How Small Is Too Small

Tiny Apartments: How Small is Too Small?

To meet the demand of young adults and downsizing Baby Boomers crowding into cities to be within walking distance of jobs, transportation, and other daily needs, developers are creating increasingly tinier, space-efficient apartments. In addition to the convenience of city living, being willing to sacrifice space for up to 30% lower rent allows many singles to afford living alone instead of rooming with someone, which means more privacy.

Major cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. are the focus of the micro-apartment trend where the smallest apartments run between 250-420 square feet (Urban Land Institute defines micro-apartments as anything below 350 square feet with a full bath and kitchen). If you’d like to get visual of what a studio apartment this size looks like, check out this blog. Another means of comparison is to look at what would fit into a 250 sq. ft. storage unit, the same size as a standard garage: furniture from a two-bedroom home plus appliances, or one car, truck or boat.  That’s not much space, but for many people, it’s just enough.

Some micro-units truly test the limits of the question ‘how small is too small.’ In Hong Kong, where housing demand is extremely high, 180 sq. ft. micros are not uncommon. In Tokyo, sizes run as small as 116-122 sq. feet, and in Manila, developers have built low-income housing as small as 95 sq. feet (imagine having to sit on the toilet to take a shower!).

The Health Risks

Increasingly smaller designs have generated global controversy between development corporations and zoning regulators. Major cities (the most recent Victoria, New South Wales) are the scene of repeated law changes and deliberation over just how small is too small for healthy living conditions. Besides the need to enforce minimum emergency clearances, a few experts offer their opinions on potential psychological health risks of living in such small apartments.

In a 2013 article that appeared in The Atlantic, Dark Kopec, the director of human health design for Boston Architectural College, shared his opinion that micro-apartments are just fine for single 20s, but present more problems as people reach their 30s and 40s and have more demanding jobs and other sources of stress. He reports that crowding-related stress is linked to higher rates of both domestic violence and substance abuse, for one thing. A compact apartment isn’t always an easy place to relax after a stressful, crowded day. Daily tasks are also more of a hassle because the living space isn’t big enough to house all furniture (say, both the bed and the table) at one time, and leaving everything out just leads to an even more crowded area.

Susan Saegert from the Housing Environment Research Group agrees that micros are fine for childless singles, but not an ideal environment for raising children. Her studies have shown that children who live in very small apartments tend to be more withdrawn and have more difficulty in school, seemingly due to a lack of private, personal space at home.  She also points out other psychological aspects, such as the home’s role in  personal identity, and as an expression of values and goals. A living space may functionally meet one’s needs, but fail to allow relaxation and self-expression, which are just as important.

One expert sees a good compromise: in spite of the loss of square footage, micros can represent a gain in quality of life if they include other amenities such as common areas that provide for communal gardens, workout space, and social gatherings.

Positive Experiences

On the opposite side of the argument, many people can attest to the incredibly positive impact the switch to tiny living has had on their lives. One such person is Graham Hill, founder of treehugger.com. Hill moved from a 3,600 sq. ft. house to a 420 sq. ft. apartment in Manhattan he challenged developers to create. You can read his personal story here. Others express how liberating it is to be freed of the obligation of caring (and paying for) larger homes, and how well micro-apartments meet their needs and lifestyle.

In the end, it really seems to boil down to a personal preference. You should be aware of the potential for feelings of stress and overcrowding, and consider the needs of children, but base your decisions on personal experience. If you’re in an extremely small space, it’s highly recommended you treat the city as your ‘living room’ and take advantage of community space and amenities to boost your psychological health. Lastly, there are plenty of healthy, happy individuals that love tiny living, so take a few cues from them in your own small living lifestyle.

What’s your opinion: how small is too small?