Until just recently, you’d be forgiven if you thought micro units were synonymous with tight, high-density locations and spaces. But three new communities JHP Architecture/Urban Design has been a part of are pushing the boundaries of micro units outside of their usual location in high-rises, flats, and the urban core. The leading edge of the trend in micro-unit housing, in fact, is moving into “unbuildable” infill sites, townhomes, unsold retail parcels, and even the suburbs.

Multifamily on a Single-Family Site
Consider the White Buffalo, a three-story, 63-unit micro-unit complex in Fort Worth, Texas, developed by Lang Partners. The complex occupies seven single-family lots totaling 1.04 acres (a density of 60.34 units per acre). Units range from 560 to 932 square feet, with rents ranging from $974 to $2,300 per month. Four one-bedroom, townhome-style units represent the high end of the range.

An open floor plan at the White Buffalo in Fort Worth, Texas, incorporates the outdoor space, enhancing the overall area for entertaining. PHOTO: Charles Davis Smith, AIA

Each of the White Buffalo’s ground-floor units has a private front door and stoop facing the street and an off-street surface-parking space near the front door. The development is ideally located within walking distance of Fort Worth’s cultural district, the Botanic Garden, Trinity Park, and the bustling West 7th Street mixed-use corridor—offering residents a wide range of attractive amenities.

Lang Partners was clear about the demographic market for this property: hip, urban dwellers of any age who are seeking a living experience akin to that found in an upscale boutique hotel. And they were right: The White Buffalo has attracted a range of age groups, including young single professionals, older single people, and older couples. Within two months of its opening, 65 percent of the units had been leased, with the four townhome-style units going first.

And all that, in Texas, where “bigger is better” is considered the prevailing opinion.

Beyond the Urban Core
In Columbia, S.C. phase two of CanalSide pushes the boundaries of the micro-unit trend even further. A walkable urban multifamily housing community developed by The Beach Co., CanalSide comprises 199 micro units consisting of 153 flats and 46 townhomes on a 4.37-acre infill site.

Phase two of CanalSide, in Columbia, S.C., comprises 199 micro units consisting of 153 flats and 46 townhomes on a 4.37-acre infill site. PHOTO: © Rion Rizzo/Creative Sources Photography

The development sits between conventional multifamily housing and the Congaree River near downtown Columbia—still an urban location, but outside the urban core. At 540 to 783 square feet, these units were sized slightly larger than JHP’s concept of what the prototypical micro unit would measure (350 to 650 square feet), in response to local market preferences.

An Alternative in the Suburbs
Elsewhere in South Carolina, in Mount Pleasant, a coastal suburban community, The Beach Co. had completed Riviera at Seaside, a large retail development originally planned without conventional multifamily housing units. But after five retail sites totaling 6.82 acres remained unsold, residential usage was reconsidered. Now, 221 micro units ranging from 540 to 768 square feet will be built there and paired with 31 traditional multifamily units, to expand the range of housing options and provide additional support for the retail complex. The result: a walkable, mixed-use community.

Originally a retail development planned without multifamily housing, Riviera at Seaside, in Mount Pleasant, S.C., will now get 221 micro units along with 31 conventional-multifamily homes. PHOTO: Jason Stemple

Both Canalside and Riviera at Seaside are at the edge of smaller cities and so aren’t expected to attract the same “hip, urban dweller” as the White Buffalo or other urban-core micro-unit communities. Nevertheless, they offer an exciting, attractive alternative to the typical small suburban apartment.

Common Threads
Each of these three micro-unit communities is unique, but they share some very important characteristics. All are constructed on small parcels of land—typically 1- or 2-acre infill sites—that otherwise might be unbuildable. In fact, these micro-unit developments can be built on infill sites as small as two typical residential lots of less than half an acre.

Proximity to public transit helps make these communities possible because it decreases parking requirements. As low-rise buildings with unit sizes ranging from 350 to 650 square feet, on average, and no need for structured parking, these projects can be economically constructed using wood framing at 60 units per acre without sacrificing quality.

Additionally, unlike high-rises, the three developments are good neighbors to existing three- and four-story buildings. As a result, this type of micro-unit project is generally easier to permit and finance than a large high-rise project.

At the same time, these projects share certain critical success factors with their more typical high-rise, big-city cousins: a location with attractive amenities, an effective price point for the size of the units, a balance between price and luxury, and architecture and interior design that fit their geographic context.

Carl Malcolm is a principal with JHP Architecture / Urban Design, in Dallas. He serves as a senior project manager and oversees many of JHP’s higher-density, mixed-use, and senior housing projects, with responsibility for quality control and project scheduling oversight of all projects in the office. He may be reached at 214-363-5687 or [email protected].