Living Small – Microunits

I read Allison Arieff’s New York Times Opinionator article “How Small is Too Small?” with a somewhat familiar perspective. I live in Manhattan, in a 450 square foot apartment. I get small. But I’d be hard pressed to get smaller.

I grew up in a standard 80s era suburban house on about 3/4 of an acre. I started living in cities at age 24, occupying a 9′ x 10′ room in a 3 bedroom apartment I shared with two guys. The housing struggle is not unique to city dwellers – but the prices are higher for urban space where people line up for housing.

Microunits, dwellings of 160-350 sq feet have been proposed. Many a New Yorker drools over Tiny Amazing Eclectic Spaces videos on YouTube (try this one featuring a 500 sq. ft. apartment): it’s the design that makes the small space palatable. It also can run circles around my budget before one cabinet is installed. In many of the microunit examples in Arieff’s article, design plays a big part. Without the cabinetry and custom pieces to make a small space palatable, pressing a person’s possessions into shrinking apartments speedily turns microunits into the crowded tubercular tenements of years past.

I like her tie-in to the National Association of Home Builder’s growing appetite for additional but meaningless square footage since the 1980s. Sarah Susanka  promoted the Not So Big House which kicked off a movement, promoting living in better space, instead of more space (see my post on the Not So Big Movement). A generation has been sold on the idea that large homes make for happy families. Do you remember Frontier House on PBS, when wealthy family returned from the frontier and moved into their mansion, how detached they all became?

You can tell when a New Yorker arrived in the city. Those who came in the 1960s and 1970s might live in multimillion dollar lofts, those in the 1980s live in 2 bedroom tenements, those who arrive today squash into studios – rent control makes this possible. Good, small space can also begin to address the loss of SROs in some cities (Single Room Occupancy – see my post SRO – The Acronym for Hotel Living). Many SROs were targeted during the early twentieth century as unhygienic and amoral, and their closure led to homelessness for many on the edge of the housing struggle.  Small space can make a good home. Occupy small space, live big.

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.

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