Business & Design: Less is More

The Growing Trend Towards Smaller Homes

2013_01_23_grabb_13172_3_rsznARCHITECTS Prefabricated ‘Micro Apartment’ Building

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In late January the Bloomberg administration announced the winner of the AdApt NYC competition, which sought to imagine the future of housing in New York City.  The winning proposal, by a team including nARCHITECTS, developers Monadnock, and the Actors Fund HD, will begin construction at 335 East 27th Street next year.  Their scheme, “My Micro NY,” calls for nine stories of long, thin apartments stepped back from the street.  Each apartment will be prefabricated in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and arranged on site using a crane, saving precious construction days and millions of dollars.  Here’s the link to the story on Curbed.com if you’d like to learn more.

Reading about the project peaked my curiosity about housing trends around the rest of the country in this post recession era.  There’s some very interesting data that clearly suggests the trend toward smaller homes is not limited to urban areas.  You might find it interesting.

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ArcadeWestminster Arcade, Providence Rhode Island

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While researching apartment trends outside New York City I came across a post on TheAtanticCities.com about a shopping mall in Providence, Rhode Island that’s currently being turned into micro apartments.  The project will offer the city’s residents an opportunity to live in a landmarked piece of architecture. Built in 1828 by architects James Bucklin and Russell Warren, the Greek Revival Westminster Arcade was the nation’s first enclosed shopping mall. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1976, but by 2010 had made the Providence Preservation Society’s 10 Most Endangered Buildings list after all the retailers left it empty.

The 2 upper tiers of the structure will house 48 apartments, roughly the same size as the Manhattan project.  Tenants will move into the $550 apartments this spring. The units come with built-in beds, full baths, and storage.  The ground floor will serve as a support system for the residents with micro-retail space, including clothing stores and restaurants.  I’m fascinated by this concept, and excited by the urban planning involved in re-purposing the building.

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All this talk about smaller apartments logically leads me to the question, what’s happening with free-standing homes in the heartland?  A report on MSN Money confirmed my suspicions.  The current size of the average American home is 2438 square feet.  By 2015 the National Association of Home Builders predicts it will be 2152, a decrease of nearly 12%.  The post suggests the shift has been sparked by an interest in affordable mortgages and greener homes that are cheaper to heat and cool.  Baby-boomer retirement also effects the equation.

Eager for more data, I came across a story in The New York Times that explains in detail the socioeconomic implications of the baby-boomer generation leaving the workforce, and the shift in the kinds of housing they’ll be considering in retirement.  It contained a large amount of information that you might find beneficial for charting the future of your design business.  Follow this link to read the entire article.

For even more insight into the subject, I contacted my friend Irene Turner of Irene Turner Interior Design and Renovation located in Sonoma County, California, an expert on the subject who has a finger on the pulse of the issue.  She shared her evaluation of the housing market’s future;

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“This last economic downturn has caused many people to re-evaluate the size of their homes.  The baby-boomers are becoming empty-nesters, and as they age are looking to simplify their lives, take care of their health and pay attention to their costs.   Hence smaller one story homes.

And generation Y is much more aware of their footprint in the world and tend to prefer a simpler life, more like their grandparents than their yuppie parents. So smaller and more functional is important to them.

Together the groups are looking for smaller homes that are beautiful and functional.  Function has become the key word for the home buyer as well as the architects and members of the interior design community who create space.  Renovation no longer means adding large additions, but rather utilizing the space people have in a way that truly supports their lifestyle.  That forces designers to look at how space is really used.  I’m finding my clients want financially sustainable, eco-friendly homes that are easier on their wallets and easier on the environment.”

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This overall shift poses some interesting challenges for the interior design community.  Smaller homes come with smaller rooms that frequently serve more than one purpose.  There’s a growing industry of home furnishings manufacturers striving to meet those needs.

While researching this post an architect friend recommended I see the Museum of The City of New York‘s new exhibition ‘Making Room: New Models For Housing New Yorker’s’, which features morphing ‘systems’ from Resource Furniture, located at 969 3rd Avenue just south of New York’s D&D Building.  After the Museum I went to the showroom to learn more about the company.

The firm was established 13 years ago, and has for some time been the exclusive representative of an Italian manufacturer’s furniture.  Among the offerings are beds that fold out of the wall quite unlike the standard Murphy bed in that seating is built in when the bed is stowed. They have several tables that can be raised or lowered to any desired height for dining, as a desk, or as a coffee table (which coincidentally can remain in front of the collapsing sofa when the bed is lowered.) They also have a remarkable console table that expands with ease to become a full scale dining table and an ottoman that converts to 6 stools to go with it.

I took lots of pictures at the showroom – but ultimately found a video courtesy of Core77.com which features the firms owner Ron Barth demonstrating some of the systems they offer;

You can look at the entire collection available through Resource Furniture on the company’s website, or plan a visit to the showroom for an in person demonstration of the pieces.  You’ll find the ingenuity of the designs, as well as the ease of physically morphing the furniture quite remarkable.

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Taking all the information in this article into consideration, our Design Editor Carl Lana and I began wondering about the future of interior design in this housing market.  We concluded that designing successful compact living space might actually take more time and consideration that larger homes, in that everything has to be meticulously thought out.  When every inch counts, everything has to be perfect.

Has the shift toward smaller homes affected your design business?  We’d like to hear your thoughts.

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