Post navigation

Prev: (08/28/14) | Next: (09/09/14)

CHS Community Post | Micro-Housing: An architect’s perspective


 I just finished reading the white paper called “Responding to Changing Households: Regulatory Challenges for Micro-Units and Accessory Dwelling Units” published by the NYU Furman Center. Dry? Not at all!

It’s a little bit of a commitment but an easy read overall. And it’s chock full of important micro-housing data. I recommend that anyone interested in expressing an opinion over the micro-housing debate read it. It’s the first report of its kind, yielding comprehensive analysis of the state of micro-housing in five major cities across the country: Seattle; Washington DC; New York; Denver and Austin.

A21 Layout1 (1)
Option 1 Image: vergeAD’s schematic design for a 32 unit micro building with a 200 SF average unit, in Seattle. Units are significantly larger than what is currently on the market.

I’m not here to question the need or validity of micro-housing. Someone else can do that. I believe in it.

This Furman white paper, without question, concludes that micro-housing is the future because it is the best known model that can respond to “the misalignment between the nature of the [housing] stock and the needs of renter households.”

“[Since the 1950s] household sizes have shrunk, people are waiting longer to marry and more are unmarried or divorced, more people are living alone, more people are sharing housing with unrelated individuals, and people are living longer.” Yet our housing stock doesn’t look much different than it did decades ago.

Seattle provides an interesting case study. We have more micro-housing development than any other studied city. But, in our haste to blaze the trail, we are setting ourselves up for failure by moving too fast and letting developers exploit an obsolete set of land use and building codes.

With trail blazing comes controversy. Seattle neighborhood organizations have two primary criticisms of micro-housing. 1) It will adversely change the character of a neighborhood; 2) It will further burden the dearth of parking availability.

Protesters gather close to Spain's Parliament during demonstration in Madrid

 I’d like to throw a few ideas into the ring that could potentially assuage the neighborhoods and close the housing stock gap at the same time:

    1. Car Ownership: Micro-housing should be allowed only in very dense neighborhoods where access to public transit and car sharing programs is high and where car ownership is low. In addition it should also be allowed in the “university islands” around town (UW, Seattle U, SPU, etc.) where it may function a bit more like a dorm.
    2. Density: The very dense neighborhoods (Capitol Hill, First Hill, Downtown, Belltown, Lower Queen Anne, ID) can most definitely become denser under the current zoning code. Infill micro-housing in these neighborhoods wouldn’t change their already dense character.
    3. Roll-out: Consider a micro-housing roll out. As the city grows and other neighborhoods become denser micro-housing can be added to that neighborhood’s mix. Let’s not  create a situation where a less dense neighborhood becomes dense because of micro-housing – which is where we are now.
    4. IBC: Let’s stick to the 220 SF apartment minimum established by the International Building Code. With some design ingenuity, 220 SF can be a great place to live.
    5. Kitchens: Let’s not regulate whether there’s a kitchen in the unit or out. In fact, offer both options in the building. Those who have no desire to cook can have access to a shared kitchen. And the smaller percentage of those who want to cook regularly can pay a bit more for their own kitchen.
    6. Design Review: Require design review for ALL micro-housing projects – seriously!
    7. Connect the Dots: Micro-housing can solve other problems in our City. For example, incentivize developers to eliminate food deserts by locating fresh produce vendors in street level retail space or building next to a P-Patch. Or proactively partner with a car share program so a couple of the cars sit outside the building.
    8. Building Size: Consider whether there should be a cap to the number of sleeping rooms for micro buildings. If we limit them to say 30 occupants the building would necessarily be an infill project of less than 9,000 SF. This would prevent an entire block from becoming a micro building.
    9. ADUs: As a corollary to the micro-housing debate, remove the owner occupancy covenant required in single family zones, for all Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs/DADUs) so that the less dense neighborhoods have a densification plan that is commensurate with that zone.

We have a tremendous opportunity to lead the way in developing denser cities that provide for the needs of all their citizens – not just the select few. Let’s not set out to build the most micro-housing in the country, let’s set out to build the best micro-housing in the country.

Let’s build intentional, thoughtful and well-designed micro-housing buildings that support thriving communities.



view from north with color accents

 Images: vergeAD’s mini studio project on Capitol Hill, infilling 4 stacked studios, each approx 380 SF.

Mike O’Brien of the Seattle City Council is reacting quickly with a compromise amidst the controversy which is partially laid out in this article. It’s a step in the right direction, but all you trail blazers out there, we still have some work to do!

This entry was posted in Community by vergead. Bookmark the permalink.

About vergead

I'm the founder and owner of Verge Architecture & Design on Capitol Hill. Verge is a small architecture firm with a big mission. We want to bring smart and thoughtful design to everyone. Good design is a right, not a privilege.
Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

9 thoughts on “CHS Community Post | Micro-Housing: An architect’s perspective

  1. To quote the author above, for “infill housing won’t change their already dense character” of the target neighborhoods, it should provide parking at least in the ratio that it is expected to be needed (e.g. 0.3/1.0). If not, the number of RPZ permits should be similarly capped. On street parking is a shared public resource and needs to be allocated equitably. As it is has already been over-allocated, and as dense neighborhoods are already suffering the consequences of that, this new, highly dense, housing type, which is exceedingly profitable, should bear some of the associated negative externalities, such as pushing more cars onto the streets. When built in L3 zones, where they are typically replacing single family housing, they also block light and views, damage the single family character of neighborhoods, create too much turnover, and add too many people not fully invested in the neighborhood. We need more density, but we need to grow with grace. Five to ten years from now, when all of these apodment projects have begun to age and when their impact becomes fully felt, we will look back and ask, what were we thinking?

