Micro-apartments: rethinking sustainable housing

Different homes for different households is key, says expert

Micro-apartments: rethinking sustainable housing


By Ryan Johnson

A global sustainable living expert has called for a responsible approach to developing micro-apartments to meet the diverse needs of a growing population.

In the face of a global housing crisis where an increasing population battles against a lack of viable living space, micro-apartments are increasingly touted as a potential solution.

But as Colin Chee (pictured above), founder of sustainable living advocacy company Never Too Small, argues, the conversation around these tiny dwellings needs a major shift.

Chee suggested moving beyond the term housing affordability and embracing housing accessibility. This reframes the issue to encompass not just financial barriers, but also the needs of diverse populations, including:

  • People with disabilities and older individuals
  • Low-income individuals and families
  • Those requiring larger living spaces

“Of course, a micro-apartment is not the sole answer to tackle the broader issues of housing accessibility, but it can be part of the bigger picture,” said Chee. “We need different types of housing solutions for people from various backgrounds and different household types.”

Micro-living: The enduring allure of cities

With Australia being among the least densely populated countries in the world, the conversation around high-density living may seem counterintuitive at first glance.

However, when you consider that over 70% of the Australia’s 25.6 million inhabitants live in its 10 largest cities, according to the ABS, the conversation begins to carry more weight.

Given Australia’s population is expected to grow to 45.9 million by 2071, the need for city living will likely become more crucial as time goes on.

“People like to live in cities,” said Chee. “Humans have always desired to live in close proximity to each other since the beginning of our existence.”

Chee said good urban planning therefore played a crucial role in making micro-living successful.

“We cannot build micro-apartments where there’s no access to amenities, public space, or public transport; it's simply inhumane.”

Why Australia’s cities need diverse housing

While the need for high-density designed cities will likely increase over time, does embracing living in an apartment under 32 square meters automatically mean sacrificing quality for size? The answer, like most things in life, isn't black and white.

While the idea of living in a shoebox might raise eyebrows, Chee emphasised that design is the true differentiator.

“A well-designed micro-apartment can be comfortable and liveable for single or duo residents. The problem is that we are giving too much power to developers in Australia to do as they please,” Chee said.

“Rather than focusing on creating housing, we are generating investment products, churning out many uninhabitable micro-apartments that give the public a bad impression that small living means poor quality of life.”

This can be seen in the lack of family-friendly housing in city centres, with only 14% of apartments having three bedrooms or more according to a 2021 study.

In many cities across Australia, if you have a family and need a larger space, you are forced to move to the suburbs.

“This results in our cities becoming demographic havens for young singles or couples, while suburbs are filled with families,” said Chee.

“There’s no diversity in terms of household sizes. If policymakers put restrictions in place and use big data to predict the direction of our population, we can limit the number of micro-apartments, small apartments, and medium-sized apartments within our cities.”

Chee said this data can be communicated to developers, allowing them to cater to market demand.

“It's essentially stocktaking - understanding our population and then providing different types of housing to meet their needs,” he said.

“Otherwise, we risk having too many small apartments in the city, which may become transient housing, making our cities vulnerable and less resilient to challenges, such as the times we faced during the COVID pandemic.”

Customisable micro-apartment living

Small living should be adaptive and customisable, according to Chee, catering to individual lifestyles and needs.  

“We often think the biggest challenge for people living in small spaces is storage. When developers build small apartments, they often fill them with ample storage, thinking they are doing a good job,” Chee said.  

“However, there's no consideration for the residents' lifestyle, culture, and well-being. We all live different lives; we all have different needs in our multicultural country.”

For example, if you give an empty 32sqm floorplan to a journalist, a nurse, and someone in a wheelchair, they would likely come up with very different floorplans because of their different lifestyle needs.

A journalist might need a lot of storage for books, a nice table facing the window to write, and a comfortable lounge chair to read.

A nurse might prioritise a comfortable place to relax after work, with a large sofa and TV;  while low storage access and an L-shaped open kitchen  without overhead storage and a kitchen island would be ideal for wheelchair access.

Chee said it’s entirely doable in a 32sqm space, and the trick was “not to overdesign the apartment”.

However, current regulations often require developers to complete projects with a set limit of storage or joinery for a large fridge and washing machine.

“In many cases, it's an afterthought in design,” Chee said. “Developers use the same design and replicate it throughout the development, resulting in inflexibility and a poor quality of living in small spaces.”

Ditching cookie-cutter apartments for shells

In order to cater to the diverse needs of the population within apartments, developers and designers would need a different approach.

Chee said there were many examples from other countries that show that when you buy an apartment, you're buying a shell.

“Developers provide a basic kitchen, basic bathroom, power points, and water access if you want a washing machine,” Chee said. “This can make the cost of building an apartment more affordable and customisable to suit your own need.”

“With this approach, you move in and take your time to furnish it gradually, making the space fit you rather than you having to fit into the small space.”

Technological advancements and more products designed for small space living are making micro-apartments seem more appealing for many people, not only young individuals but also singles and the aging population.

Chee urged Australian developers and planners to look at examples like Singapore and Europe for how they do small footprint living and urban design.

“We all need to start talking about it together because housing is a global issue and it’ll better inform the Australian public about small footprint living,” Chee said.

“Affordability, yes, accessibility even more so. Only then do we know we are housing our people sustainably, ensuring well-being for our people and playing our role as responsible custodians for our nature.”

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