Micro Apartments Give A Hint Of City Living’s Future

New York’s first prefab apartment tower will rise in 2015. Its 55 units will be very, very small.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bloomberg–trailed by his perpetual entourage of news cameras–stepped through the door of a tiny but neatly kept apartment. He explored the model unit, which currently sits inside of the Museum of the City of New York, pulling down a trundle bed and peering inside of unexpected storage spaces. There wasn’t much ground to cover (only 300 square feet, in truth), and soon Bloomberg migrated to a podium to introduce the unit as the winning design in his AdAPT NYC competition, which seeks to imagine the future of housing in New York.


Of course, it’s unlikely that Bloomberg will ever live in a “micro-unit,” but his administration is betting that millions of other New Yorkers will like the idea. Specifically, the city’s 1.8 million households of one or two people, a demographic that has ballooned over the past two decades, growing far beyond the roughly 1 million studio and one-bedroom apartments available in Manhattan. “The city’s housing stock is misaligned with the changing demographics of its population,” largely because of outdated housing codes that prevent the construction of smaller units, the mayor explained.

AdAPT is part of a grand experiment to change that. On a plot of land in Kip’s Bay, the city has agreed to suspend its current housing codes and allow the construction of a tower consisting solely of micro-units under 300 square feet. The winning AdAPT proposal, by a team including nARCHITECTS, developers Monadnock, and the Actors Fund HD, will begin construction on the site next year. Their scheme, “My Micro NY,” calls for nine stories of long, thin units stepped back from the street. Each apartment will be prefabricated in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and arranged on site using a crane, saving precious construction days and millions of dollars.

nARCHITECTS, who’ve been building living spaces in New York for more than a decade, designed the units to be a bit like a cabin on a ship–full of hidden details. Each unit is divided into a “toolbox,” which packs a bathroom, kitchen, and fold-down table into a compact box, and a “canvas,” the window-facing tabula rasa that can function as a bedroom, living room, or study. A juliette balcony lets in air, and over head, a step ladder leads to a storage space equivalent to that of a VW Jetta. The firm’s design will pack 55 of the modular units on site, with nearly half priced below market.

Some may disagree with Bloomberg’s approach to the housing shortage. Richard Florida has argued that increasing density in urban cores isn’t always the right path toward building communities, providing a counterpoint to “urban economists arguing that we need more flexible land use, more flexible building regulations, that we need to build more housing in some of these very precious urban areas which don’t want any.” Florida suggests that cities which expand “out, not up” will breed healthier and more creative neighborhoods. In other words–the city should be looking at how to lure tech startups to Queens and the Bronx, not figuring out how to fit more people in Manhattan.

But as long as Manhattan exists, there will be people chomping at the bit to live there–so why not design a better model for how we use space in these hot-commodity neighborhoods? AdAPT isn’t so much about planning how a city should grow–rather, it’s acknowledging how the city is already growing, and planning accordingly.

Wherever you fall on the continuum of Jane Jacobs to Michael Bloomberg, there are plenty of alternative proposals on view in Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers at the Museum of the City of New York. Check it out until September 15.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.