  2. How to succeed as a fashionable academic architect:
    1) Put any schematic design on a grassy knoll and BAM! It’s beautiful. Ignore the actual context of the building.
    2) The more jarring and complex your design, the more accomplished you will feel.
    3) The more contemporary design trends and surface materials you cram onto a facade, the more accomplished you will feel.

    How to succeed as a microhousing developer:
    1) Build apartments/dorms that you would never voluntarily live in past the age of 20. (it’s a darn shame about all those families that live in closet sized spaces in Chinese cities, and the slums of the developing world)
    2) Advocate for the poor, or young, or socially isolated, or safety-netless renter class by building them cramped self-contained (except for that unnecessary kitchen) one room units where they can grow to form families and communities.
    3) Advocate access to fresh vegetables by building units without kitchens.

  3. I lived in a whole bunch of micro-housing when I emigrated to Canada. They were called housekeeping rooms and were furnished…a definite bonus when one is starting life in a new town, new country and no job.

    The most practical units were those with a kitchenette.
    Sharing a kitchen was hell as there was not enough appliances and, more importantly, there was ALWAYS at least one person that never bought food..he/she stole other people’s food.

    Despite their small size and inconvenience, they had one advantage: they were cheap! I never spent more than 25% a modest income (after taxes) and utilities were included, along with a free shared phone.

    Eventually I got full-time jobs (40 hrs minimum at $10 per hr —it was the late 1970s) and moved to a big studio (furnished, with weekly cleaning by the landlady) at the top of a grand Victorian house in one of the best area in Toronto, a block from a subway station. The rent was still moderate.

    Right now small units in Vancouver (Canada) and in Seattle are called affordable when the rent is around $ 1000-1200, utilities not included…

    • I’m glad to hear your particular story turned out well, Brudac. I guess you could boil most of my concerns down to the value I place on guaranteeing basic human needs for all people (even the young, starting out, and those w/ low incomes) in wealthy, developed countries like the United States. A century of relentless growth in the average square footage American homes (however misguided) gives me reason to believe that most people place some innate value on the size of their living space (the mini-house movement is a fad for the dedicated few, more of a critique of excess than a maxim of basic reality). If housing prices are high, then developers should be able to squeeze out a profit from constructing more standard, long-term, livable units (higher up if need be). Financial health is not the only component of our holistic well-being, and I think it is a long term mistake to sacrifice minimum building standards because developers say it will meet a need or is environmentally friendly. They have other motives for fitting as many people into as small a space with as few amenities as legally possible.

  4. Sir: please don’t categorize and dismiss neighborhood concerns so quickly. This is first-and-foremost about the inhabitants — our future neighbors. Parking and heritage character are unrelated issues. Entry-level rental housing has been an essential component of Mixed-Use neighborhoods. Housing without kitchens are dorms without meal plans, hotels without room service — flop-houses in waiting. Tenants are semi-captive customers once they rent housing. Mistakes made under the pressures of desperation or salesmanship are expensive to correct. The standard is neighbors in housing expecting to flourish in place. That means a kitchen and bathroom sink in each unit, 220 square feet minimum size, plus the usual access/egress Independent Dwelling Unit requirements.

  5. Pingback: Seattle’s new regulations leave space for densest microhousing to continue in Capitol Hill’s core | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle

  6. Other than the part about an ADU you are basically saying you can build things for rich people, but not the poor.

    According to “H”, I can go ahead and build a big building (say, 10,000 square feet) but only if I limit the number of people to thirty. If I’m a developer then, the choice is obvious — I’m going to build luxury apartments. Tear down the entire block and put up a six story building (which is just about as cheap to build as a three story building) and put in some huge apartments (complete with overpriced appliances). All perfectly legal.

    But this restriction only applies to big lots. For a small lot, the only restriction is the review. If I build another luxury apartment, I don’t need to go through a review. But if I want to add ten units per floor, then I need to go through a review. Oh, and think about it a little. If I have a small lot, that means I won’t have that many units (even at 220 SF). That means the cost of the review, per unit, is much higher. So, not only is a small luxury apartment cheaper to build, but a lot cheaper, per unit, to build. It is also faster to build (fewer delays).

    Oh, and “Let’s not create a situation where a less dense neighborhood becomes dense because of micro-housing – which is where we are now.” What, exactly, is a “less dense neighborhood”. You mean Windermere? I’m pretty sure they don’t allow buildings like this there. In fact, they don’t allow any new apartment buildings on any SFH zoned area. They don’t allow conversions, either. Want to take that classic old house and retrofit it so that it becomes a duplex? Not legal in most of Seattle. But mow it down and put up a monster house? Sure.

    Check out a zoning map of Seattle ( Two colors jump at you: blue and yellow. Blue is industrial. Yellow is SFH (various shades of yellow represent lot size). The other colors (especially brown for lowrise, midrise and highrise) are mere slivers. Now you are saying a “less dense neighborhood” with one of those slivers should have further restrictions, and not be allowed to build market rate housing, but they can go ahead and build new buildings for the wealthy. Great.

    I sure am glad I’m a home owner. I fear for everyone else, though. With ideas like this, we will have sky high rents for the foreseeable future.

  7. Hi, I need some help. The town I live in has a 3 year waiting list for section 8 housing. I am wanting to start a tiny house community for not only the homeless, but other low income families. How do I go about doing so? I’m very serious about this. I really think every community should have alternative housing programs for people who can’t afford rent on one income and some even single parents or drawing disability. We gotta help these people. We have too many single parents and the numbers re growing. Please email me back with some info on how to do this.