Editor’s note: This is a cross-post by David Neiman, founder of Neiman Taber Architects, a local architecture firm that designs microhousing projects. 

We recently designed a couple of micro-housing projects (one under construction and one about to begin) that have pushed the envelope in terms of small-unit housing. Both projects began with clients that gave us a mandate to design micro housing that would support and build community among residents, fit well into its neighborhood, and be a desirable place to live–not just a cheap one.

As the city council seems suddenly poised to regulate private congregate housing out of existence, we thought it would be a good opportunity to review these projects in some detail.

Marion Micros–1215 E Marion St

Marion Micros is one of the first micro projects to abandon the “eight rooms per kitchen” model entirely. Technically, this project is instead defined as congregate housing. The upper floors and the basement have 9-11 units per floor with a shared kitchen in the middle. Unit sizes vary from 150 sf to 240 sf. The majority of the main floor is reserved for very generous common areas–an open lounge, an event kitchen, a TV lounge, a study hall, and a laundry area. There is a single entry to the building. The pathway to get from the front door to the units cuts through the commons, increasing opportunities for the kind of chance interaction that builds community. The laundry area isn’t shunted off to a corner of the basement. It sits in an open glassy room next to the entry lounge, so that doing your laundry and waiting for it has the option to be a social experience, not just a chore. The commons is a space that can be programmed–it can facilitate organized activities like a shared dinner or a movie night. While the large commons on the first floor is a living room at the building scale, the kitchen provided on all other levels acts as a sort of “pajama commons,” where immediate neighbors can casually interact.

Marion Micros elevation

 

Marion Micros level 1

 

Marion Micros Level 2

 

Marion Micros Section

Ravenna Micros–900 NE Ravenna Blvd

Ravenna Micros is one of the smallest micro projects to date–16 units built as two free standing structures on a corner lot near the Roosevelt Station Area. While the scale of the project and the constrained nature of the site are a bit limiting, the project employs the same community-building strategies as the Marion project. The project entry is through a shared courtyard between the two buildings. The common kitchens face each other across the courtyard, and each kitchen has a big sliding door that can be opened up in good weather. All of these features are designed to maximize opportunities for chance interaction and to provide a staging area for simple gatherings.

Ravenna perspec

 

Ravenna Micros level 1

 

Ravenna Micros level 2

 

Ravenna section

Unit size

The current legislation proposes a minimum of 220 sf for small studio apartments as a minimum standard of habitability.  The average room size in both projects is about 177 sf, but there are also common spaces in addition to the private rooms. When you include and pro-rate all of the common space, Marion and Ravenna have an average unit size of 226 sf and 204 sf respectively. In the case of Marion, it’s really not more “dense” than a conventional studio apartment building. Rather, the building areas have been re-allocated with a little less going into the individual private rooms and more going into the commons. Which is better for human welfare–a little more private space with more isolation, or a little less private space and more interaction with your neighbors? I’m not sure there is a right answer, and I’m not sure it makes sense to for the council to outlaw one type and mandate the other.

Communal area

The current legislation proposes either 10% or 15% as a minimum amount of communal amenities in a congregate residence. Marion provides 27.2%. Ravenna provides 15%. The proposed requirement is not a difficult standard to meet.  I take issue with one version of the legislation that would discount laundry areas as communal amenities. We believe that these are exactly the kind of places where people meet, talk, and form the social glue of community. If laundry rooms are removed from communal area counts, they are essentially mandated to become as small as possible. Anyone who proposes a generous laundry room is essentially penalizing themselves, since their largess is not recognized by the code as an amenity.

Sinks

The projects have only one sink per unit. Currently, there is a great kerfuffle going on about the number of sinks in a unit and whether or not it should be acceptable for a unit to have less than two sinks (one in the bathroom, one in the kitchenette).  Ironically, in both projects DPD would not allow us to have two sinks. In Marion we were forced to remove them from the larger bathrooms. In Ravenna, the bathrooms are so compact that we did not propose a second sink. In a very small unit the bathroom is so small, and the kitchenette so close, that a sink outside the bathroom is just as close as one inside (picture your last hotel room). In a larger unit (180 sf and up) the bathroom is generally big enough that including a sink is easy, and so it is provided. The sink count issue is one that, if left alone, really takes care of itself.

Bike parking

Neither project has much bike parking, but not because the owners didn’t want to provide it. For the Ravenna project, the intent was to provide the whole basement as bike parking and storage, but the basement in this type of building is not exempt from FAR, so there was no place to put it. Marion has an FAR exempt basement, but it is not an elevatored building, so all common amenities (bike room included) must be on the accessible main level. Either project could have provided secure, covered bike parking outside, but the roof cover is not allowed in the building setbacks and the bike parking area subtracts from the ground based amenity area, a standard which is often a difficult one for apartments to meet. If the city wants more bike parking, they should make it easier for projects to provide it.

By the numbers

Here’s the breakdown for Marion and Ravenna. It is our hope that a fair viewing of these projects could inject a little empirical data and some perspective into a legislative process that has been lacking both.

