Room to Spare: A rendering of Panoramic Interests' 300-square-foot micro room.
Room to Spare: A rendering of Panoramic Interests' 300-square-foot micro room.

Those with claustrophobia need not apply.

Construction has begun on an infill project at 38 Harriet Street in San Francisco that its developer, builder, and module supplier believe could determine whether micro apartments remain a highly publicized curiosity or become the next big thing.

“There are a lot of eyes on this project, a lot of interest,” says Naomi Porat, president and co-founder of Zeta Communities. The company’s factory in Sacramento, Calif., is close to completing the 12-by-65-foot modules that will be used to construct an 11,775-square-foot, four-story building squeezed onto a 3,750-square-foot lot. That building will contain 23 micro apartments measuring around 300 square feet each, with 9-foot ceilings, kitchens and baths, washers and dryers, and multipurpose built-ins for storage and workspaces that can convert to sleeping areas.

These apartments reflect a “Smart Space” concept that the project’s developer, Berkeley, Calif.–based Panoramic Interests, created with a team of architects and designers to address the needs of young professionals in urban job centers, where affordable housing is perennially in short supply. The developer test-drove the design with a 160-square-foot prototype it built in a warehouse in Berkeley by using a guinea pig: An MIT grad student lived in it for three weeks and provided feedback about what he thought did and didn’t work.

Micro units reflect “a return to more collaborative communal living,” says Patrick Kennedy, the owner of Panoramic Interests. Millennials view apartments in the context of a lifestyle that’s more socially and technologically defined, he says. “They’ll trade 100 square feet of space for 100 more megabytes of Internet,” he quips.

And with monthly rents expected to start at $1,500 (with five of the apartments offered at $910), these micro apartments should be available for significantly less than the $2,000-plus per month a studio apartment fetches, on average, in San Francisco.

Turning Heads

When Zeta Communities unveiled its modules for the San Francisco micro apartment project in July, more than 200 designers, builders, architects, and developers showed up at its factory to take a peek, says Porat.

Panoramic Interests has been looking at several other markets to see if their redevelopment environment is receptive to its Smart Space model, says Kennedy. And some major cities already see micro units in their future and are adjusting their zoning regulations to allow more of them to be built.

In July, New York City launched a pilot program called adAPT NYC to develop ­micro apartments of 275 to 300 square feet. In Boston, the mayor announced last November his administration’s goal to build hundreds of micro units, with rents starting as low as $1,200. One such project is already under way in the Seaport District, where the Boston Wharf Tower broke ground in July and will include 450-square-foot units. The developer, Portland, Ore.–based Gerding Edlen, has another project across the street in which 27 apartments will measure 330 square feet.

Tight Squeeze

In San Francisco, executing the construction of the micro apartments on Harriet Street has its challenges, says Wally Naylor, regional vice president for Charles Pankow Builders, the contractor on the project.

For one thing, “we’re working in a very, very tight space,” where the modules will be craned onto a site that has only 10 inches of clear as they’re wedged between two other buildings. The site is also in a seismic zone 4, the city’s highest earthquake designation, so the building will need to be fortified to withstand significant shocks. Naylor adds that the building’s vertical construction—such as its plumbing, sprinkler system, and risers—is tougher to install when the apartments are so small.

Pankow has been doing modular and prefab construction throughout its 50 years in business but has mostly focused on commercial structures. It agreed to build this infill project, Naylor says, because “it’s high-density­ urban infill, and it gave us the potential to work with Zeta on net-zero-energy projects.” (This infill project will not be net-zero, but it is being built to LEED Gold standards.)

Naylor says his company would like to do similar projects and believes that as more builders, developers, and architects get into micro apartments, their construction will be “cost neutral” compared with more conventional apartment buildings.

“It’s kind of like batting practice,” he says. “You need to take a few swings.” While Naylor thinks micro apartments could catch on more broadly, he also cautions that “the market will determine that.”

And the market is skeptical on micro units when it comes to questions of affordability and even the potential size of their customer base. “People are waiting to see if we drive over a cliff on this,” says Kennedy. “Is it a death wish or a move forward?”

John Caulfield is a senior editor of Builder, a sister publication of Multifamily Executive.