Micro Units: Best Practices


In Fall 2014, The Urban Land Institute Multifamily Council published a report that examined, from multiple perspectives, the market performance and and market acceptance of small or “micro” residential units. Teresa Ruiz, SB Architects’ expert on multi-family residential design, and a prominent member of the Urban Land Institute’s Multi-family Council, was a member of the 4-person Committee and orchestrated the study. Read the full report here.

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts summarizing the group’s findings and conclusions. In our final post, we take a look at best practices in the design and development of micro unit communities.

Development: Best Practices

Research has shown that a micro unit in the 275- to 300-square-foot range was optimal for a “one person plus dog” household. This research also revealed the need to have flexible furniture systems and adequate storage for units this small to be workable.

Developers and design professionals have come up with a number of creative solutions that ensure micro units are compliant with Fair Housing Amendment Act and accessibility requirements, livable, and actually feel larger than they really are. Most micro units in the sub-300-square-foot range find it challenging to  accommodate standard-sized furniture, appliances, or cabinets, and designers have turned to manufacturers that have more typically provided furniture for smaller living spaces in trailers, boats, and mobile homes. One of the key impediments to making micro units smaller and more efficient is that all major U.S. suppliers make systems and appliances that are too big, including heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, kitchen appliances, and cabinets. Many offer good-quality smaller products for overseas markets, but these are not typically available in the United States. This research has certainly highlighted the need to urge U.S. manufacturers to make smaller appliances, cabinets, and furniture available for the U.S market and  that can be used in micro units.

Many developers and design professionals cited built-in furniture systems as essential in promoting the livability of micro units. These include modern versions of the old Murphy-bed system that easily converts to dining or desk area; bench seating in window nooks. However, consumer feedback on built-in furniture system is inconclusive.  It may be suited in select units to illustrate flexibility.  But the demand is yet to be proven.  Higher ceiling heights also creates the perception of  larger units which helps with livability.

Storage is important to all apartment communities, but it is even more critical in making micro units livable. Short of providing fully furnished units, developers should investigate opportunities in what would typically be considered “dead spaces” such as the plenum above the bathroom for additional storage.  In addition, increase vertical storage cabinets or shelving, take advantage of the added height of the units. Providing a built-in armoire type furniture removes the need for residents to bring large furniture storage, which can increase micro-unit’s flexibility. All the built-in furniture needs to be well constructed to avoid becoming a long term maintenance issues.

Catering to millennials’ social lifestyle, with reduced unit space, surrounding amenities are especially important for potential micro-unit renters. In addition to the usual lineup of fitness amenities, pool, cyber café, and so on, large landscaped outdoor space is key. A number of micro-unit communities have extensive rooftop amenities that include fitness centers with fabulous views, fire pits, gas grills, catering kitchens, pools with private cabanas, and evening movies projected on large screens or walls.

Bigger is not necessarily better and often difficult to achieve from a land economics perspective.  Many communities are moving toward a wider variety of smaller amenity spaces that are laced throughout the building. The intent is to create a series of multiple smaller amenity or gathering spaces that enable residents to socialize, work, and gather outside their individual units. The traditional business center is disappearing in favor of “benching” or co-working spaces, large communal tables with Wi-Fi like those found at Starbucks. Here, millennials can “gather alone” and text. However, the amount of amenity needs to be balanced with location  For communities situated in highly walkable mixed-use environments, the amenity offerings can be scaled back and allow the neighborhood to be the primary attraction.

The re-emergence of micro units have generated both interest and controversy.  Regardless of your personal opinion on this housing type, it opens up dialogue on housing economics, privacy vs. social life, location and space trade offs.  The goal of the study was not to seek conclusions on the viability of micro units, but to shed light on key issues.  We need to continue to investigate this housing type as more micro-units are being constructed.  The jury is still out.