Architecture & Design, Construction, and Real Estate

Small spaces, big ideas

July 17, 2014
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The way we live today is changing. The recent recession, coupled with the millennials’ entrance into the housing market, have challenged how we think about the spaces we live in. You don’t have to look far to find the evidence.

  • Average home size peaked in 2007 at 2,479 feet and has declined to 2,100 square feet
  • 66 percent of the U.S. households are renters, down from an all-time high of 70% in 2004
  • 7 million new rental units are projected to be added by 2020
  • The share of single-person households has tripled from 9.2 percent in 1950 to 27.5 percent in 2008
  • The share of married couples with children peaked at 44.3 percent in 1957 and fell to 22.0 percent in 2009

These trends, combined with the number of people — young and old — moving back into the city are driving new strategies in housing design and development. But the best solutions go beyond just shrinking or eliminating rooms in the traditional rental unit model. They use big ideas to address the fundamental issue of how people live today.

For example, technology now allows people to work anywhere, anytime. As more people continue to work from home, smaller spaces need to accommodate a working “mode.” And with the number of electronic devices per person skyrocketing, we all need a place to charge up. While entertaining and overnight guests are still part of compact living, the number of people eating out is on the rise, so kitchens and appliances are shrinking. And while millennials have less “stuff” than the generation before, smaller apartments still require innovative storage solutions.

The best examples of micro-apartments feature multi-purpose furnishings and adaptable elements — tables that adjust in height and size, moveable walls and stow-away beds — that offer flexibility in adapting the space. Furnished apartments can offer well-integrated designs and support a wide variety of uses — live, work, sleep, entertain, cook, etc. New technology can support electronic devices without requiring them to be tethered to a traditional outlet. And smaller apartments can live larger when combined with access to shared amenities like fitness areas, green space and roof decks. When designed well, compact spaces offer flexibility, affordability and greater responsiveness to the way we live today.

There are some great examples of innovative housing environments and products. MIT’s City Home and The Cube Project in Edinburgh demonstrate creative, high tech and sustainable products and designs for compact living. And New York City’s adAPT project will be the first multi-family building in Manhattan to use prefab construction. An intentional test case, the building will be allowed to circumvent city zoning regulations for square footage minimums and building density, with units ranging from 250 to 370 square feet.

While the population density and housing costs in Grand Rapids don’t come close to that of New York, Boston or Chicago, innovative housing solutions, approaches and products can certainly have application in our own city. Our goal as developers and builders should always be to improve the lives of people who live, work and play in our buildings. We’re thinking bigger, so people can live smaller.

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