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Designing Better Microapartments–By Living In Them

A proponent of small living shows off his latest tiny apartment, and what his next space will be.

With over 70,000 people per square mile, Manhattan is one of the most densely populated areas in the United States. Doing more with less space is a necessity of life and that often comes with compromises–no spare rooms, for instance, and a constant dearth of storage. NYC denizens are continually toeing the line between cozy and cramped–unless you’re Graham Hill, a real-estate developer, founder of the sustainability blog Treehugger, TED speaker, and tiny-living evangelist who relishes the challenge of living small.

“It just works,” Hill says of the SoHo micro apartment he moved into five months ago, which is outfitted with hidden cabinets, a murphy bed, and transformable furniture. “New Yorkers have been cramming into small spaces for a long time. We’re trying to do it in a better, smarter, more livable way.” The apartment, called LifeEdited 2, is part of an ongoing experiment of Hill’s in which he uses himself as a guinea pig of sorts to test out tiny living and show people how it’s possible to have a less wasteful lifestyle. His company, LifeEdited, functions as a kind of guide for those who want to downsize.

How Clever Design Makes A 350-Square-Foot Apartment Feel Luxurious

[Additional Footage: 590films]

On a grand tour of the space–designed in tandem with Guerin Glass Architects–he points out the kitchen, with its marble counters and stainless-steel appliances; the bathroom clad in penny tile; the bedroom, which fits a queen-size mattress; the dining room, which seats 10 people; the living room with a plush sectional couch; an office outfitted with a standing desk; and a guest room. While this sounds like the composition of a palatial abode by city standards, it’s all cleverly integrated into 350 square feet. Hill hasn’t moved an inch and can point everything out from a seat on his sofa. Thanks to a handful of smart design moves and some shapeshifting furniture, Hill has built an ultra-functional multi-purpose space.

In the living-dining-sleeping area, a Murphy bed tucks into the wall when not in use. A nightstand pulls out of the bank of closets flanking the bed. A coffee table sits low to the ground and transforms into a dining table for dinner parties. Even the couch is dual-use: There’s storage under the cushions. In Hill’s “office,” a standing desk folds down from the wall and doubles as a bar when he’s entertaining (he swears 10 people can comfortably fit into the apartment). The nook itself turns into a guest room courtesy of a sound-dampening felt curtain and moveable wall.

“I could afford a much bigger space, but I’ve realized that a ‘less but better‘ lifestyle is really compelling,” Hill says, nodding to the fact that tiny living isn’t just a spatial conceit–it’s a way of life that proposes excising all the unessentials. “The idea of editing is critical. No one wants to see a four-hour movie and there’s a reason for that. Editing down parts of your life really helps you focus on the stuff that’s important.”

Hill is no stranger to living in small spaces. Now a real estate developer focused on sustainable homes–he’s currently working on a 1,000-square-foot house in Maui that’s completely off the grid–Hill believes that these experimental apartments represent the future of living. Before LifeEdited 2, he lived in a 420-square-foot space–LifeEdited 1–in the same building, which he also designed and recently sold. Downsizing even more wasn’t that much of a stretch, and he wanted to test how much smaller he could go. “Three hundred and fifty square feet done like this is pleasant,” he says. “I don’t need a 50-meter sprint track.” The next space, however, might be different as he’d like to have more room to accommodate out of town guests easier and more comfortably.

Micro apartments have slowly begun catching on in New York, which recently welcomed its first high-rise entirely composed of units ranging between 250 and 350 square feet. (LifeEdited submitted an entry into the adAPT NYC competition that gave rise to those apartments.) That said, the average size of studios in Manhattan is 550 square feet. Elsewhere in the country the average size of homes is closer to 2,600 square feet. Hill argues that tiny will be the future of apartments in dense American cities, and smaller will be the future of homes in suburbia.

“Not everyone has to live in 350 square feet, but if you live in 5,000 square feet, you’ll probably be happy in 3,000,” he says. “I’m not one to preach, and it’s different strokes for different folks, but I believe that it’s good for your pocketbook and it’s good for your environment–and it’s a happier way to live.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the population density of Manhattan. It’s about 72,000 people per square mile not 26,000, which is roughly the population density of New York City as a whole.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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