New York's Tiny Prefab Apartments at Carmel Place Have Stories to Tell

Street view image of city skyscrapers against a blue sky

Lloyd Alter/ Outside of Carmel Place

TreeHugger has been covering Carmel Place since it was first proposed by Mayor Bloomberg back in 2012. It pressed a lot of our buttons; it is built with prefabricated modular construction, but it is also an experiment in small space living, being mainly small units under 300 square feet. It was built after a Request for Proposals that was won by a team including nARCHITECTS, and was built by Capsys in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was going to be the first of a new wave of prefab in New York, but may well also be one of the last.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Upper west side of building

The first surprise in seeing this building is how small it is, particularly as it is surrounded by much taller office and apartment buildings. This is can be a problem; prefabrication's promise in making housing more affordable is based on economies of scale along with efficient production in a factory environment. Having the production take place in a lower-cost location helps too. Unfortunately, CAPSYS, the company that built the project, was located in an old building in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, where rents quadrupled in the last few years, forcing the company out. The other prefab factory that built the Pacific Park B2 project is also closing.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Masonry

There is a real learning curve to prefab, and the architects of Carmel Place made what I think is the really smart decision to clad the building in masonry done onsite as it is traditionally. It's hard to get everything lined up perfectly when you take factory built modules and connect them on the building site. The B2 project put the building cladding on in the factory and hoped that they would all fit together perfectly; they did not and disaster ensued. However doing the cladding onsite covers a multitude of sins. Unfortunately they did a terrible job on the masonry, with lousy caulking at the flashings, poor quality control and sloppy repairs like this one where the bricks don't even match. The building looks great from a distance, but don't get too close.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ lobby

However if the whole building is small and the exterior masonry quality iffy, the interior tells a whole different story. That's erstwhile TreeHugger contributor David Friedlander in the distance in what is a vast lobby. To the left is a lovely sunlit fitness center; to the right, elevators and stairs, support services and offices.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Kitchen view

The generosity continues into the units. They are designed to be ADA compliant so the vestibule, bathroom and kitchen are huge by New York standards. In her recent review, Penelope Green of the New York Times described the kitchen as "proportionally, massive. With a 27-square-foot counter, its total zone, if you count the opposite wall, is 84 square feet, more than a quarter of the apartment’s entire volume." There is no built-in oven and only a two burner stove, which Green thought problematic. One of her guests commented:

“If groovy millennials are all about cooking and Instagramming the vegan cheesecakes they are making,” she said later, “how do you live that life with a two-burner stove?” Feh, countered Julia, another of my colleagues. Very few people living alone use their whole stove for cooking or fill their full-size refrigerators, she said. “Many of them use their ovens to store shoes or sweaters.”

And in fact, they have added a countertop toaster oven that is in fact a tiny convection oven; we own the same one and unless you are doing a Thanksgiving turkey, it is adequate, and can certainly handle an instagrammable vegan cheesecake. We have baked pies in it.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Chris Bedsoe demonstrating the bed

A key design feature is Resource Furniture's bed, made by Italy's Clei. We have shown these many times on TreeHugger; Graham Hill put one in his LifeEdited apartment. In Europe, many people who live in nice but tiny urban apartments spend a lot of money on these, rather than move to where they might have more room. Because the bed actually gives you an extra room, turning the living area into a sleeping area. It has a very comfortable mattress that can actually be flipped over, with one side firm and the other soft, depending on your tastes.

credit: Lloyd Alter

The disappearing bed was in the original architects concept, but everything else in the apartment was chosen by Jaqueline Schmidt, director of design for Ollie, the company that manages the market rental units in the building. It's another interesting and perhaps controversial aspect of the project, but one that I think we will be seeing a lot more of. Because it really harkens back to another era, when single people often didn't live in apartments but in residential hotels where there were amenities and services for hire. According to their website,

Ollie revolutionizes the living experience for urban renters with professionally designed, fully-furnished studios and shared suites, lifestyle-relevant services, extraordinary amenity spaces and unique community engagement opportunities.

Ollie's website is full of gorgeous smiling millennials and in fact, that is who they thought would be the primary market for Carmel Place. However Jaqueline Schmidt toned down the designs to attract a broader market, and many of the tenants are downsizing baby boomers. (In an early article on the building, I predicted " micro-flats are a terrific idea that will be popular with a broad spectrum of the population, from young renters to older retirees to rich people looking for a pied-à-terre in Manhattan, there will be huge demand.")

credit: Lloyd Alter

There are a lot of advantages in this kind of service. People who live alone or are really busy don't get the advantages from bulk buying and economy sizes; with Ollie doing the buying, there is less waste, economies of scale and it is all taken care of. And of course, there is an app, Hello Alfred, that will stock your fridge and pick up your dry cleaning. Here is a video (a bit long) of Christopher Bledsoe, co-founder of Ollie, explaining the concept in greater detail:

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Closet

And there is an astonishing amount of room for Alfred to store that dry cleaning, with big closets at the entrance, storage above the bathroom ceiling, closets built around either side of the bed and in the buffet. No need to store your sweaters in an oven, because there is lots of room for them. Those T shirts are even on a special hanging rack that is far higher than normal but pulls out and down, allowing more storage below.

credit: Lloyd Alter

If ever that apartment does feel claustrophobic, there is a big deck and community room up on the eighth floor, with spectacular views of the Chrysler building, visible through the gap between two apartments. You couldn't have designed it better if you tried.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ view from Terrace

None of this is cheap, even by New York standards, with apartments renting for close to $ 3,000 per month. However everything is included, including furnishings and internet. Everything is chosen for durability and effectiveness, not price. For a lot of people, those services and thoughtful details are worth a premium. New York is a city where a lot of people live alone. It is a lifestyle choice that more and more people are making when they are younger and when they are older. The idea of smaller living spaces, more shared spaces and with lots of services makes a lot of sense, and I suspect we will be seeing a lot more of it.