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Housing design: Let 1,000 micro-units bloom

A Seaport District micro-unit’s bathroom. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

BOSTON HAS a housing shortage. It also has, by some accounts, the highest number of architects per capita in the country. Together, these two facts should make the city a hotbed of creativity in the design of micro-apartments — small but livable units geared toward people of modest means. So far, though, the City of Boston has allowed only a limited trial in the pricey Seaport District. But if the city took a lighter touch, and let local architects’ imaginations flower, the housing that resulted might look much different from what city government would prescribe.

Designing an apartment for a recent graduate with a modest income involves different priorities than designing for a couple with two kids. Earlier this year, a group of young employees at the Boston architecture firm ADD Inc. unveiled a prototype apartment that compresses the necessities of life into 300 square feet — but still has room for in-unit bike parking. One can envision even more radical possibilities: At last year’s TEDxBoston conference, Kent Larson of the MIT Media Lab hinted at how movable walls could allow the same limited space to do multiple duty as a bedroom, home office, and living room.


Other dense, expensive cities sense opportunities. By liberally interpreting its own development rules, Seattle has actively encouraged plans in which several micro-units share a single kitchen. In New York, where the tradeoff between space and affordability is even more daunting than in Boston, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sponsored an architecture competition for apartments of 270 to 350 square feet. The winning entry involved prefabricated units that can be stacked together like Legos.

Boston is charting a narrower path. The city’s foray into micro-housing is built around a concept called “innovation units,” which must involve common living and working spaces that, planners hope, will yield chance meetings and fruitful collaboration. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has expressed concern that developers will skimp on common spaces that the agency views as crucial. The city could address that concern by providing better incentives for micro-unit designers — for example, the leeway to exceed height limits and other development restrictions if they include shared amenities.


Boston’s hesitation on smaller units provides an opening for communities such as Quincy — a close-in city served by rapid-transit. Well-designed micro-units would build up density in city centers, bringing new customers into businesses, and making entire areas more attractive as retail and entertainment destinations. Boston, too, should recognize its housing crunch as not only a policy problem, but also an architecture challenge.