What Are Micro-Apartments? Environmental Pros and Cons

Smaller abodes mean lower household emissions.

Micro apartment with bed, kitchen, and sofa in one room

urbazon / Getty Images

Micro-apartments are considered to be the urban equivalent of tiny houses. They allow just enough space for a bathroom, kitchenette, sitting space, and sleeping space, although the latter two are often fused.

While some must choose this housing option because of financial constraints, a growing number of city dwellers now willingly pursue tight quarters not (just) because of budget but to reduce their carbon footprints.

On a micro level, smaller apartments use fewer resources than larger ones and create less waste. On a macro level, a trend toward micro-living could lead to increased population density and, with any luck, more efficient infrastructure in cities. Moving toward condensed living helps to curb urban sprawl, resulting in more land preservation.

Learn more about the environmental benefits (and some drawbacks) of micro-apartments.

What Is a Micro-Apartment?

Couple sitting on loft bed in a micro-apartment

Tony Anderson / Getty Images

While there is no official definition of the term "micro-apartment," the Urban Land Institute defines it as "a small studio apartment, typically less than 350 square feet, with a fully functioning and accessibility compliant kitchen and bathroom." It notes that single-room occupancies that have only communal kitchens and bathrooms do not qualify, by this definition.

What does 350 square feet look like? Compare it to the average:

  • Bedroom size in the U.S.: Roughly 130 square feet
  • Apartment in the U.S.: 882 square feet
  • Studio apartment in New York City: 550 square feet
  • Tiny house: Up to 600 square feet

Rising Popularity of Micro-Apartments

Naturally, the micro-apartment boom really began as a means of affordability in cities with notoriously high rent prices. New York City, known and often begrudged for its closet-sized flats, opened its first prefab micro-apartment building—My Micro NY, a nine-story building in Brooklyn containing 55 studios between 260 and 360 square feet—in 2015.

Now, Seattle has its fair share of SEDUs (small-efficiency dwelling units) and Boston of "innovation" units (named so by the City of Boston's Housing Innovation Lab). The trend is alive and well in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco, where the country's first prefab micro-housing project, SmartSpace, allegedly took place in 2012.

In a 2015 Urban Land Institute survey, one in four renters said they either "definitely" or "probably" would live in a micro-unit.

Are Micro-Apartments Sustainable?

Nearly a third of respondents to the 2015 survey said sustainability practices were a priority in their lease decisions. Whether micro-apartments actually do make a sustainable housing option is quite a polarizing topic. Here are the leading arguments from both sides of the aisle.

Environmental Pros

Small home office within micro apartment
Home office meets kitchen in this micro apartment. mixetto / Getty Images

Micro-apartments generally require far fewer resources to build. A 2019 United Nations report estimated that reducing a home's per-capita floor size by just 20% could reduce the emissions from building that home by 50% to 60%. That same 20% reduction, the report said, would also reduce heating and cooling demand by 20%. In the U.S., heating and cooling represent 38% of household carbon emissions.

If that's the impact of just one micro-apartment, then imagine what a broader shift towards micro-living could do. Today's need for suburbanization to meet the demands of an ever-growing population has put a massive strain on the landscape—destroying habitats for essential wildlife and fueling deforestation.

Living compactly would help save these natural spaces from the threats of urban sprawl. If done right, it could also encourage cities to invest in greener infrastructure (think: cycle lanes and improved public transportation instead of high traffic and colossal parking structures, mostly needed to accommodate suburban commuters).

Although YouGov data from 2022 suggests that 60% of Americans think higher-density development would make traffic worse rather than improve it, the Urban Land Institute contests this. "Higher-density development generates less traffic than low-density development per unit," the institute says. "It makes walking and public transit more feasible and creates opportunities for shared parking."

Additional Benefits of Micro-Apartments

Micro-apartments deliver several other benefits outside of a reduced carbon footprint, including:

  • Affordability: Micro-apartments cost 20% to 30% less than conventional apartments, yet offer more value per square foot.
  • Community: Although apartments that contain only shared bathrooms and/or kitchen space don't technically fall under the realm of micro-apartments, many micro-apartment buildings do offer some sort of communal space, be it a lounge or an outdoor area. This helps neighbors get to know each other and build a sense of community.
  • Minimalism: There simply is no room for hoarding in a micro-apartment; one has just enough space allowance to surround themselves with items that are practical or, in the words of Marie Kondo, "spark joy."
  • Less cleaning: Although some may argue the opposite, considering all the nooks and crannies and compactness of a micro-apartment, small spaces should intrinsically be easier to keep tidy.

Environmental Cons

Hong Kong Aerial scene in night, with road and traffic
High-density living can have ecological consequences. pa_YON / Getty Images

While qualms about these tiny dwellings are scant at the micro level, there are some concerns around high-density living, in general. A major one is air pollution. Packing people on top of each other condenses greenhouse gas emissions into a smaller area, and studies can say this can impact human health more in cities of high population density.

Another concern is the lack of ecological opportunities in built-up cities. One 2020 study found that population density had a major impact on pollinators, which find it difficult to access green spaces with all the structural barriers. This study suggested that increased population density negatively affected pollinator populations in cities only, not pollinator populations overall, but many others have confirmed that the denser a city gets, the less biodiverse it becomes.

A lot of species loss that occurs because of urbanization is caused by heat. Population density creates an urban heat island effect. Ironically, the shade trees that are needed to reduce this effect have difficulty adapting to the rising air and soil temperatures. Many eventually die and make the heat island even hotter—and a hotter city means a higher demand for cooling.

Additional Drawbacks of Micro-Apartments

Environmental concerns aside, these factors could also create some resistance to the micro-apartment trend:

  • Family size limitations: Micro-apartments are designed for a single resident (a couple, at most). They aren't well-suited for pets or children.
  • Stress: Tight living quarters can feel claustrophobic. Micro-apartment dwellers could feel physically crowded in their own space or socially crowded by the number of people around.
  • Isolation: Living alone can lead some to feel socially isolated. The American Psychological Association lists several health consequences of social isolation, including impaired immunity and poor sleep quality.
Frequently Asked Questions
  • What size is a micro-apartment?

    While there are no official specifications, micro-apartments are usually less than 350 square feet whereas the average apartment is 882 square feet.

  • Do micro-apartments have bedrooms?

    Micro-apartments usually follow an open concept in which the bedroom, living room, and kitchen are combined to save space.

  • How can you make your micro-apartment seem bigger?

    The key to living in a micro-apartment is practicing minimalism. Get rid of possessions you don't need, get creative with storage space, and invest in items that serve multiple purposes.

  • How much do micro-apartments cost?

    The cost of micro-apartments varies massively depending on location. One in Manhattan can cost $2,000 to $3,000 per month but is still generally cheaper than a regular studio. In general, micro-apartments should be some of the most affordable housing options in any city.

View Article Sources
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