our cities, i.e. at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in this case.

Architects and builders have often promoted pre-fabrication as a way to reduce construction costs to create efficiency. Many have proposed that it could increase access to affordable housing. In this case, however, the point seems not to produce affordable housing, but instead to increase the stock of market-rate housing for young professionals. This would be my major critique of the project — what we need in New York is a greater access to affordable housing, not more luxury housing.”

Perhaps shelling out a grand a month for these micro-apartments is not the best route for students and twentysomethings on a budget when teaming up with a couple roommates can get you a more spacious 2/3 bedroom in the good ol’ East Village, Stuy Town or LES (and that’s just staying in Manhattan) where you don’t have to fold up your bed just to be able to walk from one end of the apartment to the other. But hey, we’ve done dumber things for the sake of being trendy. And these micro-apartments might just be the trendiest thing on the block come 2015.

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