Micro Units: Sustainable, Compact Living in Modern Cities

Micro units—characterized by their compact size and efficient use of space—offer a pragmatic and minimalist approach to city living. These small, self-contained apartments are designed to maximize functionality and comfort within a reduced footprint—catering to the needs of urban dwellers who prioritize location and simplicity over square footage. The rise in popularity of these units is especially notable in metropolitan areas like New York City and Philadelphia, where housing demand often exceeds supply and the cost of living is high. This trend reflects a broader shift in urban housing preferences—highlighting a growing inclination towards more sustainable and affordable living solutions in urban centers. We outline the growing need for and viability of micro apartments below. Read on to learn more!

Understanding Micro Units

  • Micro units are small, typically urban apartments that epitomize the efficient use of space and functionality in modern housing. Generally ranging from 200 to 400 square feet, these units are designed to accommodate all the essential functions of a larger apartment within a much smaller footprint. For example, the Urban Land Institute defines a micro unit as “a small studio apartment, typically less than 350 square feet, with a fully functioning and accessibility compliant kitchen and bathroom” in this resource.

    The concept of micro units arises from the need to address the challenges of urban housing shortages, high real estate prices, and the evolving preferences of a population increasingly drawn to urban centers. These units are particularly attractive in cities with high population densities and expensive rental markets—offering a viable living solution for individuals who prioritize location and affordability.

Key Characteristics of Micro Apartments

Minimalist Design

Micro units are synonymous with a minimalist approach to living. This design philosophy focuses on simplicity and the elimination of non-essential elements. In micro units, every component is carefully considered to ensure it serves a purpose—contributing to a clutter-free and aesthetically pleasing space. 

The minimalist design also often employs neutral color palettes and clean lines—enhancing the sense of openness and space in these compact units.

Built-In Storage

Built-in storage solutions play a critical role in maximizing space efficiency in micro units. These storage systems are often creatively integrated into the architecture of the unit to utilize every possible area. For example, elevated beds with drawer systems underneath, wall-mounted shelves, and cabinets built into partition walls are common. 

These solutions allow for the storage of personal belongings in a way that keeps the living area uncluttered and open. The intelligent design of these storage components is crucial, as they must be easily accessible and functional without compromising the aesthetic and spatial quality of the unit.

Multifunctional Spaces

Due to their small size, micro units must be able to transform and adapt to various needs throughout the day. This approach involves creating areas that can serve multiple purposes with minimal adjustment. For instance, a dining table might extend to become a workspace, or a sofa could transform into a bed. 

The key is in the selection and design of furniture and fixtures that are flexible and adaptable. Wall beds, extendable counters, and modular seating are examples of furniture that can change function or be tucked away when not in use. This versatility not only optimizes the use of space but also adds a dynamic element to living in a micro unit, as the space shifts and adapts to the resident’s needs throughout the day.

Pros for Users

Access to Prime Locations

One of the primary goals of mixed-income housing is to help combat poverty and create economic opportunities for low-income residents. By providing affordable housing options within higher-income neighborhoods, we can break down barriers and create a more inclusive community. This not only improves the quality of life for those living in low-income households but also promotes diversity and reduces social isolation.

One of the most significant advantages of micro units for users is the access they provide to prime urban locations. Major cities like New York City, San Francisco, and Philadelphia—known for their high cost of living and real estate prices—become more accessible through micro units. Readers might be surprised to learn that many cities across the U.S. have allowed developers to construct and rent apartments as small as 150 square feet for over a decade.

These compact living spaces are often situated in central, desirable areas—offering residents the opportunity to live in the heart of the city at a more affordable cost. This proximity to work, entertainment, and cultural amenities enhances the urban living experience without the financial strain typically associated with such sought-after locations.

More Affordable Rent

Micro units offer a financially accessible option for city living—primarily due to their more affordable rent compared to standard-sized apartments in the same area. The reduced square footage results in a lower rental price—making living in urban centers viable for a broader range of people, including students, young professionals, and those seeking a more budget-friendly lifestyle. This affordability is particularly appealing in cities where housing costs can be prohibitively high—allowing a greater diversity of individuals to experience urban living.

Low Maintenance

The compact size of micro units translates to ease of maintenance—another attractive feature for urban dwellers. Smaller spaces require less time and effort to clean and maintain, which is especially beneficial for those with busy lifestyles. 

