Are Micro Units Greener or Just Smaller

micro unit loftNew York’s Mayor Bloomberg has raised some commotion with his newly released design competition to endorse his proposal of “micro units,” describing apartments that are 275 to 300 square feet. There are few rentable spaces that someone in the Big Apple will not shell out some cash for. I have even spotted tent space in a backyard for rent on Craig’s List. So given that the question is not whether or not people will fill these units (they will), it leaves whether or not the addition of hyper-small living accommodations are a positive addition to a more sustainable city or a step over the line in a way to just squeeze more rent out of buildings on New York real estate.

A New York State of Mind

For many people, even entering into this conversation requires a bit of recalibration. With an average home in the United States pegged at +/- 2,200 square feet, the thought of living within only 300 can come across as almost comical. Fox News was quick to point out that you could fit four of these units within a standard single-wide mobile home. While 300 square feet strikes me as plausible, there was a time when I might not have been as on board. Growing up, I was a product of suburban America. Reality as I knew it was the quiet streets, the front and back yard, the green lawn, the apparition of the late American Dream. The last bedroom that I had in a suburban house looked like this:

Fast forward: I have lived in Manhattan for just over five years now in an “alcove” studio apartment that encompasses 450 square feet. Without a doubt, my living space does just about everything I would need it to (for living alone). Entering into the apartment leaves one facing south towards a wall of windows. The basic components of a (small) kitchen, bathroom and some closets provide for all of the necessities. After some various changes (more on that in another post) the apartment is flexible and efficient.

The scale of both plans is the same, ladies and gentlemen. Readers can undoubtedly see the striking similarity in size. My New York experience has changed my understanding of how much space I actually “need” in order to live comfortably, but that might be something more of us need to experience. Perhaps it is because city dwellers spend less time in their “home” on average than suburbanites due to the increased access to so many things within transit distance. This is really part of the beauty of great cities. Despite the fact that our country is rife with usable land, the inherent value of urban proximity makes it so that cities still function within a fundamental truth that we can easily lose site of: land is a valuable commodity. Even if an urban visitor ultimately decides that green acres is the place to be, the experience can leave one questioning the necessity of societal predispositions.

A Greener City

At this point, Michael Bloomberg no longer has to prove his dedication to sustainability having already taken many steps to integrate greener practices into New York’s DNA. He was the force behind PlaNYC as a 30 year plan for a more efficient city. He has promoted green roofs and blue roofs as a way to reduce the amount of pollution created by stormwater runoff. His commissioner of transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, has reclaimed road space for pedestrian use in Times Square, Union Square and Madison Square Park. Citywide subsidies encourage alternative energy production for commercial and residential customers alike. The Mayor also supported efforts for e-waste collection and that is all before his foundation donated $50 million to the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign. Clearly, Bloomberg has a plan of attack, but do micro units play a role in a sustainability overhaul?

In the simplest sense, smaller homes lead to less energy use. There are many things that we can (and should) do for a building–for every building–that represent common best practices to lower resource consumption. But even after all of these tactics are exhausted, nothing saves resources like building smaller. If the basic components of living for one person remain the same , even empty space in larger homes consumes energy.  With space heating and air conditioning accounting for the majority (53%) of the energy use in an average American home, cutting a dwelling’s square footage by 50% could have a material effect on how much we consume overall–especially fossil fuels.

A movement towards micro units could also have a positive effect on car usage in the city. Cars not only cause pollution and congestion in a decidedly pedestrian environment, but their storage takes up valuable square footage. According to the 2000 Census, Manhattan renters are more likely to not have a car than owners (81% vs. 63%).  It would also make sense that the renters in the smallest bracket of apartment size would be the least likely to own a car or afford a parking space in the city. Even with over 103,000 registered off street parking spaces in Manhattan, the average monthly parking rate is still north of $400 ($4800 a year). Less cars on the street helps just about everyone.

At the same time, sustainability is about more than just energy consumption. It is about the balance necessary to allow a system to sustain its function indefinitely. Now well planned cities already trump their suburban counterparts when it comes to efficiency in living space, infrastructure and transit. The complexity of overlaid urban systems renders them the most reminiscent of an natural ecology of any of our mass development patterns. At the same time, the value of land in mature cities like New York make them fall prey to a Catch-22 of affordability. As desirability and prices rise, the range of people that can afford to be residents shrinks. Even now, sources say the average rent for a studio apartment in Manhattan is around $2,000 a month. Nature certainly shows us that ecologies are not homogeneous–no one species can singly populate and sustain an ecosystem.

Bloomberg’s solution to this inevitable reality is micro units in order to maximize spatial efficiency to the point of making New York living achievable for a wider audience. If it works, then the barrier to New York residence could be opened for more people, allowing for the diversity that makes the difference between a culturally rich melting pot of innovative, creative talent and an island country club that caters to the 1%. This aspect of urban sustainability may have the least amount of available numbers to crunch, but it is certainly not the least important.

The Wealth of Willing Demand

A number of news outlets have pointed to the fact that the crux of New York City code, and resulting development, had shifted towards providing adequate space for family living in response to the city’s tenements fiasco. Yet according to the data, families are comprised less and less of the city’s resident mix–especially on the island of Manhattan. This may not be incredibly surprising. Despite how much I like New York, it is a tricky place to raise young children. Combine that with the tenacity of the NYC workforce causing more young adults to push back family and kids for a while and you end up with a demand for 1.8 million one and two person apartments, but only 1 million available. The U.S. Census data is pointing in the same direction on the national scale with over one quarter of households being one person as of 2010.

The proposal is certainly worth a try, but it will be interesting to see whether or not developers will choose to fill new buildings with these micro units even if they are made legal (construction of them outside of this competition will require a change to the zoning resolution which currently limits an apartment to 400 square feet). Building apartments for the wealthiest clients allows for the largest margins in new construction. Without further incentives (like the institution of Quality Housing) it may be difficult to convince developers that a migration to micro units is in their best interest.

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