Thursday, April 24, 2014

Per Capita Davis: Living small


From page A4 | February 21, 2013 | Leave Comment

For your reading pleasure (I hope), a bunch of small items sent in by readers or culled from various news sources over the last little while.

Small is beautiful (in the eye of the beholder): What do you do if you live in a city that’s surrounded on all sides either by other cities or bodies of water that make it impossible to grow outwards? San Francisco has such a problem, and has been growing vertically, but home prices and apartment rents are still sky-high (pun intended).

The S.F. Board of Supervisors recently OK’d what are reported to be “the nation’s tiniest apartments.” Not content with the old minimum requirement of 290 square feet (that would be 14.5-feet-by-20 feet including kitchen, bathroom and storage space), the supervisors reduced it to 220 square feet (just under 15-by-15). The intent is to lower the cost for a studio apartment from an average of $2,000 down to less than $1,500.

Seems like progress, right? But tenants rights advocates call these “shoebox apartments” and complain that these may be OK for single people but don’t do anything positive for families.

The Big Apple gets smaller: Pointing out that there are nearly 2 million one- and two-person households in the city, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a competition to design buildings with mostly “micro studios” no larger than 300 square feet, including a kitchen, bathroom (with a tub) and a view to the outside (the real outside, not an air shaft). Bloomberg offers the winner the right to build at no charge on a city-owned property in lower Manhattan currently being used as a parking lot.

Going vertical: Davis is a flat city where a three-story home seems giant. Even apartment buildings seem to have some strange natural restriction on height, as if gravity itself places a ceiling over where we live. Breaking through this psychological barrier will be an important part of implementation of the city Climate Action Plan to prevent sprawl, increase density (along with the amenities density can provide — think small café in the neighborhood park), and making it possible to obtain most of what we need in our daily lives via (at most) a 10 minute walk.

News heights in the north: Some innovators up north (think Oregon) are emphasizing the “up” in “start-up” by offering a variety of tree houses to increase living space. There are the usual models — such as the Playhouse, Fortress and Sleeper — aimed more at children but they also produce a Pavilion billed as a “covered retreat for playing, dining, sightseeing, mediation, yoga or your favorite outdoor activity.”

I don’t know about the sightseeing part — the neighbors may not like that so much. But, more to the point in terms of potentially reducing energy usage, they offer an Office model for those who want to work at home. It comes with clerestory windows and other natural lighting features. If you’re interested (and have a tall tree with a suitably straight trunk) you can find more information at

Way out of the box: Dennis Frenchman, an architect and professor of urban planning at MIT, looks at a global population in excess of 9 billion by 2060 and says city planners need to get busy with some really dramatic changes to the buildings we live and work in, as well as how we get back and forth between the two.

Some ideas for the future stretch the concepts of urban density and mixed use. For example, reducing space now used for parking vehicles through creation of a fleet of community-shared electric cars for local trips; the cars able to fold up and stack together when not in use. Or, a “flat tower” that spreads horizontally more than vertically, like an umbrella, with housing for up to 40,000 people. Underneath would be a rail/transit line, recreation facilities, green spaces and all the commercial amenities anyone might need.

For his part, and consistent with the “small is beautiful (in the eye of the beholder)” theme of this column, Frenchman postulates that average apartment size will be about 300 square feet but will not feel cramped because much of the furniture will fold out of walls and what we now consider windows will be convertible to television screens (don’t want to give up that big screen).

An interesting consequence of all these proposals, both real and as imagined by futurists, is the impact they might have on consumption. With living spaces that small, there just won’t be room for lots of “stuff.” Think about downsizing from a typical Davis home to something that is only about 300 square feet, with a combination bedroom/living room/dining room, very, very limited closet and cupboard space, limited wall and shelf space for books and art, and not much room for furniture. That would pretty dramatically limit the amount of personal belongings for the two or even three people living in that space.

And don’t even think about a yard — though the futurists postulate vertical farms that resemble gigantic Ferris wheels for local food production.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis living in a 2,100-square-foot home. This column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to

John Mott-Smith


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