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Living Large on a Small Footprint

Engineers at MIT seek to make housing more affordable by reducing unit size without making the apartments feel smaller.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions

Engineers at MIT’s Media Lab may soon offer cities another lever to increase both workforce housing and urban density. The CityHome is a transformable wall system that integrates furniture, storage, exercise equipment, lighting, office space, and entertainment hardware. Critically, the CityHome is both modular and scalable: it is smart architecture that can be inserted into a “dumb” chassis, thereby relieving risk-averse developers from up-front overhead costs.

The physical constraints on housing

To consider how the CityHome could help increase the housing supply for families making between 60% and 120% of area median income, it is useful to think of workforce housing as a three-dimensional geometry problem. The first two dimensions refer to area: what plots of land are suitable for affordable development. This suitability is constrained by public transit access, which is usually critical for workforce families, and by the ability of developers to aggregate enough parcels for large-scale construction. Infrastructure investment and innovative policies such as graduated density zoning could help alleviate these respective shortfalls, but they are long-term initiatives that cannot bridge current housing shortfalls.

If the first two dimensions are area, the third is density: how many workforce residents can be housed on a plot of land. This is constrained by the percentage of space that is required to be affordable, by zoning and community restrictions on height, and, critically, by the size of the units. Despite champions like Professor Edward Glaeser, economist and urban policy expert at Harvard, few cities seem ready to construct buildings tall enough, and sufficiently free of distortionary price ceilings, to ramp up housing supply.

The lever with the most torque

The remaining input is the size of the units themselves. Research by the Urban Land Institute demonstrates that a Boston workforce family of three with the area median income and the typical minimum space requirement –– about 900 ft2 –– would be excluded from all mid-rise and high-rise apartments in the city. In a CityHome, though, the functionality of 900 ft2 can be achieved with 450 ft2: this engineering feat just priced the family of three into both mid-rise and high-rise developments in Boston’s scorching housing market.

So long as developers meet basic safety and wellness criteria such as window access and means of egress, policy-makers could be open to this approach, says Arthur Jemison, the Deputy Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development for Massachusetts. For example, if developers could demonstrate to regulators that a 900 ft2 3BR CityHome was functionally equivalent to a 1,200 ft2 apartment, which is the Commonwealth’s net square footage minimum for a 3BR, then real estate for 20 rentals suddenly becomes enough for 26. More units at accordingly lower prices benefits both the developers, who reap higher marginal returns, and those six families who would otherwise still be looking.

Efficiency and responsiveness

But would 900 ft2 really feel like 1,200? Hasier Larrea, the engineer directing the project at MIT, says yes. “We don’t care about big spaces,” Larrea says, “we care about big experiences.” The CityHome team has created a “big experience” through a relentless focus on efficiency and responsiveness. A hand wave towards a sensor stows a fully made bed and unfolds a study; walls moves to expand the bathroom, kitchen, or living room depending upon the activity.

The CityHome will be a platform that residents program through their everyday lives. They may customize them initially by selecting one suite out of a variety of options that favors their lifestyle, but sensors embedded in the furniture and hardware will be learning algorithms that evolve to predict how and when they will be used.

Data-smart home ecosystems are further down the road. Both Larrea, the engineer, and Jemison, the policy-maker, agree that gaining traction for the basic model in student housing may offer the most promising start. College freshmen present stable and adaptable housing demand in known configurations and are free of the political charge associated with housing for families. They are also a perennial headache for cities like Boston, which struggle to contain their burgeoning numbers every autumn. The best way to introduce a tech-savvy generation to living in cities may be to make them the pilots of the CityHome approach to urban density.