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Is bigger always better? Not always – and especially not if you want the convenience of living close to your workplace, and you happen to work in one of the world’s increasingly congested cities.

The international trend towards small and microapartments – for those who choose to live in these confined spaces – provides an increasing range of opportunities for investors.

Micro doesn’t mean tiny

It’s probably as well to begin, though, by understanding the difference between micro-apartments and tiny houses, to know where the concept of shared living features in the equation, and above all to understand that these movements are defined by desire rather than by need: for millions of people in South Africa and around the world, small, cramped living spaces are anything but a choice.

 

The market

In most cities where they’ve sprung up, micro-apartments seem to be aimed at younger buyers who want to live close to their workplaces, and who’re keenly conscious of their carbon footprints. Many of them see car ownership, for example, as a negative thing – in contrast to their parents and grandparents, who would’ve considered two, three or even four cars in the family a sign of status.

And the trend has hit South Africa, too, of course: at one end of the market, The Rockefeller at Harbour Place (launched March 2018) on Christiaan Barnard Street on Cape Town’s Foreshore, boasts 278 apartments of between 23 and 44 square metres spread out over 13 floors – and the latest price list on the property’s web site showed just 78 units unsold – with prices ranging from R1.4 million for a 25-square-metre flat on the ninth floor, to R2.6 million for a 44-square metre unit on the 10th. Communal facilities include a restaurant, a bar, laundry service, a clubhouse, a gym, a bike room, a roof-top pool, and a hotel rental pool – although the site doesn’t say how many of the units are available to rent, or how many are permanently occupied. But the shortage of stock in the city centre means that the prices and speed of sales come as no surprise.

By contrast, Drivelines Studios (launched in 2014), on Albertina Sisulu Street in Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct, offers rentals from R4,900 a month. This exciting, edgy, seven-storey, mixed-use building was made from upcycled ISO shipping containers erected over an existing single-storey structure that once did duty as a motor repair shop. The building includes 104 studio apartments (from 37 to 45 square metres in size), and three retail spaces ranging from 62 to 196 square metres.

These projects echo what’s happening in other parts of the world: in Australia, for example, where the total number of micro-apartments grew by 15% from 2006 to a total of 37,600 in 2011 – and this includes units in Melbourne that are as small as 15 square metres.

 

But are they legal?

Although we’ve still to see a boom in micro apartments or co-living complexes in South Africa, the law’s on the side of anyone who wants to build them.

According to the sans10400 website, ‘The National Building Regulations … are not prescriptive when it comes to the size of rooms and buildings. However it is vital that the size of any room or space is fit for the purpose for which it was intended.’

In other words, even tiny houses ‘must be able to accommodate a “habitable” room as well as a separate room with toilet facilities. This is more for sanitary reasons than for comfort, and it makes perfect sense.’

 

So, what’s stopping you?

The need is there, the market wants them and the law allows them. This is surely a situation with win win potential for creating tiny, beautiful, livable spaces for people while still making a profit from the development.

Above all, though, perhaps if micro living becomes fashionable, the economies of scale will allow more people to access a better quality of life.

And that, after all, could be the best solution for us all.

 

SOME DEFINITIONS

Tiny house: There’s actually an internationally-recognised definition of the tiny house. According to the International Residential Code (IRC), it’s ‘a dwelling that is 400 square feet (37 square metres) or less in floor area excluding lofts.’

Usually inhabited by highly individual people – who’re often both their designers and builders – tiny houses are often also off-grid spaces that push (or should that be ‘shrink’?) the boundaries when it comes to their owners’ impact on the environment.

Micro-apartment: According to the USA’s Urban Land Institute, the microapartment is a little more difficult to define:

Although micro unit has no standard definition, a working definition is a small studio apartment, typically less than 350 square feet (32.5 square metres), with a fully functioning and accessibility compliant kitchen and bathroom. Under this definition, a 160 square foot [14.9 square metres] single-room-occupancy unit that relies upon communal kitchen or bathroom facilities does not qualify as a true micro unit.

The Institute argues that while we may believe that developers these days are building smaller apartments in order to fit the maximum number of units into the smallest amount of space – and that this is a function of the high cost and scarcity of land – the truth is a lot more nuanced. They are, the Institute says, doing nothing more than reacting to demand. ‘These very small (by traditional standards) apartments, [lease at] approximately 20% to 30% lower monthly rent than conventional units, yet at very high value ratios (rent per square foot).’

Shared living (or co-living): With the sharing economy touching everything from
car pooling and taxi services to office space and neighbourhood assets, the rise of
shared housing schemes comes as no surprise.

Although co-living can take many forms, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) defines it as ‘a form of housing that combines private living space with shared communal facilities. Unlike flatshares and the like, co-living is explicitly designed to encourage communal interaction and build community.’

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