Business & Tech

Boston taking 385-square-foot apartment for a spin

The prototype 385-square-foot apartment will be touring the city over the next few weeks.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The prototype 385-square-foot apartment will be touring the city over the next few weeks.

Tiny houses are coming to a neighborhood near you.

The City of Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab is about to kick off a roadshow for something it’s hoping might be part of the solution to the city’s massive housing crunch. It’s called uHu, for Urban Housing Unit, and it’s a 385-square-foot modular house that sells for $75,000 -- seven times cheaper than the average condo in Boston.

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Tiny houses, you may have heard, are all the rage. And they’re something the Walsh Administration hopes can put a dent in their goal of 53,000 new housing units in the city by 2030. But first, they need to convince Bostonians. That’s what uHu is for.

Designed by Addison Godine with LiveLight LLC and Tamara Roy, president of the Boston Society of Architects, the unit is a showpiece of what tiny-house living can be in Boston today. Friday, we got a peek inside. Here’s what what we learned.

With a glass double door as one of its walls, the uHu is a bright place to live.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

With a glass double door as one of its walls, the uHu is a bright place to live.

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Design matters: At least on a sunny day outside City Hall, the uHu looks like a nice place to live. One full wall is a glass double door, so the place is bright. Open the doors in front and back and you get a nice cross breeze through a wide hallway. Laid out right, 385 square feet is enough room for three distinct sections to the place — bedroom, hallway, and living room — plus a bathroom, with room for closests and a kitchen. And there are lots of space-savers, from pocket doors to high shelves to a projector hanging from the ceiling, so you can watch TV on a pulldown screen instead a bulky stand.

Space-saving design helps the uHu seem larger than it is.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Space-saving design helps the uHu seem larger than it is.

So does price: The display model cost about $75,000 to build, including furniture. At full-scale production, designers said they could push costs down to somewhere between $40,000 and $70,000 a pop. That’s a lot cheaper than building a typical apartment in Boston, which can run about $300 to $400 per square foot, or $300,000 or more for a 1,000-square-foot two bedroom. Those savings could translate into rents, or sale prices, more regular Bostonians can afford.

The uHu’s living room features a couch that can be pulled out into a bed.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The uHu’s living room features a couch that can be pulled out into a bed.

You’ve seen these before: In fact, Boston already has thousands of tiny apartments. Four-hundred square-foot studios are fairly common in older neighborhoods such as Beacon Hill and the North End. But they can run more than $2,000 a month. Lately micro-units have become a popular feature in new buildings in the Seaport. And developer Urban Spaces is about to open a building of small studios on Commonwealth Ave. in Allston, though Boston University is renting the whole thing for two years as a dorm. Yet new ones are banned in much of the city by zoning rules that forbid studios smaller than 500 square feet.

The Walsh Administration hopes tiny houses can put a dent in their goal of 53,000 new housing units in the city by 2030.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Walsh Administration hopes tiny houses can put a dent in their goal of 53,000 new housing units in the city by 2030.

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They’re not just for the kids: A key part of the pitch city officials hope to make is that compact living isn’t just for 20-somethings who are never home anyway. They’re framing uHu as a workable home for senior citizens, couples, even single parents (though we’re not sure where you’d stow the kid at bedtime). And they’re designed to be combined. You can bolt two units together and, voila, a 770-square-foot two-bedroom.

The uHu’s bedroom has a curtain for privacy.

David L Ryan, Globe Staff

The uHu’s bedroom has a curtain for privacy, or as much privacy as a 385-square-foot apartment can offer.

They won’t get built without community support: In most of the city, these houses would need zoning variances, which means they won’t get built if the neighbors don’t like them. Hence the roadshow. uHu, conveniently mounted on a trailer, will spend the next few months in neighborhoods from Mattapan to East Boston. It’s a way for residents to pop in, see what all the fuss is about, and decide for themselves if they’d like to see something like this next door. “There’s a lot of conversations that need to happen about this,” said Housing Lab co-manager Susan Nguyen. “And nothing’s better for starting that than a tangible experience.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.
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