Lingua Franca: The 2014 D-Crit Conference




Materializing Miniature Living: The Rise of Tiny Houses in Rural America and Micro-Apartments in New York City

Anna Marie Smith

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.

  1. Rosenblum, Constance. Personal interview. September 17, 2013.
  2. Virginia Postrel, “Saved by the Closet.” Wall Street Journal (New York), October 23, 2010.


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