Stacking up ‘micro-units’

The winning design in the city’s competition for tiny residential apartments makes an art out of space-saving — and even brings a dramatic flair

Mar.March 01, 2013 07:00 AM

A rendering of the winning micro-unit design by nARCHITECTS, which will be built at 335 East 27th Street 

Several weeks ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the results of the city’s competition to design so-called micro-units for an affordable housing project to be built at 335 East 27th Street. It may take a wonk to feel much excitement at the prospect of such a competition, but the realities that undergird it are highly important, potentially exciting and possibly a little depressing.

The winning team — which includes nARCHITECTS, Monadnock Development LLC and the Actors Fund Housing Development Corporation — was one of 33 entrants and will now design 55 apartments ranging in size from the microscopic 250 square feet to the merely tiny 370 square feet.

Contemporary with the mayor’s announcement, the Museum of the City of New York opened a new exhibition, “Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers,” that includes not only the winning entry, but also the runners-up, as well as renderings of similar projects in Seattle, Montreal, Tokyo and elsewhere.

Both the mayor’s initiative and the museum’s exhibition address some important new sociological realities of New York real estate.

The competition was, of course, a response to the city’s changing demographics and to the astronomical price increases that New York has witnessed in recent years.

It is a testament to how expensive New York has become that these tiny spaces are being offered for between $914 and $1,873 a month — and those are the “affordable” units. (Those units represent 40 percent of the 55-unit project; the remaining market-rate units have not yet been priced.)

But an ever-larger number of people are clamoring to live in New York City, and they are willing to sacrifice space for location. Add to this a postponement of adulthood, as more Americans are opting to attend institutions of higher education, and you get a tolerance for apartments not much larger than jail cells and designed according to the logic of a college dormitory.

nARCHITECTS principals Eric Bunge and Mimi Hoang.

In the winning entry from nARCHITECTS, each unit will have nine-foot ceilings and a Juliet balcony, but the amenities will be shared common areas, such as lounges on each floor, where residents can host dinners and other events. In some cases, there will also be shared kitchenettes available on each floor. The building will also have a roof-top garden, a café, storage and a fitness room. To maximize space, each apartment will come with a bed that can be folded up so that, by day, the space can function as a living room or office, and by night it can serve as a bedroom. In addition, the units will all have stall showers (rather than tubs).

“It’s the way of the future,” the mayor declared.

In a sense, these tiny apartments represent a return to an older conception of human inhabitation. In the tenements of the Lower East Side, in the conventillos of recent immigrants to Buenos Aires at the turn of the last century, in the chambres de bonnes ( maids’ rooms) on the top floors of old Parisian apartment buildings, a good part of the population lived in spaces this size — with none of the amenities. And while the new spaces are generally intended for single occupants or couples, back then spaces that were scarcely bigger were inhabited by entire families.

On visiting some of the more awful and cramped prisons in Venice, the 19th-century French novelist Honore de Balzac claimed that he had seen dwellings in Paris that were far less spacious or appealing.

But nARCHITECTS, whose principles are Eric Bunge and Mimi Hoang, has turned space-saving into an art.

The firm is best known in these parts for their highly original Switch Building on Norfolk Street. As for this latest project, they are to be commended for their sensitive and economical use of the small spaces they had to work with. The exterior of the building as well is not without its dramatic flourishes.

According to renderings, it is largely rectilinear and is conceived as four vertical layers: Each is set cheek-by-jowl with the one before and recedes from the street in ever-darkening hues. The foremost and lowest is white, while behind it the layers recede in gradually deepening shades of gray, such that the darkest and tallest section of the development is in the rear.

At the back, facing a patio, the windows are designed in a Deconstructivist style; they are of differing widths and are arrayed across the surface in a syncopated but harmonious fashion.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the new building is that it will be constructed entirely out of prefabricated units that are being constructed by modular manufacturer Capsys Construction in its Brooklyn Navy Yard factory. It’s being billed as the first multi-family building in the city to be created from these prefabricated parts, which will be about the size of shipping containers and will essentially snap into place and be stacked on top of another.

Although nARCHITECTS’ design appears to be promising aesthetically, several entries from the other finalists were a little more dramatic.

One especially charming design by Pocket Living, BFC Partners, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Alexander Gorlin Architects contained 75 units, the topmost part set back from the street. The façade on that proposal was entirely covered in an expansive curtain wall, and the interior walls were conceived as a rainbow of neon hues.

Equally estimable is the Max — the project designed by Blesso Properties & Bronx Pro Group LLC, HWKN and James McCullar & Associates. That proposal included a Modernist cube of a building that suddenly goes crazy at the seventh floor. It appears as though the top has been lopped off at a slant, and the resulting space gives way to trees and a variety of spiky geometric shapes.

Behind the mayor’s competition, I suppose, is the desire to create affordable housing less for the poorer segment of the population than for a whole subset of New Yorkers who are young and ambitious but who find themselves increasingly priced out of the Manhattan market. If such units as these can remedy that problem — and house actors, musicians, fashionistas and poets — then they may indeed become, as the mayor predicted, “the way of the future.”

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