Living Small in the Big City: A building of micro-units introduces a new housing typology for New York’s changing demographics.
Architects & Firms
New York City
New York is infamous for its small living spaces—an apartment so teeny that its occupants must use the oven for storage, or a tenement so tight that the bathtub is in the kitchen. But now New Yorkers have the chance to live in something truly small—if much more functional—with the completion of Carmel Place, a building with 55 apartments ranging from 260 to 360 square feet, in Manhattan, designed by Mimi Hoang and Eric Bunge, founding principals of nARCHITECTS.
The project is the product of a pilot program launched in 2012 by Michael Bloomberg, then mayor. Its goal was the creation of a model for reasonably priced housing for New York’s growing number of one- and two-person households. The competition brief asked teams to submit schemes for a city-owned 4,700-square-foot sliver of a site adjacent to a leafy park in the Kips Bay neighborhood. It called for a rental building that was at least 75 percent “micro-units”—apartments that are smaller than the standard studio. To make the project viable, certain zoning regulations were waived, including one in place since 1987 mandating that apartments be at least 400 square feet.
The developer, Monadnock, which has built a number of affordable and market-rate residential buildings in New York, approached Bunge and Hoang about entering the competition. The pair wanted to ensure that the tiny living spaces would be “humane,” says Bunge. “We thought, ‘We have to be part of the conversation.’ ” For its part, Monadnock was motivated by the challenge of making compact apartments that “felt good” and were more than merely “livable, but far better than the usual studio,” says Frank Dubinsky, the company’s vice president.
The team’s resulting $12.95 million building, developed with a nonprofit partner, the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, has units arranged to create a nine-story, 35,000-square-foot structure that subtly steps in plan and section so that it reads like what Bunge calls a “microcosm of the skyline,” or as four miniature towers, each 11 feet wide and clad in a different shade of gray brick.
Completed in May, Carmel Place reveals little of how it was constructed: its steel-and-concrete apartment modules, along with 10 more for the stair and elevator core, were fabricated in a Brooklyn factory to take advantage of the benefits of off-site construction. The modules were then stacked over the course of four weeks in late spring 2015 on top of a poured-in-place foundation and steel-framed first floor. The exterior bricks were laid on site, even though the project schedule potentially could have been shortened had the skin been completed in the factory. The architects opted for this method in order to bridge the joints between the units and emphasize the minitowers rather than the individual apartments, explains Bunge. “We were not interested in expressing the modules,” he says.
Inside, the apartments are indeed compact, but they seem—especially when viewed without the clutter of actual tenants’ possessions—light and airy. This feeling of spaciousness is in no small part due to the units’ 9-foot 8-inch-high ceilings and their 8-foot-tall sliding windows with almost invisible glass balustrades, which create the impression that the occupants can step directly outside. The finishes, including glossy white cabinets, back-painted glass backsplashes, engineered stone countertops, and blond wood floors, contribute to the fresh, clean look, as do the smart, vaguely Danish Modern furnishings that come with many of the apartments.
Although on the whole the units are very intelligently laid out, there are a few idiosyncrasies. One is a capacious bathroom that takes up nearly a quarter of a 360-square-foot corner apartment and claims two of its four windows. The room’s overly generous size in comparison to the living space is the result of an emergency-exiting requirement that dictated the location of the bathroom door, explain the architects.
But such awkward instances are rare, and Monadnock is betting that the apartments’ intelligent layouts and sleek aesthetic—along with a host of services and shared amenities—will attract tenants. These perks include free Wi-Fi, a cleaning and errand service, a gym, bike storage, game room, and top-floor community room with a roof deck overlooking the park. There is also the welcoming lobby with seating nooks and walls paneled in a laminate of recycled wood veneers, where Bunge imagines residents having Thanksgiving dinner. He says its 83-by-9-foot dimensions are perfect for a table long enough to seat 100 residents and guests.
This idea of community may be a bit farfetched, but the apartments are nevertheless clearly in demand. As of early August, about three quarters of the building’s 32 market-rate apartments had been leased, even though their $2,446- to $3,195-per-month rents are more expensive on a square-foot basis than most Manhattan studios. (At the start of this year, the median rent for a studio in the borough was $2,595.) According to Dubinsky, the tenants include empty nesters, people who are in the city only from Monday through Friday, and new graduates with their first jobs. “Micro-units aren’t only for millennials,” he says.
The remaining 23 apartments have long been spoken for: eight of the units are reserved for formerly homeless veterans, and 14 have been awarded, on the basis of a lottery to which 60,000 people applied, to low- and middle-income residents. They pay from $914 to $1,490 per month. One unit is occupied by the building’s superintendant.
Carmel Place clearly demonstrates that micro-units can be livable, even desirable, if they are thoughtfully designed. And they are sure to proliferate, especially now that the city formally modified the building code earlier this year to allow apartments that are smaller than 400 square feet as part of buildings with a mix of larger-unit types. But micro-units may not turn out to be the affordable housing solution that promoters contend they will be—especially if they inflate per-square-foot rents. It’s still too early to determine if the compact living spaces will ameliorate, or exacerbate, the city’s housing problems.
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Eric Bunge, AIA, Mimi Hoang, AIA (Principals), Ammr Vandal, AIA (Associate Principal, Project Manager), Tony-Saba Shiber, Daniel Katebini-Stengel, Cheryl Baxter, Albert Figueras, Prathyusha Viddam, Gabrielle Marcoux, Amanda Morgan, AIA, Zach Cohen, Matthew Scarlett, Matthew Wilson, Alexis Payen
Structural Engineer: DeNardis Engineering LLC
LEED Consultant: Taitem Engineering, PC
Monadnock Construction, Capsys Corp. (modules)
Iwan Baan, +1 347 525 1554
Modules - Steel Frame + concrete slab
Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project: Modules - Capsys Corp.
Masonry: Glen Gery
Metal/glass curtain wall: YKK AP
Moisture barrier: Blueskin
Curtain wall: YKK AP
Tile/shingles: Nemo Tile, Tile Depot
Pavers: Unilock, Tile Tech, Kaswell, Nemo Tile
Green Roof: American Hydrotech, Inc.
Glass: J. E. Berkowitz; Architectural Glass Product
Entrances: YKK AP
Metal doors: M&D Door & Hardware
Wood doors: M&D Door & Hardware
Sliding doors: Hawa
Fire-control doors, security grilles: United Steel Products, Inc.
Locksets: Schlage; Falcon/Allegion
Exit devices: Adams Rite/Assa Abloy
Pulls: YKK AP; C.R. Laurence Co., Inc.
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Spectrum Kitchens
Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore
Wall coverings: Flavor Paper; Koroseal
Office furniture: Resource Furniture
Interior ambient lighting: Pinnacle Architectural Lighting
Downlights: Mercury Lighting Products Co Inc.; Juno Lighting Group; Brownlee Lighting
Exterior: Bega; Encore Lighting
Hansgrohe; Duravit; Chicago Faucets