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Thanks to Hugh in New Jersey and Mark in San Francisco for alerting me to some of the micro-living news the world seemed to be awash with last week. There was global incredulity over the 4,500-bed hive dormitory proposed for University of California – Santa Barbara. Already horrendous as an idea, it became worse the more one learned about it. These images are from the Santa Barbara Independent.

With an area of 1,680,000 sq.ft, the population density works out at 28,830 persons/ which is greater than Port-au-Prince in Haiti but less than Dhaka in Bangladesh (at 27,395 and 29,069 persons/ respectively).

Rooms are organized into clusters of eight around a communal table, shared kitchen and two single-person bathrooms.

Eight clusters are then grouped into “Houses” sharing a corridor with vertical access at one end and a communal living room and fire escape at the other. Eight “houses” are then grouped to configure the building. It has the cold logic of an air conditioning duct system layout.

Or a slave ship. [c.f. Cold Logic vs. Warm Logic]

It’s probably a coincidence this hit the news while the COP26 UN Climate Summit was happening in Glasgow but it did make me wonder what the operational energy of this building would be for full-time artificial illumination, air conditioning and mechanical ventilation. I’m also assuming each living room has an adjacent laundry room and that all laundry will be dried by dryer. It might be an idea to give the bath-towels a daily spin.

A different approach to student housing.

All the good things about windows are due to them being on external walls. I know some internal cabins on cruise liners have fake windows that have projections of the ocean view you haven’t paid to see for real. [c.f. Machine for Living]

And there’s also a clever kind of fake skylight that illuminates with rays of light that are parallel, not radial, and this too has its uses. [c.f. The Sheltering Sky]

Windows are great for free ventilation and illumination but they also transmit sound and allow us to see the world outside and make us feel connected to it. This is good, psychologically speaking. If I’m going to be living in a building with 4,449 others, then I’d like them all to be well-balanced and happy people, unstressed and with no personality issues or social grievances.

News of that building killed some of the shock value of two other articles last week, one from the US and the other from the UK. Both had to do with the decreasing size of apartments. In last week’s post I mentioned the Bloomberg article from Nov. 9, regretting that stopgap buildings were being built in response to a problem but that the buildings themselves merely shrank an existing typology and gave no thought to what might have been wrong with the existing typology, what problems shrinking a poor typology might exacerbate, or what new ones it might cause. The article had the following photograph of a 220 sq.ft (20.4 sq.m) apartment. That sunlit window and balcony are now looking pretty good.

When ArchDaily wants to tell us about 10 Tiny and Under 38 sq.m Apartments we can be pretty sure that they’re already unachievable for most people. Articles about tiny apartments usually contain interviews with people saying their 20 sq.m apartment is something to be tolerated for a few years and then moved on from but maybe one day we’ll aspire to have 20 sq.m to call our own. We really need to be giving this some thought now.

Over in the UK people are giving it some thought and this is what they’ve come up with. It’s basically putting a bed in the same room with a noise-producing source of heat (the boiler, the radiator) and coolth (the refrigerator), and a source of moisture and odors (the sink – which doubles as washbasin).

  • It’s always tragic seeing British micro flats with a full-size oven, as if not having a place to roast a joint of beef is an indicator of poverty..
  • Despite the array of kitchen knives and collection of timber stirrers, I don’t imagine much boiling or frying happening in this room as there’s not even a recirculating extractor hood and fan.
  • I hope that boiler is electric but, even if it is, the radiator will gurgle.
  • It’s nice to see a full-size washer-dryer but, without any space inside or outside to dry clothes, using the dryer will mean at least hour of noise and a humidity spike. Drying everything above the radiator will be quieter but all that moisture still has to go somewhere.

The UK already has some rather shabby apartments converted from office buildings [c.f. Heroes and Villains] It’s said the price per square meter of an apartment like this is more expensive because the cost of providing heating, water and plumbing is not directly proportional to size. The same was said of tiny apartments in Hong Kong. This sounds like a license to print money and one of the UK’s large-volume housebuilder companies is poised to enter the market soon with a micro-apartment offering. These companies aren’t in the building business as a social service so I’m not expecting the product to be any better than what we see above. The bar is already set very low and it’s going to stay low if articles such as the Bloomberg one keep quoting people’s low expectations of an exploitative housing product.

Architects aren’t being much help either. If it’s not Sir Norman foster designing apartments for billionaires, it’s architects with Archdailyable ideas for 38 sq.m apartments. Neither are what we’re going to be needing.

Already, The Guardian article tells me, the median area of UK apartments of less than 37 sq.m is 29 sq.m. It’s just a race to the bottom now. This is a problem architects should be applying themselves to. It’s not that they haven’t in the past. Almost one hundred years ago, the former Soviet Union was a hotspot for housing research, much of it for comradely communal housing.

A century later the West flirted with communal housing as privately supplied and rented accommodation called co-living since co-housing implied long-term.

