As urban populations swell and housing costs skyrocket, many big cities are changing building codes to allow tinier and tinier apartments. While cities have different ideas about what micro-housing really means (in Boston, studios can be 450 square feet; in San Francisco, they're 220 square feet), micro-housing initiatives allow for high-density living at a relatively affordable price. The problem? Micro-housing is a great solution for single, young professionals. But as those young professionals age and decide to move in with significant others or start families, tiny apartments become less feasible.
In Seoul, South Korea, a new design for a small-scale housing community makes micro-living look a lot more tenable long term. The 14 units in Songpa Micro-Housing—a mixed-use building designed by SsD Architecture and named for the southeastern district of Seoul it's located in—can be combined and rearranged to accommodate life changes. Couples can rent units together. If they break up, they can separate the units. The residential units can even be converted to something that's not an apartment at all, like an art gallery.
"We wanted to make the new prototype of housing in Korea," says Jinhee Park, principal-in-charge of the project at SsD, a firm based in New York and Cambridge, Mass. What they came up with was a modular design of apartment units of the minimum legal size—120 square feet—that also functions as an artists' community. The structure, which Park says could be adapted to other countries as well, is designed to feel as roomy as possible, with communal spaces around the apartments and custom, prefabricated furniture that folds into the walls.
Each residential unit is its own private enclave, but semi-public spaces, like hallways with bench seating and shared balconies, encourage residents to mingle socially outside the apartment. "Instead of being isolated little houses, it tries to generate a sense of community," explains SsD principal John Hong.
The building contains a cafe, an auditorium, and an art gallery. Its second floor is taken up by a toy store, a decision made by the developer in the middle of construction. The modular design is flexible that way. The units can be converted into artist studios or gallery space by taking out SsD's custom-made furniture, and then converted back into residential units (the main thing that can't be changed is the plumbing). Apartments can also be connected for residents who want more space or have a growing family.
Some units are connected by a private balcony, which could be used to create a double apartment. "There's different inventive ways where you can recombine some of these units," Hong explains. On the fifth floor, for instance, there's already a couple living in two apartments, connecting through a corridor. "You can grow them and become double or triple units. If there’s a couple living there, and they split up you can go back to having single units again."
Of course, it's never quite that simple. For one thing, you'd still be living next to your ex in a tiny building that's created around fostering interaction between residents. And it would be a bit of a construction job, depending on how you combined the units. "It’s pretty easy if you kept the bathrooms in each unit. It would just be a matter of closing off that connection space," Hong says.
Yes, it's idealistic to think that people forced into very close proximity to each other won't endure a little friction: neighbors can be a pain even in normal-sized apartment buildings. Still, the idea that tenants could with theoretically tailor their living spaces to their changing needs is attractive, especially in the grand scheme of city living. Life circumstances change, but that doesn't necessarily mean you want to leave your neighborhood. "Micro-housing is usually associated with itinerant living," Hong explains. "This is the opposite, in a way. You can stay there longer and build relationships and friendships."