Micro Units: Living Large in Small Spaces
An acute lack of inventory and soaring rents are providing New York City developers with an opportunity to turn the concept of living in small apartments into an art form. One such developer organization, LifeEdited, was launched in 2009 by Graham Hill, a trained architect turned entrepreneur who believes in simplifying life and living large in tiny spaces. LifeEdited began as a “crowd-sourced” micro design competition that invited proposals for a 420-square-foot SoHo apartment owned by Hill. The competition garnered international interest and LifeEdited received 300 entries from around the world. Hill ultimately selected two Romanian architecture students, Catalin Sandu and Adrian Iancu, whose ideas complemented the LifeEdited concept: use technology and smart design to live a happy life with less stuff, less space and less waste.
Dubbed LifeEdited1 (or LE1), the tiny apartment is also Hill’s residence in New York (LifeEdited2, an even smaller 350-square-foot follow up apartment, is under design in the same building). LE1 has the functionality of a 700-square-foot apartment thanks to a smart combination of Murphy-beds, a moving wall, stacking furniture and ergonomic appliances. MHN talks to Sandu about features of the winning design.
How did you find out about the LifeEdited competition and what made you submit your design proposal?
The competition page was shared via Facebook by a school mate at some point right before Christmas 2010. By that time the competition had already been in progress for about two months, so we were a bit late. But we thought it would be a fun challenge, so we signed up anyway. I think it’s important to mention that neither I nor Adrian were architects at the time of the contest, but architecture students. Also, when reading the brief we realized that among our past school projects, we had never come across a similar task, so we thought this would be a great way of experimenting. Despite the square footage, this was a complex project with a lot of detailing in all its components.
You live and work in Bucharest, Romania. Were you familiar with housing trends in New York City before starting this project? How would you describe Romanian housing trends as compared to those in New York?
I wasn’t really up to date with any New York housing trends; all I knew is that rents are high, while most of the apartment units are relatively small in size. My opinion is that living in small units makes a lot of sense in dense—but even more important, attractive—cities. And I don’t think Bucharest is attractive enough for its inhabitants in order to keep them inside the city and not sprawl outside [to suburbs], as has been happening in recent years.
Did you bring any attributes of Romanian micro units to the design? Did this provide an advantage in approaching the design competition?
Even if the majority of apartments built in the communist era were extremely reduced in size, I don’t think there were any attributes here in Romania that I could have used. Probably having lived in one of these apartments made me familiar to reduced square footage—but nothing more.
Have you worked on other projects outside Romania?
I have been a member of the LifeEdited team since winning the contest. Since then I’ve only worked for LifeEdited; therefore, all the work I’ve done has been for U.S. projects. To mention a few: redevelopment of Downtown Las Vegas, a project in San Francisco and, of course, New York. LifeEdited was part of one of the finalist teams that submitted designs for the AdAPT NYC Request for Proposals.
What is your current role with LifeEdited?
I am now responsible for conceiving, developing and rendering most of the architectural design for LifeEdited.
The tiny apartment you designed for LifeEdited doesn’t feel that tiny. It does measure only 420 square feet, but it has the functionality of a 700-square-foot unit. That’s almost double the space.
The LifeEdited apartment shows how we can live large in small spaces by applying smart design and technology. By turning the existing layout (which actually included four different rooms and a tiny bathroom) into a single space with multiple functionalities, the apartment is open and uncluttered despite its reduced footprint. And because there’s a series of items that serve double functions, you don’t actually need that much space anyway. The moving wall only makes this idea even stronger: its ability to offer a secondary room when needed. And I think what’s different here from other designs that include one or more moving walls is that you do not actually need to operate it most of the time because all the primary functions of the apartment are already available with this moving wall in closed position.
What are the eco-friendly/green attributes in this design?
First of all, a smaller apartment needs fewer resources for heating, cooling or lighting. In addition, we used a considerable amount of green materials, for example: a very effective wall, floor and ceiling insulation (cellulose) makes heating the apartment efficient with just one radiator; air-tight construction minimizes transfer of energy; and fiberglass frame windows ensure minimal thermal bridging. We also employed a heat recovery ventilator, LED light fixtures, millwork made of non-formaldehyde plywood with zero VOC finishes, an FSC-certified wood floor, kitchen and bathroom composite stone and tiles made of recycled post-industrial and post-consumer materials.
How do you think New York is doing in terms of recent green building regulations compared to other global
markets you’ve observed? Are we falling short?
I’m only capable of comparing New York to Bucharest in terms of green design and building regulations. I’d say people are extremely aware of it and trying to be as efficient as possible.
LifeEdited is a super small housing unit; were there any major obstacles you had to deal with that threatened to impact the versatility of such a small place?
Not really. I think its initial layout and shape made this apartment the perfect candidate for such a remodeling. The clean rectangular shape, the fact that it has windows on two sides and kitchen and bathroom plumbing really close to each other made our concept seem evident from the very first second we started working on the competition idea.
Downsizing—whether we’re talking smaller cars, home design or consumption behavior—has attracted more followers over the past years. Do you think the general population is embracing the idea that they can live large
in much less space?
I think this is the normal consequence of more and more people moving into an urban environment. It’s reinforced by [an awareness] of the shortage of available resources, and by the idea that cutting down on possessions doesn’t have to be a bad thing.