Apartment living in the District is getting smaller as local developers create micro-units in some of the city’s most desirable locations. These tiny dwellings have arrived on 14th Street NW and are planned for the Southwest Waterfront, Dupont Circle, Georgetown and even Crystal City to attract millennials with less expensive rents and trendy designs.
The “micro” studio and one-bedroom apartments, ranging from 250 to 400 square feet in size, are smaller than most conventional efficiency units of 450 to 550 square feet.
“The typical market for these units tends to be young hipsters under the age of 30 and mostly under 27,” says Charles Hewlett of Bethesda-based Robert Charles Lesser & Co., a real estate adviser studying micro-units nationally. “This is their first apartment, and they haven’t accumulated a lot of stuff yet.”
One such renter is Leah Wald, 24, a financial analyst who lives in a 400-square-foot apartment to be near the restaurants and shops of 14th Street. “It’s the smallest apartment I’ve ever lived in,” says Williams of her home in the Harper, a new 144-unit building on the revitalized strip. She pays $2,500 a month for the one-bedroom apartment and a parking space.
Her home’s tiny size “is an impetus to go out,” Wald says. “This location couldn’t be more perfect for the socializing lifestyle.”
The seven-story Harper is one of the first newly constructed buildings in the city to offer the atypically smaller units. “It’s very expensive to build in D.C. and the only way to get the rents down is to make smaller units,” says Michael Korns of Keener-Squire Properties, the co-developer of the Harper. “Our goal is to provide housing that is relatively affordable for people who want to live on 14th Street.”
Rents, he says, range from $1,795 for a 350-square-foot studio to about $3,350 per month for a one-bedroom unit of about 600 square feet. About 97 percent of the apartments have been leased since the building opened in January.
“We don’t call them micro-units,” Korns says. “That’s a trendy name.” He says the average dwelling at the Harper is 411 square feet and only about half of the apartments are 350 to 400 square feet, the size of a micro-unit.
Renter Julie Williams, 36, who works as a program support specialist at the National Institutes of Health, cites high-quality finishes and fixtures as part of the reason for moving from a two-bedroom condo in Olney, Md., to a 350-square-foot efficiency in the Harper. Oak floors, stainless-steel kitchen appliances, movable islands, and Bosch washers and dryers are standard in most units.
“The small size doesn’t bother me,” says Williams, who furnished her studio apartment with pieces from West Elm and CB2. “The design makes up for it with a double-door closet with shelving, hardwood floors and floor-to-ceiling glass.”
Building amenities, Williams says, compensate for her compact living space. Rooftop grilling stations, seating areas and a penthouse lounge allow tenants to socialize and entertain outside their apartments.
Keener-Squire Properties is developing another new apartment building at 1355 17th St. NW with mostly efficiency and junior one-bedroom apartments similar to the Harper; the average size unit will be 419 square feet. The nine-story, 218-unit structure, called the Drake, is scheduled to open in early September.
To ensure the layout of the junior one-bedroom unit in the Drake worked, the developer built a mock-up of the 420-square-foot apartment in a Manassas warehouse. This model included all the appliances, cabinets and fixtures that are to be provided in the actual unit.
“Every square foot becomes critical,” says District architect Eric Colbert, who designed the Harper and Drake. “You want to get the most out of it and still be code-compliant.” Pointing to the tall windows in the Harper, he says, “lots of glass can enhance the feeling of openness.”
Architect Sandy Silverman of the D.C. firm Perkins Eastman says “the key to getting a micro-unit to work is having built-ins and small appliances.” Silverman recently designed an apartment complex centered on a rock-and-roll concert hall as part of The Wharf development led by PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette on the Southwest waterfront.
Of the 501 units in the building, 171 will be micro-units of about 325 to 354 square feet with nine-foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling glass. Each small apartment will have a Murphy bed with a built-in shelf for storage when the bed is stored vertically against the wall.
Mounted on wheels, the kitchen island can be moved to serve as a table or a desk. The bathroom door slides rather than swings out to save space.
“The units are designed like the inside of a boat,” says developer Matt Steenhoek of PN Hoffman. “The bigger attractions here are the building amenities and the neighborhood. You wouldn’t build these small units on a greenfield site in Virginia.”
Tenants will be able to enjoy a glass-bottom pool, gardening plots, volleyball courts and other amenities on the rooftop when the apartment building is completed in 2017.
On Dupont Circle, Bethesda developer SB-Urban will convert the historic Patterson mansion into 22 studio apartments and add a new, glass-clad structure next to the landmark to house 70 micro-units. Inside the 1903 mansion, the grand staircase, ballroom, library and dining room will be preserved as common spaces.
SB-Urban has plans to build 125 micro-units in a new structure on Blagden Alley at Ninth and M streets NW, and about 145 more in the former Latham Hotel in Georgetown. All three of the developer’s micro-unit projects will be completed in mid-2016.
Architect Graham Davidson of D.C.-based Hartman Cox, who is working with the New York-based Rockwell Group on the Patterson mansion designs, says renters living in the various SB-Urban properties may be able to share their common spaces. “It will be sort of like a club,” he says. “Once you live at one property, you can take advantage of amenities in the other buildings.”
Washington is just one city experimenting with micro-unit apartments. “They have been successful in dense, transit-rich, expensive markets like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and New York,” Hewlett says. “There are higher construction costs with these types of developments since they require more kitchens and baths. But the higher costs to build and operate them are more than made up by higher revenues on a per-square-foot basis.”
Some cities are deterred from building the small units because of local laws stipulating minimum apartment sizes. In the District, even the most diminutive micro-units are large enough to exceed the minimum 220 square feet of living space for a dwelling in a multi-unit building.
But in New York City, zoning regulations require new apartments to have at least 400 square feet, more space than some micro-units.
In 2012, Michael Bloomberg, who was mayor, waived that rule in soliciting proposals for a micro-unit rental building on a city-owned site in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood. As small as 250 square feet, the proposed designs are meant to address the imbalance between the 1.2 million one- and two-person households in the city and supply of about 1 million studio and one-bedroom apartments.
As demand outpaces the supply of apartments in many cities, “the micro-unit will become an increasing component of the market,” Hewlett says. “It is a legitimate strategy in expensive urban markets, but I question whether it will work in Reston or Gaithersburg.”
But the smaller approach is being tried in Crystal City. Arlington developer Vornado/Charles E. Smith is partnering with New York-based WeWork to redevelop an 11-story office building at 2221 S. Clark St. NW into 252 apartments for delivery in mid-2015.
Most of the units are only 300 square feet and organized as“neighborhoods” around a communal space in the center of the floor. This lounge will offer a shared kitchen, dining and entertaining areas for tenants.
In experimenting with the micro-unit concept, developers such as Vornado/Charles E. Smith are hedging their bets by designing the tiny residences in modules so two or more of them can be combined to create larger apartments in the future.
Other micro-unit builders are already finding the smaller living trend has its limits. “About a third of the people who come to see the apartments say they are too small,” says Gary Squire, co-developer of the Harper. “The people who don’t need a lot of stuff are the ones who end up renting.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.
1) Harper, 1919 14th St. NW (completed)
2) Drake, 1355 17th St. NW (scheduled to open in September)
3) The Wharf apartments, 900 Maine Ave. SW (opening 2017)
4) Latham Hotel renovation, 3000 M St. NW (opening mid-2016)
5) Patterson Mansion renovation, 15 Dupont Circle NW (opening mid-2016)
6) Blagden Alley building, 917 M St. NW and 1212 Ninth St. NW (opening mid-2016)
7) WeWork apartments Crystal City, Va, 2221 South Clark St. (opening 2015)