Colorful Apartment Building

Tiny Spaces, Huge Potential: Micro-Design Comes to Senior Living

As the micro-house movement continues to gain popularity as a cost-effective and low maintenance style of living, it may only be a matter of time before the design trend hits senior housing.

This brand of smaller design has primarily attracted younger adults, particularly Millennials (18- to 34-year-olds, according to Pew Research Center) seeking affordable urban living options. But senior living architects say that micro-apartments have great potential in appealing to seniors looking for similar housing to fit their desire for a simpler lifestyle.

“We truly believe this is an untapped market,” said Brenda Landes, AIA, senior associate at SFCS Architects, during a recent webinar on designing smaller environments for seniors. “There are many compelling reasons to live small.”

A firm specializing in the senior living, higher education and civic/public markets, SFCS has successfully planned and designed over 800 senior living, educational and health care projects throughout the U.S.

And after seeing various small-house designs in action, the firm contends that this type of micro-style living has practical applications within senior housing, for operators and developers alike.

The micro movement

Micro-housing is borne by the concept that less is more without having to sacrifice quality—and that quality applies to lifestyle as well as living quarters.

The design can be broken down into two subcategories. Whereas small houses are typically dwellings no greater than 1,000 square feet, the “tiny house” distinction is for homes smaller than 400 square feet.

But don’t be fooled by the seemingly cramped metrics. Micro-homes, while they may appear tight from a floor-plan standpoint, emphasize making effective use of every square inch. And that requires some creativity, especially when it comes to storing furniture and other personal belongings.

That’s where transformative furniture comes in; convertible side tables that can expand into 10-seat dining tables, “Murphy beds” that fold up into the wall when not in use to make space for extra seating, even moveable walls that split a single-room apartment into a two-room habitat partitioned into separate chambers when a guest spends the night.

Trading in building a den and investing that money in transitional furniture instead can be one way to gain that square footage back, said SFCS Senior Associate Kevin Deck, AIA, during the webinar.

“There’s a lot of flexibility than can be built-in with smart storage, transforming furniture and really well-designed elements considering every single inch that’s available,” Deck said.

America’s super-sizing homes

There’s been a tremendous increase in the size of the American home since the post-war boom of the 1950s.

In 1950, the average single-family American home was a 983-square-foot structure, according to U.S. Census Bureau data referenced by Deck. Since then, the average square footage of a single-family home has grown 170%, reaching 2,662 square feet in 2013, the latest year of available data tracked by the Bureau.

“An incredible super-sizing is taking place in the American home,” said Deck.

This increase in space has brought with it higher utility costs and greater carbon footprints from households.

But even with nearly three times more residential space today than single-family households had in the 1950s, studies have shown that people only use a limited amount of space within their homes.

Citing one study that used a body heat sensor to detect where people were spending most of their time at home, using red dots to target activity, SFCS found that 75% of the dots were concentrated in the kitchen and the family/living room.

“It tells us that people are living in limited areas of their homes and that they’re not taking advantage of all of their spaces,” said Deck.

To further this point, Deck cited a study conducted Hemnet, a Swedish, Zillow-esque online real estate marketplace. The company analyzed 200 million clicks on its website to find out people’s preferences in searching for a home. Based on this data, they then commissioned an architecture firm to develop what the Swedish household of the future would look like.

The result: a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home totaling no more than 1,115 square feet.

As the average American home has super-sized, a similar growth trend has been happening in senior living, notes Deck, who compared a few projects SFCS had done in the past to some newer projects the firm has designed.

SFCS’s earliest projects for two-bedroom independent living apartments started at around 560 square feet. Today, the average is 1,643 square feet—more than a 190% increase.

“Senior living is generally tracking what’s been happening to the American home, and that might not be a surprise to any of us,” Deck said.

Build less to save more

Depending on the development constraints and economics of a certain area, there can be real opportunities for senior living providers to achieve cost savings by designing small.

With a smaller living environment also comes a significantly shrunken carbon footprint, translating into less spent on utilities than a person would if living in the average 1,600-square-foot domicile.

“The beauty is you’ve reduced costs in utilities, maintenance and operations,” said Landes.

For providers considering whether to convert buildings at their communities to incorporate micro-designs, some companies that deal in transitional furniture may have certain payment models depending on bulk purchases.

One company that provides such furnishings, Resource Furniture, has developed a model for reducing first-cost by 50% based on quantity purchases, which can be a huge starting point for providers to embark on a project, Deck said.

But while there might be some added upfront costs when buying these types of new-age furnishing, there are some advantages to be had.

“You’re spending additional cost on some of the transforming furniture, but you’re essentially able to market those apartments as semi-furnished, which may add real value and put you in an advantageous position given your market,” he said.

Small design, big popularity

While micro-housing may be a relatively new concept for senior living, it has already permeated the residential apartment sector as well as popular culture.

TV shows like HGTV’s Tiny House Builders, Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunters are at the forefront of mass media attention, conveying the message of “size doesn’t matter” when it comes to alternative housing.

Tiny house communities have also begun sprouting up around the country. One such community planned in Sonoma County, Calif., is essentially a collection of different-sized tiny houses situated around a central hub and community house.

Dubbed Tiny House Village, the community will comprise 40 to 70 dwellings, each up to 400 square feet, with private storage units and 1.5 parking spaces per house.

The community functions a lot like a co-op, where there are many shared amenities on site, including an 800- to 1,600-square-foot common house, private gardens, outdoor space and pedestrian walkways.

Zoned as an R.V. park, the intent of the Village is to create an atmosphere that feels vibrant but not at all crowded, according to a description of the project by developer Four Lights Tiny House Company, which plans to open the Village this year.

By incorporating various elements of shared spaces, thus encouraging social interaction between residents, the community allows people to have a high quality of life without owning a lot of things, said Landes.

A number of studies have focused on the idea of materialism and what makes people happy. Some have even claimed that less stuff equals more happiness, which in turn allows for more leisure time, higher activity levels, and therefore healthier lives.

And in an industry that often blurs the line between hospitality and health care, it only makes sense for the micro-housing concept to find a home in senior living.

“Living small is possible and it could really work for your communities,” said Deck. “But in order for that to happen, we have to disrupt the norm. We have to challenge historical square footage expectations and challenge the idea that quantity is king and think quality really matters.”

Written by Jason Oliva