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Designing small: A chat with architecture firm Booth Hansen about micro living

Booth Hansen has teamed up with developer Cedar Street Cos. on several small unit rental projects.

Architecture firm Booth Hansen is behind projects ranging from multi-unit skyscrapers to educational compounds to single family homes. On several projects, the design firm has paired up with Chicago developer Cedar Street Companies, which has been an early adopter of the emerging smaller rental unit trend in the Chicago market. For Curbed Chicago’s Micro Week, we sat down with Booth Hansen Principal Andrew Weber, Associate Architect Michelle McSweeney, and teleconferenced with Joe King (head of Booth Hansen’s San Fransisco office) to discuss trends in tiny living and design.

Chicago hasn’t traditionally been associated with smaller apartments compared to cities like New York, San Fransisco, or Toyko. Is tiny living the product of necessity — such as land scarcity — or the evolving tastes of consumers?

Andrew Weber: In Chicago maybe it’s not a necessity due to lack of [developable] land, but smaller units make sense in different areas of the city. A big part of designing these types of units is to cater to the client — the end user, the tenant — and what they’re looking for in a specific area.

So it’s about giving them the option to live in an area that would otherwise be unavailable. You don’t have to get a typical two-bedroom unit if it’s just yourself and you’re a single person and you may not want roommates. As things are trending right now, a lot of developers are looking at micro units or larger three bedroom units to fill otherwise neglected niches.

Michelle McSweeney: [In some areas of Chicago] there’s really not the tiny spaces and there’s not family friendly spaces. There’s always been this middle ground — like a young couple space or single person with an extra bedroom space — but now families want to stay and very young people who can’t afford a one-bedroom want to be in these neighborhoods. The change in culture of who wants to live in the city has really influenced the kind of units that are being considered.

Where do small apartments make the most sense?

Andrew: One thing strategically on some of these properties that we are looking at is locations that are close to transportation and taking advantage of the city’s TOD (transit oriented development) ordinance to reduce parking in projects. They tend to work well in communities that embrace walking and biking.

Michelle: Getting away from the required parking ratio opens up older properties to uses where maybe residential didn’t make sense before. Adapting existing buildings is a big part of what our client Cedar Street has done before — especially in Uptown. Now [with 676 N. LaSalle] they’re looking to River North and pursuing new construction.

What are some of the considerations to take into account when designing smaller apartments?

Andrew: The process from a design standpoint involves making efficient use of the space. The reality is that you’re trying to maximize the number of units in a given space to make the project make sense financially so it’s affordable for the tenant and will work for the developer.

Well how do you do that? When faced with the challenge of adapting an existing space, a lot of time it involves taking advantage of miscellaneous nooks and niches to create new storage. If it’s a new construction, it’s all about optimizing flexibility and designing accordingly.

An important consideration is accessibility and code compliance, which forces you design in a certain way. Certain things have to be larger because you need more space for clearance which, of course, is the opposite of the direction you want to go with micro housing.

Michelle: When you typically look at other markets that are doing micro units, the buildings are usually all that size. Cedar Street is unique in that they offer a variety of units and layouts inside their projects. So while some of these developments include what you would call “micro apartments,” the projects themselves aren’t necessarily labeled as such. The unit variety can be challenging to design, but the final product mixes different groups of people in the same space.

While smaller units may not be conducive to having roommates, it seems like intra-building social interaction is a big part of these types of projects. Is that by design?

Michelle: To make these small units work, you have to provide people with space to get out of their unit. So in tandem with providing a whole bunch of little units, they [Cedar Street] provide some really great amenity spaces that allow you to say ‘ok I’m kinda tired of being in this smaller space right now, but I can go out and can make my dinner in this bigger kitchen by this billiards table and hang out with my neighbors by the pool.’

With our Broadway project, the communal spaces are smaller and more spread out throughout the building. While this is a symptom of the existing condition of the structure, I generally think it is a good strategy with these micro units to have dispersed amenities because you start to build within the building nodes and communities and destinations.

Instead of one greater place to go you have six places to go so you feel like you have a greater extension of your small unit. It’s like you live in a tiny little city. We find the younger demographic tends to enjoy overlapping with other people and the opportunity to engage one another.

Andrew: We’re even seeing lobby spaces reimagined as a shared space that can be activated by a coffee shop or juice bar. Then anyone can come in there for a cup of coffee and now you’re mixing the public and the private in a new way. It activates the lobby. Normally you go to a residential lobby and you see the doorman and you’re on your way or you stand around waiting for a cab and that’s your only interaction.

You mentioned younger tenants. Is that the target demographic for micro living?

Joe King, Booth Hansen, San Fransisco: As it was mentioned earlier, micros seem to resonate with people in their 20s who don’t want a roommate. With regards to the San Fransisco market, the tiny apartment movement here has been very popular for four or five years now with numerous developments being marketed specifically as “micro units.”

The interesting thing out here I think is that a lot of the micro units had been built originally with the intent of renting them out, but in all the early cases it seems like properties have been completely purchased by universities that were short on student housing. In a way, micros are kinda a bridge between a dorm environment and living in a full-size “adult” apartment. It’s a vehicle towards privacy and self sufficiency if you can’t necessarily afford a new Class A one-bedroom on your own.

The amenities are geared more towards the millennial generation — the younger generation — that is maybe more in tune with that type of communal living typography. Meanwhile older people could be discouraged from using a micro unit as a pied-à-terre due to the lacking of parking.

Andrew: Chicago’s not too far off in that regard as far as who’s attracted to micro living. We may not see universities necessarily owning these developments, but these smaller units certainly cater to a younger person — maybe artistic, maybe a student — who can take advantage of rapid transit to commute to school or work.

I don’t think this type of living necessarily excludes older tenants, but it’s just not really the type of person companies like Cedar Street are marking to or the type of person they are seeing move in. These projects are just as much a lifestyle as they are physical buildings.

Where do you see the micro living trend going in the future? Can micro become even more micro?

Joe: Obviously there are challenges to going smaller such as accessibility issues, but there are a lot of changes to legislation that are opening the door to micro becoming more micro. I know New York and San Fransisco recently reduced the minimum square footage allowed in efficiency units down to 220 square feet, I believe. So micros are currently pushing the boundaries in that regard. At the end of the day a loveseat is always going to be the size of a loveseat, human beings are going to be the same dimensions — we’re not shrinking.

Andrew: Legislative changes like Joe mentioned that are certainly on the forefront of things, but I don’t think significant changes can be done based on just logistics — logistics of how space is used — which I think we’re already close to the limits. Sure, it might be about getting that much smaller and adding X number of units, but in the long run I don’t think a big change is coming.

Michelle: Anything smaller and we’re likely talking about shared bathrooms which is essentially an SRO (single room occupancy) situation. SROs have been around for a long time, but would take a real shift in attitudes for a professional to be open to that type of living.

Would you live in a micro unit?

Andrew: I have a family I can’t — there are physical constraints. Me, plus my wife, and two kids won’t fit in a sub-400-square-foot space. But if I was in school still? I probably would. I’ve never had a roommate so this kind of independent living would have appealed to me.

Michelle: If Cedar Street would have been where they are now in the Chicago market when I moved here in 2010, I would have been very attracted to living in one of their properties. Absolutely.

Curbed | Jay Koziarz