Saturday, April 1, 2017

A Giant Leap Forward Into Tiny Benefits: Bloomberg Micro-Apartment Initiative Shrinkage Grows Under de Blasio

The architectural question in a nutshell: With good design, how much space do people really need to live well?
It’s big news about the value that can be crammed into the what’s small.  Saying that good things can come in small packages is a teeny-weeny, really shrunken-down understatement when good creative design is unleashed to run rampant in terms of what it can accomplish.
Coverage of shrinking Micro-Units and their future from Curbed
Bold new design concepts the de Blasio administration is endorsing for adoption via new NYC Department of City Planning regulatory changes will, as a furthering step, grow the micro-apartment initiative launched by the Bloomberg administration that started back in 2013.  Many will remember how good tiny (“squeezy living”) apartment design was being studied by the Bloomberg administration when Mayor Bloomberg, vying with global warming champion David Koch for the title of wealthiest New Yorker, paced off, with uber-wealthy city planning commissioner Amanda Burden, the smallest space that economically challenged New Yorkers looking to be thrifty could live in.

Why wealthy City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden and mega-billionaire Mayor Michal Bloomberg even have room for company as they searchingly examine to consider the tiniest apartment size fellow New Yorkers might live in.
A design competition held by Bloomberg’s administration led to micro-apartments that have already been built (Monadnock Development’s “Carmel Place”) to receive rave reviews by real estate industry press.   Special permission was given to have apartments of just 275 to 300 square feet ignore what were obviously outmoded tenement-banishing city rules that previously required new apartments built to exceed 400 square feet.  While that was first a trial exception its has been formalized as a new standard.
But shrinking apartments down to 275 or 300 square feet was obviously wasting space when good design can make apartments that are far smaller great fun to occupy while showing off one’s inventiveness.  Having started by thinking of small apartments that were 275 or 300 square feet as the new frontier, officials in the de Blasio administration were profoundly embarrassed to be confronted by the startling elegance of a Paris apartment that was garnering social media attention. That apartment was 8 square meters. . . or, converting from the metric system, it was, in square foot terms, an 86 square foot apartment, not even a third the size of what the Bloomberg set as its goal for what would be a supposedly “micro-apartment.” 
From the viral video of the Paris apartment.  Click if you want to try to enlarge.  It has captions- "Several ways to use the space are possible depending on different needs." "Easy to access"  for the bed in the top cupboard. "Proof that a small space doesn't have to necessarily mean a poor space."
That Paris apartment showed how versatility and good organization can ensure that space that could seem cramped seems humongous instead.  Another advantage: New Yorkers living modern lives and looking to frugally save their money have found that a smart crafty move in many respects is to own less "stuff."

When good design gets unleashed everything with respect to size is relative.  As Shakespear’s Hamlet once told companions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”  Just as the superb ingenuity of the Paris apartment enlarged and made the Paris apartment hugely magnified and spacious, distilled inventiveness the de Blasio administration is fostering is making it possible to make even less space than that seem and and actually be utilized as if it as bigger.

The de Blasio administration decided to advance the achievements of the micro-unit program after the warm reception and good press coverage it got for its continuation of Bloomberg’s shrink-and-sink program for reducing the size of New York City libraries.  That program lets real estate developers willing to work with the de Blasio administration get the benefits of owning most of the real estate previously entrusted to the city for public library use.

Once upon a time, candidate de Blasio running for the office of mayor decried these Bloomberg administration sell offs saying: “once again we see, lurking right behind the curtain, real estate developers who are very anxious to get their hands on these valuable properties.”  More recently, de Blasio has been amplifying his thoughts expressed then saying: “When you think `curtains,' you think theater.  The city is an expectant audience.  What we are doing is raising the curtain dramatically so that the real estate industry can take center stage for us and deliver benefits the way that only the real estate industry can!” 

