When it comes to designing micro units, it’s all about lifestyle, with plenty of challenges along the way.
“As architects, our job is to make something that’s totally unreasonable, possible,”says Mike Chen, principal architect at New York-based Normal Projects.
It’s about creating an open space in the unit so that it feels like home, and discreet spaces for designated activities, without too many partitions.

About seven years ago, Chen’s friend approached him for a design challenge after purchasing a 450-square foot studio in New York. The challenge was in fitting all of his possessions into this space, as well as allowing him to invite friends over to convene, just as one would in a community room.

“Even something as simple as a bike room has to be rethought," says Chen. "The problem of storing bikes–how you do it in a way where there’s room [for tenants to convene].”

For Chen, the hardest part of the design was building a multipurpose cabinet in the center of the apartment to separate space. The moveable cabinet housed small tables, a Murphy bed and computer parts. 

“Design discipline gets harder with smaller spaces,” says Ross Porter, COO at LifeEdited, the project behind the latest apartment prototype in New York City which features moving walls. “It’s mentally easier to add features; it’s mentally painful to shrink things.”

It’s also difficult to make sure units are up to code with the limited space developers have. Handicap accessibility, for instance, is the most relevant issue to micro units, as the clearance requirement around the door and access to appliances is similar to that of a 2-bedroom apartment, minus the space to do it in the same capacity.

“That’s where an architect’s creativity comes into play,” says Amie Gross, president at New York-based Amie Gross Architects. “How you take all of those constraints and turn them into a strong design.”

To comply with the regulations, the easiest way is to not make the unit too narrow. L-shaped and rectangle units are most practical for a variety of reasons–it’s easier to stack these units. Plus, it saves.

When Gross' team built the micro unit exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York based on the AdaptNYC winner's design, she pointed out that the unit wouldn't require a strong reinforced structure in the front and could be built out of varied materials, thanks to a deeper and narrower front.

A narrower front also leads energy savings. The heating components in Gross' exhibit were on the ceilings, which had a lower height in the entry area. The amount of duct work was reduced to significantly bring down the cost, eliminating the space that radiators take up.

But the micro unit trend is not just a passing fancy, at least not to Chen. Although Chen's challenge occurred about seven years ago, his friend is still living in the unit, more than happy with the details.
“Good design is free from trend,” Chen says. “If you approach it from the standpoint that’s interesting in a trend-driven way then you don’t think about it seriously. We devoted extraordinary time to make it last. You have to think about it intelligently.”