Materializing Miniature Living: The Rise of Tiny Houses and Micro-Apartments
The American Dream of owning a big house is changing, and our housing policies and options must adapt to fit the needs of the shifting housing landscape.
The rise in population and subsequent need for adequate housing in cities is changing the housing landscape, specifically in New York City. Based on the 2010 US Census, thirty-three percent of people in New York City live alone. Yet only 1.5% of New York City’s rental housing stock comprises a studio or one-bedroom apartment ready for occupancy. To make matters even more complicated, government policy from the 1980s currently requires the size of a studio apartment be more than four hundred square feet. Tiny houses and micro-apartments, which are living spaces complete with a bed, kitchen, and bathroom, represent what appear to be progressive, sustainable housing options better suited to the reality of our demographic. But their success will be determined by factors including how these spaces are designed, their commercial and political value to policy makers and developers, and, most significantly, the extent to which their inhabitants will embrace them. Will micro-living provide a viable, cost-effective living option for the changing demographics of the United States? How will designers create scalable housing models that are easily replicated in different contexts? What lifestyle changes must be made in order for downsizing to lead to a better quality of life?
It takes a unique mindset to live in a micro-apartment. When I asked The New York Times Real Estate reporter and editor Constance Rosenblum about her thoughts on small living quarters, she responded, “That’s only going to work for a certain type of person.”1 As someone who has interviewed hundreds of people about their definition of home, I expected her response to be more optimistic, especially since micro-living could be a feasible solution to New York City’s housing crisis. Rosenblum highlighted that the only kind of person who can survive in a micro-apartment is someone who doesn’t own anything. This got me thinking: What type of person does it take to live in a tiny house? And what obstacles, both psychological and physical, must they overcome to make this living choice a reality?
In the end, my conversations with architects, city planners, and residents of small spaces centered around how to design a space that was suitable for micro-living, detailing floor plans, amenities, and the future of urban planning. But few focused on designing for the inhabitant. Small-space homes will figure prominently in the future of our urban housing landscape, and designers must work on designing not only the residential structure but also the person who will reside there.
In designing for the small-dwelling inhabitant, there are several key aspects that must be considered. First, the resident must have a choice in their living situation. We cannot force a person into living in a home the size of a closet against their will and expect the results to be successful. Living in either a tiny house or micro-apartment means a commitment to shedding possessions, keeping a home ultra-organized, and accepting the fact that amenities will be shared with a larger community.
The resident is likely going to either need to own very few possessions or have access to a storage space. Most people own objects that have been passed down as heirlooms or possessions that are in some way valuable to them, meaning they will need somewhere to keep things while they are not in use. Considering these living spaces are all less than four hundred square feet, there will likely be a need for storage when people transition into a micro-home.
Small-dwelling inhabitants must have a desire to downsize. And yet Americans have a habit of acquiring more goods than we need or will ever use. For example, according to Cotton Inc.’s Lifestyle Monitor survey in 2008, Americans consumers ages thirteen to seventy owned an average of ninety-two clothing items, not counting underwear, bras, and pajamas; whereas a middle-class worker during The Great Depression had a wardrobe of less than fifteen items.2 In a micro-apartment, there simply is not enough room for excess stuff, so residents must be more selective in shopping choices and learn to limit purchases to things used on a regular basis.
Shared economies are essential to micro-living. Inhabitants of micro-apartments will have to embrace collaborative consumption, which requires that our intake of goods and services be based on sharing with others, as opposed to purchasing everything individually. In order for micro-apartments to be successful, we must design systems for sharing resources. This already comes in the form of public lounge spaces, bike storage, and community gardens, but it must extend further. Designers should ensure residents’ access to necessities like tool kits, non-essential appliances, and extra furniture for special occasions. Even if these things are only available on a rental basis, inhabitants must have access to the things they will be sacrificing when moving into a tiny home.
The American Dream of owning a big house is changing, and our housing policies and options must adapt to fit the needs of the shifting housing landscape. In the United States, population density does not compare to countries like China and Japan, both of which adopted micro-apartments into the housing vernacular decades ago. For that reason, American lawmakers and designers have global examples from which to draw when developing our own micro-housing complexes. Outdated housing regulations are preventing cities like New York from expanding housing options, which is a necessity to resolve the growing housing crisis we currently face. Similar laws in rural America limit residents’ options for a sustainable lifestyle. The inhabitants of a micro-apartment or tiny house are ultimately going to determine the success of this lifestyle. Instead of limiting their contribution to the aesthetics of micro-living, designers must negotiate the entire living system and embrace realistic options to give tiny houses and micro-apartments a chance. These dwellings may seem small, but their impact on American housing landscapes could be tremendous.