In many of today’s primary markets, most units are getting smaller and unit mixes are leaning toward the smaller offerings such as studios and one-bedrooms. Knowing how to make the most of small spaces is key to making these square footages work for residents.

At the MFE Conference in Las Vegas last month, panelists discussed ways to create space-efficient floor plans that are also cost effective to build.

Mike Pyatok of Pyatok Architecture and Urban Design has succeeded in the industry primarily designing apartments for affordable housing communities, but market-rate developers have turned to him to design similar spaces on tight budgets.

Pyatok noted that a lot of the micro-unit trend can be attributed to the "prolonged state of adolescence" that American millennials are experiencing. “We were building similar smaller housing a century ago when poorer young adults needed cheap housing options while they worked towards their dreams in the big city,” he said.

A lot of Pyatok's designs for micro-units no longer include tubs and sometimes even put the toilet and shower in one facility to reduce the size of the bathroom. However, affordable units can only be made so small before the process becomes counterproductive, he suggested. “Millennials just need their units to sleep and bathe. They’ll take advantage of the city’s vast amenities,” Pyatok said. [But] families with limited income can’t go eat out regularly or pay for entertainment. They need space in their homes to develop a lifestyle.”

Chris Pilato, vice president of CAPREIT, which manages a portfolio split between affordable and market-rate units, also offered ideas to make cost-efficient upgrades to small units, such as open floor plans, higher ceilings so the horizontal size of the space doesn’t feel as small, and nicer finishes that look more modern. He also suggested installing simple, Ikea-style shades in the ceiling that help divide a bedroom area to give people a sense of space around them.

With these simple and cheap changes, said Pilato, he's seen turnover costs reduced by nearly 40%.

Pyatok is also designing what he refers to as "shudios," which are essentially shared studios. In places like New York and San Francisco where rent is abominably high for many entry-level workers, it’s not uncommon to see two people sharing a studio or even three to four people sharing a one-bedroom unit.

The shudios give each resident his or her own private bedroom but have a shared bathroom and kitchenette. The size of the shudios can be as small as 500 square feet.