When you first enter the apartment above in SoHo, N.Y., it looks like your average downtown urban studio.

At first glance, the420-square-foot space doesn’t look like much, with induction burners in its tiny kitchen and a plain living area. But just beyond the storage cabinets are removable walls and plenty of nooks and crannies to fit computers, chairs, TVs, and Murphy beds. And the cabinets offer plenty of space—426 cubic feet of storage in the entire apartment, to be exact. 

In essence, the apartment features eight rooms in one: It only takes a bit of light-handed configuration for the tenant to mix things up.

“I feel like having the moving wall really made sense,” says Catalin Sandu, chief designer at New York–based LifeEdited, the firm that designed the unit. “The idea is you don’t have to use it all the time to get to a main function. When you need a second room, you just open up the closet.”

Sandu’s conception was one of many designs pooled from the public after ­Life­Edited’s design team scoured the Web for months searching for creative designs to make the most of an otherwise ordinary micro unit. The elements of the prototype above, known simply as LE1, serve as a starting point for making small units more livable for potential renters.

Although the LE1 design didn’t win the adAPT NYC pilot program’s micro-unit design competition last year (which was launched to promote the development of a new model of urban housing), the idea is most certainly ahead of the curve. The prototype has led to discussions with developers in San Francisco, New York City, and Las Vegas to build similar units. 

As a prototype, LE1 cost quite a bit to build, but to scale it up for a multifamily dwelling would be less costly, due to the bundling of materials and the fact that most units would adopt only particular elements of LE1, not necessarily the entire design. Generally speaking, practically remodeling an existing space into a micro unit costs about 20 percent more than re­doing a typical multifamily dwelling, according to Ross ­Porter, COO at LifeEdited. A full remodel might cost $350 per square foot, but for a micro unit, developers can expect to spend about $420. 

For a new build, the costs are about $120 to $270 per square foot, depending on the geographic location and size of the building, not to mention the costs of adding more kitchens and bathrooms when filling a building with more individual units. 

These costs encompass more than just hard construction, of course. High-quality products that are adapted specifically for small apartments are included in the price and are more expensive than conventional building products, thanks to their customization. For example, the Murphy bed/couch combo in LE1 would likely cost more than a standard bed and couch, and small kitchen appliances also add to the expense.  

But the furnishings can work to the developer’s advantage, boosting rent.  

“Products built for small spaces make better use of [those] spaces,” Porter says. “And many of the people who are good candidates for small units don’t have a lot of stuff. They’re relatively early in their careers.”

Creative Optimization

When it comes to micro units, it’s all about catering to a 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, who has designed micro units. 

It’s also about creating an open space so that the unit feels like home, as well as finding places for designated activities without chopping up the area. 

For Chen, the hardest part of designing a friend’s 450-square-foot studio seven years ago was building a multipurpose cabinet to separate spaces, similar to LE1’s moving walls. No inch should go ­untouched when trying to optimize space.

“Design discipline gets harder with smaller spaces,” Porter says. “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 that micro-unit developers have. Handicap accessibility, for instance, can be especially tricky: Although door-clearance and appliance-­access requirements are similar to those in a two-­bedroom apartment, micro-unit designers must comply with the regulations minus the extra space afforded designers of more conventionally sized units. 

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

In complying with the federal Accessibility Requirements for Multifamily Housing, the design team must make sure the unit isn’t too narrow. L-shaped and rectangular floor plans are most practical in a variety of ways, one obvious advantage being that, in a multistory building, such plans facilitate the space-efficient stacking of units. Minimal use of HVAC ductwork also aids in keeping costs, and space consumption, down.

Despite the challenges of micro units, smart prototypes such as LE1 point toward a more efficient future: It may not be long before they become a mainstay.

Article updated: 04/08/2013