Homemaking: Urban living meets affordability

Top: the Micro-Unit Prototype
Above: The What's IN team: from back moving left to right: 
Ben Stracco, Mika Gilmore, Lisa Walden, Marcus Hamblin, 
Fred Kramer, B.K. Boley, Tamara Roy, Blake Goodwin, 
Zach Pursley, Ruthie Kuhlman, Meredith Powell, 
Melissa Miranda, Aeron Hodges, Derrick Nickerson, 
Michelle Kim, Quinton Kerns, Dan Connolly, Chris Neukamm.
We take for granted the amenities around us.  We are (mostly) warm, safe and dry, yet often feel discontented with our space, not because it fails to provide for us, but because it fails to enrich us.  Whether it's that cookie cutter subdivision home with its oddball "feature" spaces, the dreary big city walk-up apartment that barely meets any kind of building code or something in between, so few of us have the opportunity to live in a space that really supports how we want to live in it.  But what if the reason our living spaces fail us is because we don't have the right expectations for them?  What if you could throw out everything you thought you knew about how to live in a home and started over?  The subject of my master's thesis at the University of Arizona was the impact of telecommuting on our understanding of the home.  Part of the research I did involved looking at the evolution of our understanding of a home.  Most of us are stuck in a model that comes straight out of the Victorian era, where urban equaled bad and the domestic sphere needed to be clearly separated from the sphere of work.  But we don't live in the Victorian era anymore, so why should our spaces?

What's IN is trying to answer that question.  This exciting urban housing research project includes the Boston design groups ADD Inc and One-In-3 as well as MapLab and local mosaic artists Artaic and has undertaken a study of the demographics and sociographics of urban housing today and proposes ideas on how to best meet the live/work needs of young professionals.  It's a national trend that young college graduates are looking for the urban lifestyle in ever increasing numbers.  So are aging baby boomers.  To the extent that a city can provide the housing they seek, that city can prevent a "brain drain" of young, innovative and educated professionals.  So what stops them?  Affordability and amenity are the two big issues.  This group is attracted to the vibrant, culturally rich and diverse environment found in urban neighborhoods, but not the price tag that necessarily comes with it.  What's IN's solution: the Micro-Unit.

Defined as a single family dwelling unit ranging from 250-300 square feet, the Micro-Unit has stripped living down to its essential elements; bathroom, kitchenette, storage and living/sleeping areas.  Borrowing a page from European and Asian models (and ancient Roman city life for that matter), What's IN offers the larger spaces we have been conditioned to believe we need within our dwellings outside of them in the form of communal social spaces.  This not only allows the units themselves to be more affordable, but fosters the kind of neighborliness that studies show keep our communities safe and vibrant.  Says Quinton Kerns, one of the group's founders, "With minimal/durable use materials we can minimize cost of construction and with the re-imagined unit sizes we can provide more density within a floor than what is currently offered with most market rate units. The Micro-Unit seeks to tackle the ongoing problem of affordability in urban housing coupled with the opportunity to foster a social revival in our local communities."

This is real research- the group conducted polls, looked at product options, studied prefabrication techniques, investigated design precedents from all over the world, and looked at real estate issues.  They also partnered with business and civic leaders to talk about the issues involved in making their concept take off.  What did they learn?  Affordability trumps all.  In perhaps a crushing blow to most designers, futuristic, gadgety, multi-tasking furniture was soundly rejected by the focus group.  Based this information, they determined an ideal unit size (300 sf) and features to include in a prototype microunit, with smart features important to urbanites, including bike storage and casework that could be user-built a la IKEA to save money.  A mockup of the unit was then constructed by the What's IN team.  To get the widest possible range of feedback, the mockup went on tour at prominent Boston venues ABX 2012 at the Boston Convention and Exposition Center, the Atlantic Wharf lobby adjacent to the BSA Space, and The Modern Theater at Suffolk University. The group created a survey to allow mockup viewers to weigh in on how well they think such a living arrangement would or wouldn't work for them, in addition to providing key demographic information to help inform the development of future microunit initiatives.  "The unit has been donated to Suffolk University so that students and faculty can utilize this model to engage the business and academic communities in and around Boston as this movement for approachable living becomes a reality," says Kerns. "What's IN is currently venturing into a deeper research initiative focusing on the social/community impacts for this new housing typology by means of further crowd sourcing, community surveying, community outreach, and a continued discussion with policy makers at City Hall. We are looking at displaying our findings at this year’s ABX 2013 with the ultimate goal of having some solid development in the works by the year’s end." 

The group's Tamara Roy presented What's IN's work to date in late March 2013 at a housing Forum at Suffolk University. Her presentation powerfully illustrates just how much a shortage of affordable housing impacts the city, and the innovative approach to solving this problem that the group developed.  "We believe in the power of tiny things and the Micro-Unit speaks to that idea," says Kerns. "Through our research we found that city dwellers are not only willing to share living, eating, and social areas within their living environments, but they really want these amenities to be more social! And through this call for more social living we are faced with a great opportunity for innovation. Diversity + Density + Interaction = Knowledge Spillover...by the nature of what they are, micro-units foster innovation!"

Key What's IN Players:
Tamara Roy: Senior Associate Principal at ADD Inc and “Mother of the Micro-Unit” in Boston.
Aeron Hodges: Designer at ADD Inc, Co-Founder of the WHATS IN initiative and target demographic of the emerging families.
Quinton Kerns: Designer at ADD Inc, Co-Founder of the WHATS IN initiative and target demographic of the single young professional.
Fred Kramer: President of ADD Inc, Supportive Powerhouse and target demographic of the empty nester.
Chris Neukamm: Designer at ADD Inc, Committee member of WHATS IN
Michelle Kim: Designer at ADD Inc, Committee member of WHATS IN
Dan Connolly: Project Manager at STA, Committee member of WHATS IN and member of ONEin3
Blake Goodwin: Director of Operations for Artaic, Committee member of WHATS IN and member of ONEin3