If you want to talk tiny housing in Boston, talk with Tamara Roy. A principal at the architecture firm Stantec and past president of the Boston Society of Architects, Roy is perhaps the city’s chief evangelist for making so-called “microunits” part of the solution to Boston’s housing crisis. Building small — think 400-square-foot studios — can help get childless 20-somethings out of three-deckers built for families, put aging seniors into something a little easier to maintain, and even help temper Boston’s astronomical housing costs.That’s the concept that Roy has been working on in recent years. She’s tried it in college dorms such as the MassArt Tree House, and the Seaport’s swanky-on-a-budget Yotel hotel, scheduled to open later this year. Increasingly, microunits are catching on in larger projects aimed at everyday Bostonians, both fancy downtown towers and standalone “accessory” units that might fit in a Roslindale backyard. If it’s micro and it’s happening anywhere in Boston, Roy — once dubbed “the mother of the microunit” by a client — probably knows about it.
1. Roy has practiced what she preaches, at least for a little while. While in graduate school in Amsterdam, Roy, her husband, and their newborn baby lived in a 300-square-foot apartment. Today, they live in Arlington, where they’ve raised two teenagers in a still-modest 1,100-square-foot Dutch Colonial. But the experience of living small stuck with them, and, she said, they might go back to that lifestyle once the kids are on their own.
“It was fantastic. We were literally right in the center of town. There’s cafés, movie theaters, shopping. All of it you can walk to. We just had to figure out how to fit that cute little kid in there. But it’s a city that’s totally welcoming to families. It’s just designed differently.”
2. She spent last summer touring Boston to show off the city’s “urban housing unit,” or uHu, a 385-square-foot apartment on wheels she helped design. It was a test run to drum up interest and gauge support for smaller housing in neighborhoods. She fielded a lot of questions but didn’t need to do much convincing.
“There’s a growing movement toward small housing here. We have such a shortage that if you build it, there will be demand. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time persuading people it was a good idea. Mostly, the question was ‘How much does this cost?’ ” (The answer: About $70,000, plus land. Or one-fourth the cost to build a typical new apartment.)
3. Roy just wrapped up a year as president of the board of the Boston Society of Architects. The volunteer post gave her a bully pulpit to talk microhousing but also gave her license to call up and quiz interesting people in local development. It’s something she plans to keep doing, even post-BSA.
“I would set aside my Fridays for that. Someone would say, ‘You’ve got to talk to so and so,’ and we’d set it up. I’ve met so many people who aren’t architects. Planners, developers, people from the uHu. I had 200 of those conversations in a year. So I’ve continued to do that. I hold half a day on Friday just to meet people.”
4. Next up is a tiny hotel, or Yotel. Roy designed the Yotel Boston, which is under construction on a sliver of a site in the Seaport. Its 326 rooms measure about 17 feet by 10 feet — about half the standard size. The idea is to offer guests a stylish place to stay for less money than a regular luxury hotel.
“It’s bigger than any Japanese capsule hotel you’d ever see. My husband and I went to the Yotel in New York just to understand how it works, and it’s very livable. They have this futon bed that’s a sofa during the day and rolls out. There are glass walls around the bathroom. They do a lot of things with design to make the room feel bigger.”
5. Roy and Stantec are now working on One Charlestown, the massive bid to remake the Boston Housing Authority’s Bunker Hill development. Developers plan to triple the number of apartments in the 13-block public housing complex, using about 2,200 market-rate units to fund the replacement of 1,100 apartments for some of Boston’s poorest residents, all while replicating the look and feel of the surrounding neighborhood. If it works, it could be a model for more large-scale re-dos of public housing in Boston.
“I’m looking for things that can be a prototype to solve really big problems and big challenges. This one, to me, is really a visionary approach. It’s not like we’re going to get the Trump administration to put more federal money into public housing than the Obama administration did. And there’s just a greater and greater need for people working at low-wage jobs to have access to decent housing in Boston.”Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.