This low-maintenance aspect extends to utilities and other household expenses, which are typically lower in smaller living spaces. The reduced need for upkeep and lower ongoing costs make micro units an appealing option for those seeking a simpler, more manageable living arrangement.

Shared Building Amenities

Many micro unit developments compensate for the limited private space by offering a range of shared building amenities. These can include fitness centers, communal lounges, rooftop terraces, and laundry facilities. 

Access to these amenities enhances the living experience by providing additional spaces for relaxation, socialization, and leisure activities. For residents of micro units, these shared amenities offer a sense of luxury and community—adding value to their living experience beyond the confines of their individual apartments.

At AVLV, we value that sense of community in urban environments like apartment buildings and mixed-use developments very highly. Learn more about our approach here.

Reduced Furniture and Decor Needs

Investing in more mixed-income housing could also reduce our collective carbon footprint. In an article for the Rocky Mountain Institute, Zack Subin writes that “building mixed-income housing in higher-inThe minimalist nature of micro units also leads to cost savings in terms of furniture and decor. The limited space requires fewer furnishings, and the need for multifunctional and space-efficient items further reduces the quantity and cost of what is needed.
This aspect is particularly beneficial for those who are starting out or prefer a minimalist lifestyle, as it alleviates the financial burden of furnishing a larger apartment and encourages a more streamlined and clutter-free living environment.
come, urban, or walkable neighborhoods is a solution for both climate and equity.” Subin notes that “around the country, examples abound of wealthy, walkable or transit-rich, lower-carbon-footprint communities that largely restrict new housing.” 

Examples of lower-income or mixed-income communities with lower carbon footprints are less common. He argues that by increasing the density of high income communities, we can “expand access to opportunity [and limit gentrification] in low income urban neighborhoods.” That density and walkability will also reduce the carbon footprint of mixed-income neighborhoods.

Pros for Developers

Economic Efficiency

From a developer’s perspective, the construction of micro units presents a model of economic efficiency. The lower costs associated with building these compact living spaces stem from several factors. 

Firstly, the smaller size of micro units means that more units can be fitted into a given building footprint compared to traditional apartments, maximizing the usage of valuable urban land. This increased density can lead to a higher return on investment for developers, as they can offer more units for rent or sale within the same space.

Additionally, the construction costs per unit can be lower. The reduced square footage of each unit means less material is required for floors, walls, and ceilings. Similarly, smaller spaces require fewer fixtures and fittings. When these units are designed with standardized layouts and features, it allows for economies of scale in purchasing materials and streamlining construction processes—further reducing costs.

Maintenance Benefits

Another advantage for developers and property managers is the ease and cost-effectiveness of maintaining micro units. Smaller units inherently have less wear and tear due to their size and the fewer number of appliances and fixtures that require upkeep. This aspect is particularly beneficial in rental properties where the turnover of tenants can lead to frequent maintenance needs.

In buildings composed of micro units, common areas and shared amenities often take precedence. While these shared spaces do require maintenance, they provide value to a larger number of residents simultaneously—making their upkeep a more efficient investment. Additionally, the management of utilities and services in compact units can be more straightforward, as there is less variability in usage patterns compared to larger apartments.

Overall, for developers, the construction and maintenance of micro units offer a financially viable and efficient alternative to traditional housing models. The lower construction and maintenance costs—combined with the ability to maximize land use in high-demand urban areas—make micro units an attractive option in the current real estate market.

Environmental Benefits

Lower Carbon Footprint

The environmental benefits of micro units are particularly significant—starting with their contribution to a lower carbon footprint. The smaller size and efficient design of these units inherently require fewer resources for construction and less energy for heating, cooling, and lighting compared to larger living spaces. This reduction in resource use is a crucial factor in environmental sustainability—especially in urban areas where energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are major concerns.

The compact design of micro units often incorporates energy-efficient features—such as improved insulation, energy-efficient appliances, and sometimes even renewable energy sources like solar panels. These features not only reduce the carbon footprint of each unit but also contribute to the overall energy efficiency of the building. 

Furthermore, the high-density nature of micro unit developments can make them more amenable to sustainable urban infrastructure—such as public transportation and community green spaces—further reducing the reliance on carbon-intensive modes of transport.

Reduced Resource Consumption

Micro-living also promotes reduced resource consumption in various ways. The limited space encourages residents to adopt a minimalist lifestyle—owning fewer material possessions and consequently generating less waste. This aspect of micro living aligns with the principles of a circular economy, where resource use is minimized, and waste is reduced.

