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The trend towards living at close quarters has been seen for a while now. Known by the punchy term “micro-living”, this form of housing is experiencing enormous uptake, particularly among a mobile market that only resides at a given place for a limited period of time. The people in this market find a central, well-connected location more important than the size of their housing.

According to a study by the Hans Böckler Foundation, there is a shortage of 1.9 million affordable housing units in Germany’s major cities. Of these units, there are 1.4 million low-priced flats of up to 45 square metres needed for single-person households. Numerous providers have already specialised in smaller-sized housing with highly functional fittings and furnishings. Given the demand, large residential complexes constructed in urban locations, such as Gleis Park Apartments in Berlin, now integrate an array of smaller, furnished flats that are ready to move into directly. Additional services such as parcel lockers, car sharing or a devoted community app are intended to add further value. To compensate for the limited living area, modern blocks of flats also encompass common co-working spaces, fitness areas and laundries. As a result, they appeal mainly to people for whom micro-living is an attractive, temporary solution. Students, young professionals and commuters can move in based on the plug-and-play principle and settle in straight away.

At a time when much is changing, there is a need for sophisticated concepts that make life in a more constricted space appealing, even in times of crisis. Planners must increasingly think beyond the confines of a flat for this and also cast their gaze on surrounding public spaces and resident needs. Promising ideas are called for, ones that realise the complex requirements of affordable housing through contemporary concepts.

Sustainable container architecture

Containerwerk based in Wassenberg and Stuttgart, offers a sustainable and resource-friendly concept for modular housing. The company refurbishes and refines used shipping containers with a new type of monolithic insulation, transforming them into building and room modules in industrial production. The technologically sophisticated process speeds up the time taken to prepare the containers, enabling a rapid transformation into a residential unit with 26 square metres’ space. Alongside temporary solutions such as hotels, boarding houses and student residences, the modules can also be used to provide office space..

Managing Director Ivan Mallinowski has also identified growing interest among private individuals, which is why the company is now developing preconfigured mini studios for the private market. “Modular building is a good approach for evening out urban housing shortages. However, what is important with this is that the quality of the spaces and architecture is not overlooked. That already happened once before in the 1950s and 60s when far-flung housing towers were built in rapid succession. The needs of the residents cannot be forgotten.” Oona Horx-Strathern, Director of Zukunftsinstitut Horx (“Horx Future Institute”) and author of the annual Home Report, does not see quickly erected, affordable micro-studios as a good option for future urban architecture either. She says, “If they are badly planned, they become what I call ‘McLiving’: unhealthy fodder for long-term living with negative consequences for health and the environment.”

Photo: Stefan Hohloch

Communal areas becoming more important

Shared flats are a tried-and-tested model for countering high rents. In recent years, ventures known as co-living companies have been springing up in large cities such as New York. They provide rooms in shared flats that are ready to move into. In addition to providing all furnishings and amenities, which sometimes include maintenance staff, they offer flexible leases and also organise social activities for their residents. When the residents’ living quarters are on the smaller side, the common areas increase in importance.

For Oona Horx-Strathern, it is crucial that micro-living is accompanied by the design of public spaces, “Living in highly compact spaces can only work well if there are other common areas to make up for the lack of private space.” The reasons for moving the desk into a co-working space and not letting a washing machine take up valuable storage space are more than just practical in nature. Places of social contact and interaction are especially essential at locations where people live isolated from each other. “In many cities there are not enough places where people can meet. However, over the long term, such places are an important, healthy measure to stop the growing loneliness in cities,” says Oona Horx-Strathern.

Living in highly compact spaces can only work well if there are other common areas to make up for the lack of private space.

Oona Horx-Strathern, Zukunftsinstitut Horx (Horx Future Institute)

The micro-living trend can also be linked with a desire for the greatest possible independence in society. This desire also includes being free of possessions that are seen as dead weight in today’s mobile life. The popularity of hired, external self-storage units has been on the rise, even before home organisation luminary Marie Kondo put out a call to declutter. Self-storage units offer space for objects that are temporarily unneeded and that micro-living simply does not provide space for. Oona Horx-Strathern sees the “tidyism” trend, where physical objects as well as the digital and virtual world are decluttered, as associated with a demand to curate important possessions. She says, “Our home is not only an expression of our basic needs. It also expresses our identity and beliefs. Our living spaces have shrunk in size, so we must reconsider our relationship with the things we possess.”

Base Cabin. Photo: Studio Edwards

The dream of a tiny retreat on wheels

Those who have already perfected the minimalist lifestyle can go one step further and make their living space independent of location. A yearning to live without ties and move on at will can be satisfied by the mobile „Base Cabin“, a micro-home on wheels from Studio Edwards, an Australian architecture and design firm. It was conceived for the user to make a home with their worldly goods wherever and for however long they like until it is time to set off again. The mobile cabin offers a comfortable haven with a bed, bathroom and living and dining areas. The avant-garde vehicle does not have much in common with an ordinary caravan, with its steep triangular shape and asymmetrical, gabled style being much more reminiscent of the architecture of an A-frame house. A high-up skylight and large windows flood the interior and its contemporary finish with light to reinforce the proximity to nature.

Micro-living is a promising model of how people can live in cities experiencing ever-stronger growth. There are already numerous providers enriching the market with innovative and creative ideas. However, the compartmentalised form of living only works if it is well conceived, if living spaces transferred to other areas and if there is enough on offer to promote social interaction. It will be exciting to see the ways in which the health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic change the parameters for attractive housing formats.

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