Tiny Cars and Tiny Cribs

There’s a direct correlation between automotive design and apartment design. I was reminded of this by a recent newspaper article I read about the new Chevy Spark, a diminutive vehicle (some may even say “tiny”), which is nonetheless loaded with technological features, like the requisite USB port for personal entertainment devices and Bluetooth for personal communication devices (often the same hand-held widget). For the entry-level crowd (think Gen Y, of course) these are the new creature comforts. It should be noted that the vehicle certainly doesn’t offer some of the interior niceties of more middle-market rides (say, a Toyota Camry, for example), like trim packages and so on, but it also doesn’t pretend to offer those things. Instead, it’s an affordable first-time car that is Spartan in body comfort but cool and connected otherwise.

This has also been the pattern with shrinking apartments designed for the entry-level set. In the densest urban markets, where trends are often established, we’ve seen average unit sizes on a constant reducing diet. A decade ago, an average one-bedroom market rate unit was about 750 square feet. But starting in the Great Recession, the average has been on a nosedive. Now the entry-level one bedroom apartment is typically between 550 and 650 square feet, with many smaller yet. Studios are where the box is really getting squeezed: back in the day, it was not unusual to have a 500 square foot “efficiency” pad, but today that size seems Imperial by contrast. Domestically, we’ve seen studios drop to 400 square feet or less, with some falling even further, into the high two hundreds or below. You know that when you’re that compact, you’re essentially talking about a hotel room with a kitchenette. Our design team recently laid out a design for a unit with 130 square feet (it was a hotel room in its former life).

When you get that small, every inch really needs to be thought out, so these are highly designed spaces. Overlapping functions and multi-purpose moveable built-ins abound. This can work for first-time renters because they don’t have much (or any) furniture. What they really cannot live without is connection to their social networks—so we struggle to design into these tiny cribs the docking stations, charging ports, wifi and other features that allow residents to “walk right in, sit right down, and fire up your network.”

The challenge is, of course, to attempt to design in something now to a structure that won’t be leased for 24 months, and hope it’s still relevant when the doors open. Maybe we need to look for a way to embellish these little boxes with the equivalent of a “bed liner” you’d find in a pick-up truck. Build the box, and slide in the features package. When it’s out of fashion in a few years, just swap it out with a routine churn.