In addition, the smaller space in micro units leads to lower water usage, as there are fewer areas like large bathrooms or extensive kitchen facilities that typically consume significant amounts of water. Several studies have found that simply limiting the square footage of a home can reduce energy consumption. According to Olivia Young in an article published by Treehugger last year, “reducing a home’s per-capita floor size by just 20% could reduce the emissions from building that home by 50% to 60%.” The design and construction of these units also often include water-saving fixtures and appliances—aligning with broader environmental sustainability goals.

The environmental benefits of micro units extend beyond the individual apartments to the community and urban level. By promoting higher-density living, micro units can contribute to more efficient land us— preserving natural spaces and reducing urban sprawl. This approach to urban development can play a critical role in creating more sustainable cities, where the balance between built environments and natural ecosystems is carefully maintained.

Micro Units in Philadelphia

Emergence and Popularity

Back in 2015, Alterra Property Group funded the development of Philly’s first series of 300 square foot micro units, with many priced under $1,500 per month. According to Megan Ritchie Jooste in this article for Curbed, renters would also enjoy “amenities such as a doorman and fitness club.” Since then, the micro unit craze has picked up speed in Philadelphia and other major cities in the Northeast.

In today’s Philadelphia, the emergence and growing popularity of micro units reflect a broader trend in urban housing that responds to changing demographics, economic factors, and lifestyle preferences. These compact living spaces have gained traction in the city—particularly among young professionals, students, and others attracted to urban living but constrained by budget. The appeal of micro units in Philadelphia lies in their affordability and prime location—offering a viable alternative to traditional, more expensive housing options in the city’s bustling neighborhoods.

Philadelphia’s urban landscape—characterized by a mix of historic architecture and modern developments—has been adapting to accommodate the trend of micro living. Developers are increasingly recognizing the potential of micro units to meet the demand for affordable, well-located housing. This shift is evident in several neighborhoods, where micro units are being developed to cater to those who value location and urban amenities over spacious living quarters.

Adapting Urban Landscape and Housing Market

The housing market in Philadelphia is adapting to the micro living trend by incorporating these units into new developments and retrofitting existing buildings. This adaptation is part of a larger strategy to address the city’s housing affordability issues while catering to the preferences of a population that values urban convenience. The integration of micro units is also seen as a way to enhance the diversity of housing options available in the city—making it more inclusive for different income levels and lifestyles.

Micro units in Philadelphia are often designed with the city’s unique character in mind, blending modern, space-efficient features with the historical charm for which the city is known. This approach not only preserves the aesthetic appeal of neighborhoods but also ensures that new developments are in harmony with the existing urban fabric.

Final Thoughts About the Viability of Micro Apartments for Residents and Developers

From Austin to Philadelphia to NYC, micro units are becoming more popular and more viable as sources of affordable housing in the nation’s most desirable cities. The compact design and efficient use of space that micro units offer cater to the growing demand for affordable and practical living spaces in densely populated cities. By prioritizing location and community amenities over square footage, micro units provide an attractive option for individuals seeking an urban lifestyle at a lower cost. 

The minimalist approach inherent in micro living encourages a shift towards sustainability and simplicity—aligning with broader environmental goals. For developers, the construction of micro units presents a financially viable model—maximizing land use and offering potential for higher returns on investment. In terms of maintenance—both for residents and property managers—these units offer the benefit of ease and cost-effectiveness.

Micro Units in the Evolving Urban Landscape

Looking towards the future of urban living, micro units appear to be an increasingly relevant and necessary part of city housing landscapes—particularly in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, and New York. As urban areas continue to grapple with issues of housing affordability, density, and sustainability, micro units provide a practical solution. They offer a way to utilize limited urban space more efficiently while providing affordable housing options.

In Philadelphia, the integration of micro units is already underway—indicating a recognition of their potential to enhance the city’s housing market. As Philadelphia continues to grow and evolve, the flexibility and affordability of micro units make them well-suited to meet the diverse needs of its urban population. These units are not just a temporary trend but a reflection of a larger shift in how we conceptualize urban living—a shift towards maximizing utility and efficiency without sacrificing quality of life.

Micro units represent a significant development in urban housing, offering benefits that extend to residents, developers, and the broader urban environment. As cities like Philadelphia adapt to changing demographic and economic landscapes, micro units have a key role in the future of urban living—providing a sustainable, affordable, and adaptable solution to the challenges of modern city life.

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