Micro-lofts looking to make the jump from cities to suburbs

20 March 2019 Consulting.ca 4 min. read
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Two architects from Edmonton-headquartered design and engineering consultancy Stantec recently discussed whether the trend of micro-lofts has the legs to jump from urban to suburban settings.

Micro-lofts are exactly what they seem, and exist predominantly due to urban population constraints such as living costs and space - all while real wages stagnate, especially for millennials. Though people might rationalize that tiny living spaces are “cool” or have “smart design,” if given the choice, they would rather a bigger living space than some of these sub-300-square-foot lofts. Micro-lofts are a reflection of the specter of urban expense and stalled millennial wage-earning and family-building. 

According to Detroit-based Stantec architect Justin Wieber, speaking in an “Ideas” series blog post on the consulting firm’s website, there was a demographic shift in 2005 wherein a large volume of young urban professionals began to seek full-amenity, affordable apartments. The early studio apartments that answered this demand averaged around 450 square feet, but as costs have risen, these options have become more scarce. Some micro-lifts have been pushing the minimal area of 285 square feet, leveraging innovative design, disappearing beds, and modular furniture to make the tight space work.

Boston-based Stantec architect Aeron Hodges highlights that the driving force for micro-lofts is low-paid millennials who want to live in costly urban centres. “Millennials and young professionals don’t have high starting salaries but still want the experience and accessibility of living in a city," he wrote. 

Micro-lofts looking to make the jump from cities to suburbs

Although micro-loft units sell and rent very quickly, they sometimes experience community opposition, possibly because they attract a millennial population to the neighbourhood rather than stable families. “In the past, we’ve seen projects with low neighborhood approval impact the feasibility of a project,” Hodges wrote. The firm has since worked to improve the public’s perception of micro-units, touring a portable, full-scale micro-loft mock-up and lobbying for policy changes to allow for micr-units to be built in suburban Boston.

It would comes as no surprise to have the value proposition of micro-lofts to have no place outside of urban centres, but developers have already begun trialing in suburban areas, where housing can also be expensive. Though there is less of the hustle and bustle of urbanity – restaurants, bars, theatres, a younger population – that cause millennials to plunk down cash to rent or buy a micro-unit, suburban developments can work if they fulfill certain conditions.

“I think the urban versus suburban debate for micro-lofts depends on transportation and amenity accessibility,” Hodges said. “I believe micro-lofts work well in any area, as long as there are reliable transportation options and at least a couple urban amenities – [a] grocery store, restaurant[s] – nearby.”

With high demand for studio and micro-spaces, amid a surging millennial population looking for single - or double-occupancy units and having children much later in life, design teams and developers have been trialing the units in the suburbs, where they would presumably be even cheaper.

Stantec’s design for the Amber of 11 development in suburban Detroit, which opened earlier this year, included micro-studio units that ranged from 285 to 360 square feet. According to Wieber, the focus demographic for these micro-units is widening from millennials and yuppies to travelling corporate executives and snowbirds, with the latter two groups presumably tolerating the smaller living spaces because they would spend long stretches of time elsewhere. Stantec also worked with the developer on another suburban Detroit 3-story residential building, which has units ranging from 355-665 square feet. The building, Amber Studio and Lofts, is slated to open in late 2019.

Although some developers might be hesitant to pilot micro-units in the suburbs, Wieber argues that it’s not so outlandish a prospect.“For developers, although the cost per square foot may be more to construct a compact multifamily facility in respect to building with larger rentable spaces, the niche of renters looking for micro-units are typically willing to pay higher rental rates for the typical short-term lease agreements,” he wrote.

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