While these new "minimus-micro-units" will be slightly less expensive than larger apartments, they will, on a square foot basis, charge much higher rents than the higher rents per square foot rents that are being charged for the first micro-units constructed in the city, just as those pioneering small units, charged far higher rents, on a per square foot basis, than for typical larger apartments.  That's partly because the units are, on a square foot basis, more expensive to construct since the reduced general living space, means there is a proportionately higher amount of expensive building infrastructure; HVAC, piping, heating, etc.  However, on the flip side, there will be additional simultaneously costs-saving amenities: Tenants will all have easy access to sumptuous and exquisitely furnished common areas including bathrooms and kitchens with multiple hotplates and microwave ovens.
Fred Astaire in "Royal Wedding"- You get the idea: The trick was that the room rotated, which meant that the cealing and walls became more dance floor space for him for his talented footsteps to multiple over.
There is every reason for renters of the new minimus-micro-units to feel “royal” as they occupy them.  The break through enabling their leap forward in fitting people into space came from an architect working at the Marvel Architects firm, Isadore Doonaut Squrlay.  Until recently, working at SHoP Architects, another firm getting a lot of city project related business, Mr. Squrlay signs his correspondence and memos “Izzy,” but is generally referred to around the office as “I.D.”  “I call it my `Royal” idea” said Mr. Squrlay, “because I got my idea from Fred Astaire, more specifically Fred Astaire in `Royal Wedding.’  Probably everybody remembers the famous scene where Fred Astaire dances around a room, first up the walls and then on the ceiling.  Well I was watching that scene and I realized how every which way it flipped the rooms seemed like a different rooms with a whole lot more space we usually don’t think of using.  And I thought: `Why not do this for real? People could be climbing the walls for real!’”
Either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern could come visit Hamlet.
The round rooms unlock and rotate as desired, shifting based on a person’s weight, rolling on ball bearings, “brass balls,” says Mr. Squrlay, “you really have to have brass balls to do something like this.”

Allowing the units this 360 degree flexibility allows for a incredible versatility.  A ceiling becomes a bed, a few angles over it it's a recliner or props you up to read in bed.  If the rotation is left unlocked occupants can get far more (maximus, maximus) exercise walking miles and miles without stopping, never even needing to change the direction of their tread, although that's possible too; you can tread these miles in either direction.  When walking these miles the storage seats become steps like in a step class making the walk a little like the step classes normally available in ritzy gyms.

With the two storage units that also serve as chairs, the denizens of these units can also have visitors although if Hamlet wanted his school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to visit it would probably be best if they came one at a time.  
The units will be prefab and easy to produce.  Like the units in the first micro-apartment building launched under Bloomberg those prefab units will be built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then stacked by crane at the site.   The round design of the units makes this exceptionally easy, the exact opposite of the problems encountered by Forest City Ratner stacking prefab units to build what was to be its first building at Atlantic Yards (now going by its new alias of “Pacific Park”) where alignment difficulties caused huge problems, interminable construction delays and huge cost overruns.

Because the units are round they can just be dropped into place and then they naturally align taking on a natural hexagonal formation much like a beehive.  “Humans have a lot to learn from nature and the way the insects like bees have organized their living arrangements,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio adding, “It’s no accident that we admiringly refer these as `social insects’.”
Natural hexagonal pattern- Seen in beehive at the right
The units are all required to be precision crafted to uniform size to achieve this perfect hexagonal alignment intended by nature.  That means that different units won't be different sizes for different people, something that has been under discussion as an additional space saver.  In the future different size units could used on an building by building basis, with buildings customized to house differing populations sorted based on the differing stature of individuals in the population.
Units configure an align themselves in a natural pattern
Purnima Kapur, Executive Director of the Department of City Planning, said that the new design presented an intriguing question about calculating the FAR (Floor To Area Ratio) that ordinarily limits building in New York City.  Because the circularity of the units mean that the units technically have no true floor (everything that might be considered floor is also wall and ceiling too) her City Planning department will be able to interpret the regulations that none of these new units need to be counted as using up any of the permitted FAR that normally puts a maximum cap on development although Ms. Kapur did avow that after a period of experiment the department will come up with some restrictions on the maximum size of buildings than can be built containing these units.  Ms. Kapur said that the department’s regulation that the units don’t count against permitted FAR will be a “circular reasoning” regulation.  By the same reasoning, no new laws will be required to launch the program because any laws subjecting units to measurement restrictions don't apply to units that can't be measured (except perhaps by reference to pi- A sort of "pi in the sky program"?).

The city is launching the program with the building of the units in a long list of buildings destined to replace the city’s libraries in all five boroughs. The city’s issuance of Request For Proposals from developers, with specs all detailed by I.D. Squrlay, was issued today, April 1, 2017.