In 1964, foreign journalists attending the Tokyo Olympics, likened Japanese houses to “rabbit hutches”, a criticism that stung then and has never been forgotten. In the 1980s this next apartment would have been thought small at around 30 sq.m but we can now see they were just forty years ahead of the curve. Compared to the offerings in the English-speaking countries today, a lot of thought has gone into how people are going to live in 30 sq.m. I expect similar amount of thought is going into apartments much smaller now.

All the hard work has already been done. People have worked out what works and what doesn’t. Here’s two successful ways to not put a bed in a kitchen. The one on the left looks like it’s about 28 sq.m and the one on the right possibly 40 but could be done in less and still be quite a nice place to live.

This next I’m copying and pasting from my post on Riken Yamamoto. ROOM 3 isn’t large at about 30 sq.m but it looks livable and that there’s more to it than a place to sleep. In other words, IT’S BEEN THOUGHT ABOUT. It might be time for the active band. [c.f. The Active Band]

These small apartments have their kitchens and bathrooms against the window. I think this is more for the benefit of the people inside than the ones outside. In these more introspective spaces, it’s good to be reminded why one bothers showering and having breakfast, etc. Outside society matters less in the living space.

I hope so but the good ideas aren’t necessarily the ones that find favor, or even win one of the monthly micro-house or micro-apartment competitions we seem to be having these days. We don’t need any more ideas for compact living in tiny houses in the countryside when what we need is ideas for how people can live with dignity in smaller dwellings that are packed and stacked.

This next page image is of a small project I did in 2003. The brief was to provide overnight accommodation and some sort of meeting room for corporate training and bonding. The rural site in Kent, England, had a canopy of trees and clear views to wheat fields beyond. I didn’t want these views obscured by conventional cabins. The leopard print idea is courtesy of Edouard François.

This will be my basic living unit but all floors don’t have to be stacked. I want to see how closely I can pack them in a cluster of maybe twelve, and without sacrificing visual privacy or private outdoor space at ground level. I’d like it to be better than this example you saw last week, and aspire to Ricardo Bofill’s experiments with cellular planning.

I could always arrange my four-story houses and equivalent amounts of open space in a chessboard pattern, give each outer wall one window at one end and then pinwheel those windows around the open space so that no window looked directly into another’s despite being 3–5 meters away. With this arrangement, no apartment would share a wall with another and every floor could be cross ventilated in two directions. My first thought however, was something more loosely packed.

The next morning before theory class I managed to fit in four more units.

The same floors are arranged in several ways and with some shared walls, floors and roofs. Let’s say 32 persons live in sixteen apartments occupying a site that’s 725 sq.m. That’s approx. 44,000 persons per square kilometer, a figure already higher than the population density of Manila in The Philippines (41,515) [in 2015] .

It turned out okay. Its 39.4 sq.m of internal area provides up to three people with four different places to be, and at a density one third higher than that Santa Barbara vertical farm for students.

I did try that chessboard arrangement after all. It’s harsh, but rotationally symmetrical plans and windows might come in handy one day. The triangular windows need to be made opeable but they’re not a design affectation. When windows are pinwheeled around a light well less than four meters wide, it makes sense to have the largest part of the window adjacent to the wall where it reveals least of the room to an observer opposite. It’s an alternative to the vertical slit windows that would probably happen.

The grid lines are 3.9m apart, defining areas of 15.21 sq.m. Each unit shares an equivalent area on four sides with the three other units on each side so the total area required to make these work is another 15.21 sq.m. Let’s say that’s 30.5 sq.m of land per three people, giving a population density of over 98,000 persons / which is more than double that of Manila.


  • Wow, the spaces shown in your first (non-checkerboard) scheme are actually quite beautiful and I could see myself living there quite pleasantly. I think it’s the variety and sense of identity that the looser arrangement allows.

    • Thanks Dan, I was surprised too to find that, when I calculated the density, the environment was nicer than I expected. My proposal still has a few things to be resolved but, living in close promity to other people is something we need to get used to, and it shouldn’t feel forced. Cheers, Graham.

  • You’re quite welcome and thanks for the acknowledgment. I agree that a 1-3 person, grown-up dwelling unit should be around 500 sf. Mostly based on the kitchen/bath v. dry space separation for the environmental reasons you pointed out. But, I do like the dorm floor plate. I seem to be in the minority. Based on a construction type of 4 or higher, egress windows from sleeping rooms below the 4th floor are not required. I checked the CA code. I read in the pro-dorm propaganda, that interviews were done with the user pool, and upwards of 70% are ok with windowless bedrooms, considering it’s predominantly a nighttime function. The end caps WITH windows between the exterior stair towers, seem to double as solariums in addition to exit passageways. I’m guessing it was argued that these are common places of refuge where students can escape to for natural light and fresh air. Think Orangerie at Versailles. No doubt, each house will have its own unique theme. Everything from historical architecture to the Houses of Hogwarts. I can also hear Munger espousing how exterior stairs are good even though they the take away from valuable, rentable frontage. This was the sentiment of a lot of laypeople post WTC 911. Just my 2 cents and as you know, I want to reorganize the world into life-size microchips. 😛