This is a Guest Post by Kent Lundberg, who is an Urban Planner at Isthmus where this blog post was first published.

Mayor Bloomberg and City Planning Director Amanda Burden introduce the adAPT NYC design challenge (Photo: Benjamin Chasteen)

Little ol’ New Zealand made global news a few days back with a story about our extreme house prices. The article included the oft repeated “lack of supply” as one of the primary culprits. Without getting into the green fields issue there’s an interesting conversation emerging from North America in regards to providing supply (and satisfying demand) and this is through reducing apartment size requirements and facilitating design innovation.

I don’t know much about New York City specifically, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t suggesting more greenfield development as a solution to their affordability problem. Instead what the City of New York is doing is experimenting with its minimum size restrictions for apartments. A design competion called “adAPT NYC” will test the current zoning limit of 400 Sq feet (37m2), with 250 sq ft (23m2) units using city-owned property.

The design competition involves a Request for Proposals for a rental building composed primarily, or completely, of micro-units – apartments smaller than what is allowed under current regulations. New York City’s housing codes have not kept up with its changing population, and currently do not allow an entire building of micro-units. Under this pilot program, Mayor Bloomberg will waive certain zoning regulations at a City-owned site at 335 East 27th Street in the Kips Bay neighborhood of Manhattan to test the market for this new housing model.

Here is what Mayor Bloomberg said about the needs to address housing affordability through design:

Developing housing that matches how New Yorkers live today is critical to the City’s continued growth, future competitiveness and long-term economic success,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “People from all over the world want to live in New York City, and we must develop a new, scalable housing model that is safe, affordable and innovative to meet their needs.

Sample floor plan from adAPT NYC RFP

According to this NY Times article, the market is naturally moving towards smaller units as well.

“…the sweet spot for studios in new rental buildings is now “close to 400 square feet,” said Yuval Greenblatt, an executive vice president of Prudential Douglas Elliman, who has managed residential rentals for the past 15 years. “Ten years ago,” he added, “they would build closer to 500 square feet wherever that could be achieved.”

Interestingly, these new apartment designs recognise the value of sharing resources as a way to cut down on space– from shared lounges and rooftop gardens to car sharing services. This is the the powerful intersection of the “small-living” trend, the urban renaissance, and the “life-edited” concept promoted by Treehugger founder Graham Hill.

Meanwhile other globally relevant cities are following suit. San Francisco is currently considering a proposal that will allow apartments of  150 square feet (14m2)  and Seattle is experimenting with “aPODments”, where:

Each “unit” takes up an entire floor of the five-story building, and consists of seven or eight separate living areas (each with a bedroom, ranging from 100 to 200 square feet) that connect to a central kitchen and living area.

Here is a video of an architect experimenting with small sizes in San Francisco.

I could see these solutions being very popular to a small but significant slice of the population in Auckland. Currently the minimum sizes for studios in Auckland is 35m2 and 45m2 for 1-bedroom units.

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  1. Auckland had a fair share of smallish apartments build around a decade ago that I think are largely responsible for damaging the reputation of higher density living. If anything I think that in the Auckland/NZ context we need to be looking at increasing the minimum sizes to make apartment living more attractive for the time being.

    I do however think that we also need to look at how we can increase amenity for those that choose to live in apartments (this is a theme of a post I have for when I get back). As an example, when I was living in an apartment on the edge of town one of the things that would have made it so much better would have been a shared rooftop garden/BBQ area just for building tenants. A bit more design work would have been required from a health and safety perspective but it would have greatly added to the liveability of the place as well as helping to create a sense of community among the residents.

    1. I like how these proposals challenge conventional wisdom and attempt to spur a market based solution to well-located affordable housing. We need a whole range of apartment types and sizes…

  2. Hobsonville Point was used as a good example of intensive development last week but from what I can see, the town centre is still going to be just a big carpark with shops and no apartments. Westgate looks to be the same. Just big buildings with lots of car parking. Still old school thinking.

  3. I live in the city and from what I can see there is no shortage of small studio apartments. You can rent these quite cheaply (250-350) and many aren’t too bad if you don’t mind small living spaces. Upgrading to a bigger one/two bedroom place is a hit or miss process where you could end up paying double (relative to a studio) or the same, depending mostly on luck and apartment-shopping skills.

    OTOH the build quality of places I’ve seen is shocking. No insulation (neither heat nor sound), drafty, shoddy craftsmanship on moving parts, argh. I could go on.

    The buildings in general are butt-ugly, there are only a few that look decent from the outside. The interior design is worse. Kitchens are regularly placed in the entrance hall, no storage space, noisy ventilation that you can’t stop and placed in awkward places (blowing air in my face as I am sleeping). My last place had a hallway that wasted 10m2 in a 50m2 flat.

    For renting, it’s not so bad. Would I buy one? Hmmm …. I truly don’t know.

    And there’s really no need to go that small in Auckland. With decent 2-4 level good quality buildings we could solve the housing problem in a few years as the high cost is mostly tied to the land. Providing enough people buy them as homes and not as investments.

  4. I think the cities that are looking at these micro-apartments already have intense levels of apartment development, and are looking to go even further. From my observations, Auckland is well served (in quantity if not in quality) by small apartments suitable for students or renters happy with small spaces, and there seems to be a smaller supply of apartments targeting the “luxury” end of the market (eg the the Viaduct apartments). One seems to be lacking are apartments in the middle market – accomodation for couples, young families, professionals – who would value proximity to the city and ease of maintenance over a big back yard for instance, and don’t want to / can’t afford to move into a detached house in the suburbs. In terms of “new developments” hitting the market that I’m aware of, there’s the Beca building conversion on Vincent St, and the Isaac development in Gray Lynn. The latter *should* be the type of development I’m talking about, but even those apartments are pretty pricy. I’m exactly the type of person who would buy an apartment to live in (rather than as an investment), and I just haven’t seen any appealing options that make financial sense.

  5. Agree with the comments that NY is a different situation, and that Auckland has a good supply currently of what we (New Zealanders) would consider to be smaller apartments. I think we need more medium size and up, in convenient close locations like city fringe. We ditched the idea of living in a do-up in the suburbs and bought 120 sq metres of apartment in Grey Lynn/Ponsonby. Amazing! close to everything, ample public transport etc etc… and yes, we have kids. Pricey? Still cheaper than Hobsonville pt (before you start costing commuting). Friends in Montreal live in a similar size apartment and say it’s a far more common and acceptable option over there than here….

  6. I lived in a flat about 6/7 years back that would have been about 25m² and, for a single guy, it was huge, could easily have fit a couple in there. It was fully self-contained, at least 30 years old, in a single level block of ten of them.

    IMO, what seems to have happened is that over the decades people have gotten the idea that more space is a right and now seem to be complaining that living space is having to get smaller as the costs of sprawl are encountered.

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