Though incomprehensible to many people, and criticized as unhealthy by some, micro-apartments provide another tool to combat growing apartment unaffordability in the world’s most expensive cities.

With creative design and proper standards, small spaces can be liveable, healthy, and more affordable.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Australia ranks as the third-least affordable country in the world. Sydney, for example, with housing prices having risen 14.3 per cent in 2013, is projected to add an additional 1.6 million people over the next 20 years, and will require more than 600,000 new homes. New apartment design guidelines for New South Wales address both the size of dwellings and the amenities that make them livable. In addition, Minister for Planning Pru Goward said the guidelines could exert downward pressure on price, potentially cutting the cost of a new apartment by up to $50,000.

The guidelines include requirements such as “Living rooms and private open spaces of at least 70 per cent of apartments in a building receive a minimum of three hours of direct sunlight between 9 am and 3 pm in mid-winter.”

The guidelines specify minimum sizes too: studio apartments must be at least 35 square metres in size; one-bedrooms at least 50 square metres; two-bedrooms at least 70 square metres; and three-bedrooms at least 95 square metres.

Standards under consideration in Victoria would set a minimum size of 37 square metres for studio apartments and 50 square metres for one-bedroom apartments. Current guidelines do not include minimum floor area. Other requirements address amenities that make spaces more livable. For example:

  • Buildings should face north, and 90 per cent of apartments must receive direct sunlight
  • Apartments ceilings must be 2.7 metres
  • The site should include 20 per cent shared space for residents
  • Each floor can have no more than eight apartments per lift
  • Large-canopy trees should be accommodated on up to 15 per cent of the site

Demand and affordability notwithstanding, small spaces face criticism too. Some critics cite psychological effects of small spaces, lack of privacy, the hassle of reconfiguring furniture in multi-purpose rooms, and so on. This simply emphasizes the importance of good design. In fact, millions of people worldwide have been creating livable tiny spaces for centuries.

Azby Brown is director of the KIT Future Design Institute in Tokyo, and also consulted on New York City’s adAPT NYC micro-apartment design competition.

“We can make much smaller homes,” Brown said. “They won’t be more dangerous, they won’t be more uncomfortable, they’ll be equally livable, in fact maybe better.”

New York City has started to address affordability with its own design competition, adAPT NYC, begun in 2012. With a growing number of one-and two-person households, the city’s housing stock has not kept pace with demand. In fact, the city has only one million studio and one-bedroom apartments to house 1.8 million one-and two-person households.

The competition’s winning entry, dubbed My Micro NY, is now under construction on city property and is a collection of pre-fab micro-apartments ranging from 23 to 34 square metres. City codes prohibited the project, so then-mayor Michael Bloomberg waived several restrictions so the project can function as a test for the micro-apartment market.

With numerous amenities such as high ceilings and Juliette balconies, each apartment features two distinct zones. The “toolbox” contains the kitchen, bathroom, and storage, with full-height pull-out pantry, full-height refrigerator, range, and space for a convection microwave. The “canvas” is the flexible multi-purpose space and functions as the main living and sleeping area.

The building, designed by nARCHITECTS, includes numerous public areas, such as lounges, a café, and a ground-floor space designed for creative activities like lectures, rehearsals, and performances. Outdoor living spaces include a ground-floor porch with picnic tables and a rooftop garden.

The project will comprise 55 new micro-apartments, with 20 per cent (11 units) of these reserved for households with incomes not exceeding 80 per cent of the Area Median Income (AMI); nine per cent (five units) will be reserved for households with incomes not exceeding 145 per cent of AMI; and 11 per cent (six units) will be reserved for households with incomes not exceeding 155 per cent of AMI. The rest of the units will be market rate, along with one superintendent’s unit. Prices for the affordable housing units will range from$940 to $1,800 per month.