Given the potential market for affordable apartments, particularly in urban locations, developers increasingly are interested in building “micro-unit” projects.
Near the District’s Logan Circle, developer Brook Rose is planning an eight-story apartment building containing 38 units, of which 32 are micro-units ranging in size from 280 to 350 square feet. Rising behind three existing rowhouses on Church Street NW, the project might not include parking if the Board of Zoning Adjustment approves — in which case any tenant with a car will not receive a street parking permit.
The former Latham Hotel at 30th and M Streets in Georgetown might be transformed into a mixed-use building containing more than 100 micro-units. And the JBG Companies, according to a company source, is exploring several future projects in which micro-units would be included.
You might be thinking that “micro-unit” is just another term for “efficiency apartment.” Why this new, trendy terminology?
A micro-unit is, in fact, a very small apartment, typically smaller in floor area than a one-bedroom apartment and smaller than many efficiency and studio apartments. A micro-unit can be comparable in size to a hotel room.
One-bedroom apartments rarely are smaller than 500 square feet, while efficiency apartments usually range in size from 350 to 450 square feet. Micro-units commonly encompass 250 to 350 square feet. It’s worth noting that under District regulations, the floor area of a dwelling in a multi-unit building generally must be at least 220 square feet.
Clearly, compactness characterizes the micro-unit trend. But other attributes differentiate micro-unit development from conventional apartment development.
As a Google-based mosaic of images shows, micro-unit interiors can be more inventively configured and elaborately designed than many efficiency apartments. Intended to accommodate one and perhaps two individuals, micro-units often include built-in furniture and storage systems, plus a complete bathroom and efficiently configured kitchen. With greater-than-average ceiling height, a micro-unit can feel relatively spacious and offer a sleeping loft floating above a small portion of the space.
But the most noteworthy attribute is the potential for prefabricating micro-units entirely in factories, then transporting them to a building site. There they would be lifted into place to form new apartment buildings or attached-housing structures. Such a construction technique can save time and money and ensure quality, but only if micro-unit designs are standardized and production volume is sufficiently high and reasonably steady.
The micro-unit market is basically the same as the efficiency apartment market: singles of all ages, but especially younger generations preferring to live near the heart of a city, or well-adjusted couples who can amicably cohabit cheek-by-jowl. Residents make do with minimal wall space, virtually no free-standing furniture and limited resources for at-home entertaining. They must be willing to accept less space in return for a favorable location and lower rent.
In light of the limited dwelling space, thoughtfully conceived buildings composed of micro-units need to include communal areas — including cooking and catering capability — where residents can informally socialize, organize events or host parties. And a shared business office for the building, with a couple of copy machines, wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Of course, affordability drives the market: A 250- or 300-square-foot unit will cost considerably less than one with 500 or 600 square feet. However, a micro-unit will cost more than half the price of an apartment twice its size because it still requires a bathroom and kitchen, a relatively fixed cost for apartments of all sizes. And micro-units with more built-in storage cabinetry entail an additional building cost.
Is there a micro-unit in your future? Not if you have furniture you can’t live without, love the artwork displayed on your current home’s walls and throw frequent dinner parties If that’s the case, you’ll need to consider other options.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. To view his cartoon, go to washingtonpost.com/realestate.