MetricMarionRavenna
Net Rentable Area7,995 sf2,834 sf
Common Amenities2,172 sf424 sf
Circulation3,121 sf914 sf
Utilities313 sf0 sf
Total Non-Rentable5,606 sf1,338 sf
Total GSF13,601 sf4,172 sf
Efficiency58.78%67.90%
Efficiency Incl. Commons74.75%78.10%
Number of Units4516
Lot Size5,820 sf3,479 sf
Density (Lot Size / Units)117 sf217 sf
Common Amenity Area2,172 sf424 sf
Net Rentable Area7,995 sf2,834 sf
Rentable + Common10,167 sf3,258 sf
Number of Units4516
Average Unit Size178 sf177 sf
Average Unit + Common226 sf204 sf
Common / Average Unit27.20%15.00%

8 COMMENTS

  1. So folding the kitchens into the rooms and readjusting for the 220sf minimum room requirements, can get 40 units and keep communal aspects of ground floor.

    I’m really struggling to see how restricting the unit size so developers don’t build smaller and smaller units while charging exploitive rates for microhousing ‘kills microhousing’. Should we really be letting developers be dictating the increasingly reductive size of ‘affordable housing’ just so they can extract more rent? Recent rates published by Valdez shows microhousing rental rates have increased at a rate of nearly 5% a month for the last 15 months.

    Based on the square footage, the streamlined design review adds a few dollars per month per unit. The, albeit ridiculous, second sink adds about a dollar per square foot per unit.

    • How much for those extra kitchens? How many SF is lost by reducing footprint to add bike parking without losing amenity space? Combine those costs and 11% fewer units from your new minimum square foot, and the design review and sinks your discuss, and how many projects no longer pencil out?

      The effect of your opinions is fewer homes in Seattle and more homes in the far suburbs.

      • matt,

        the cost of the ‘extra kitchens’ is most likely zero. the casework is already in place for kitchenettes. they don’t require full cooktops.and if add’l case work is needed to fit a small 2-burner or microwave, offset from the removed kitchens. bike parking (whopping 8 whole spots) doesn’t count against FAR. try again? it’s absolutely incorrect that design review would kill microhousing. just like it’s absolutely incorrect that design review kills market rate apartments. just like it’s absolutely incorrect that seattle is some sort of delicate flower when it comes to development v. other greenlighted microhousing locations like SFO, PDX, NYC, BOS, VAN, YEG, etc. pure posturing.

        the effect is only ‘fewer homes’ because microhousing developers have been allowed to get away with smaller units than they should have been allowed to. but hey, let’s go with the logical extension of your thinking – with developers setting minimum standards, maybe we’ll have 50 sf units for only 1/2 the cost of a studio! next stop – cage homes! this is the end point of letting ‘the market’ determine minimum space standards. sorry, i don’t subscribe to that anti-progressive neoliberal BS. we can do better. nee, we need to do better.

        • I guess I’m just not as afraid as you of people choosing to pay money for 20sf cage homes. And if they were desperate enough to do that, I’m not sure why it’s any of my business to stop them.

          It seems more to me like concern trolling. Or can you describe why people *shouldn’t be allowed to* live in small homes?

    • I haven’t done the math but I’ll take you at your word that you can still get 40 units but I think your comment misses two key points.

      First, David indicates that the purpose of the housing was to provide communal kitchen space. I’ve lived in a building very similar to micro-housing and I agree that this is a lifestyle amenity I really liked at the time. I think it should be an option on the market. Unless the average square footage takes the communal space into account then this type of setup is automatically at a disadvantage over studios when requiring a minimum square footage.

      Second, the discussion of how much costs is added and what pencils out is hard to have without actual numbers. While it might be the case that adding a sink and streamlined design review are hardly cost prohibitive it remains to be seen. I wish someone could provide what those actual costs are.

      But more importantly, whether or not the cost of producing units is higher only matters in respect to the return the developer receives. If the developer can produce luxury housing with a better return then they’ll do that rather than micro-housing. This is why it seems a little wrong-headed to complain about the returns micro-housing developers are seeing. If we want to reduce those returns while still producing housing in this price range, we would have to reduce the returns across the private market.

      • owen,

        agreed on the communal kitchen aspect, and i’m not sure what the solution is. i don’t believe, however, that it’s the place of ‘the market’ or developers to be determining the smallest possible size for habitation. that being said, the communal space on the ground floor could remain intact. the 40 units comes from DUs (7995) + kitchens (~900) and dividing by 220sf.

        higher end apartments in downtown are renting at the rate of $3.70-4.00/sf based on the advertised rates on a number of

        buildings. per valdez, microhousing’s typical rate is $5.66/sf ($850/146sf) and based on previously published numbers, has been increased at nearly 5% per month. as you know, i’ve no problem with reducing returns across the private market (via berlin-esque 3rd gen rent controls).

        • There’s a separate question of whether or not reducing returns across the market would reduce building but we can debate that at another time.

          My concern is that we reduce the returns on a type of building so that the market goes back to preferring luxury housing.

          I would quibble with your $5.66 number. In Capitol Hill there are a ton of micro-housing units being offered at $750/mo. If I take your square footage, that drops it to $5.13/sf. But I think that the square footage is actually larger than 146. The square footage used in this example is 178 which would put rents at $4.21/sf.

          Considering the overhead with managing more units at a lower price it would make sense to me that smaller units would have a higher $/sf rate than other units. In the end though we probably need better data to understand this.

          • Honestly, the higher rents probably come from higher profits. That’s what happens when you innovate and find a product that people want – you can charge a lot for it. Until your competition comes in and starts selling what you have, then your profits drop down to the same as everyone else. This translates to lower rent.

            Of course, if we limit building then we’ll never see this happen and rents will stay a little bit high on a per sf basis. They’ll never go too high though, at least it won’t be more than a similar apartment on a per unit basis unless people really love the community aspect of this housing.

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