Big opportunity or big problem?1st Jul 2020
Inspired, in part, by the tiny house movement, micro apartments have been touted as a solution to the housing shortage, the increasing cost of urban land, and the need to conserve resources. But, as with many things, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some shortcomings of these tiny spaces.
Many micro apartments are built around the concept of the sharing society, with communal spaces for entertaining, working and playing. In short, a sort of a residential estate in miniature. But the smaller the cabin, the greater the cabin fever. What may have seemed a cosy nest when there was lots of communal work and play space available could start feeling very cramped indeed in lockdown. So, as we begin to realise that physical distancing will be a necessary part of life for quite a long time to come, the cracks start appearing in the micro apartment/tiny house magic-mirror pipedream.
Take, for example, 1 on Albert, which will feature ‘communal recreational spaces, shops, a food court, laundromat, heated swimming pool and more – all part of a new conceptual design in living known as integrated living solutions that incorporates all the elements needed for inner-city living without actually having to leave the building,’ says Byron Kruger, sales agent for Dogon Group properties. Hmm, that’s all well and good, but what if we hit another pandemic, and/or another Level 5 lockdown? Instead of all that lovely communal space, you’d be stuck in your micro apartment except for a ‘sanity break’ in the nearest supermarket.
Tiny houses are nothing new in South Africa
Of course, we need to bear in mind that there is a huge difference between choosing to live in a well-built, beautifully appointed micro apartment, and occupying a rickety shack on seasonally inundated land in a crowded, under-resourced informal settlement because there is no alternative. And that’s another thing this pandemic is bringing to the fore – we need to deal with the housing shortage, and we need to deal with it constructively and creatively. So perhaps it is a bit insensitive to think of braving lockdown in a micro apartment as a hardship, when so many people are enduring attempted isolation in crowded settlements with shared and limited access to running water and sanitation. But it is rough.
So is there a future for micro apartments and tiny houses?
The answer is an indisputable ‘yes’. While it may seem to be a hardship during times of extreme lockdown, the concept is a very sound one. It offers the perfect marriage of independence and community, and is proving very popular with Gen-Zs, millennials and retirees – often in the same development.
Even more exciting, though, is that once luxury micro apartments become ‘normal’, the way will be paved for less high-spec, but still well-appointed, affordable micro units for the mass market. Possibly even built in existing informal settlements in the spirit of in-situ upgrading rather than eviction, demolition and relocation – all of which have nasty apartheid-era connotations.
Creative implementation of the micro apartment concept can achieve two separate, but not mutually exclusive, ends. Significant profits can be made from high-end apartments, and significant social capital can be achieved from developing well-built, but modest, affordable housing. Perhaps even in the same development with, for example, the market-related units enjoying a fantastic view, while the more affordable units at the ‘back’ of the building can enjoy the view only from the communal facilities. But, more importantly, the owners/residents of those viewless apartments will benefit from the same access to transport, infrastructure and jobs. Now that’s a win-win.