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Multistory Car Park in U.S. Transformed Into Designer Micro-Apartments

Many of the 105 million parking spaces in American cities are under-used: could they be repurposed into affordable housing?

A SCADpad apartment and community garden in a car park overlooking downtown Atlanta – each apartment takes up one parking space.
Photo Credit: Chia Chong


The American love affair with the car is well documented. But dysfunction drives this relationship. For every romantic vision of the open highway comes a sign of co-dependence: huge spending on roads, development that encourages sprawl, and health problems pegged to sitting in traffic. Perhaps no sign is more telling than the space devoted to parking all those cars; according to a 2012 study by Eran Ben-Joseph of MIT, at least one-third of the space in American cities is dedicated to parking – acres and acres of asphalt and hulking concrete garages.

Parking doesn’t just eat up real estate, it also consumes potential tax revenue. Researchers with the University of Connecticut and the Smart State Transportation Initiative (SSTI) released a pair of studies in April that showed a single parking spot costs a city an average of $1,000 in lost tax revenue annually. Take Hartford, Connecticut, for example. The researchers calculated it would bring in $50m more tax revenue if space dedicated to parking were used for buildings instead. Auto-centric zoning requirements waste valuable urban space and discourage alternative transportation.

But, a new generation of Americans is less starry-eyed when it comes the automobile. Millennials – those in the 18 to 35-year-old age range – own fewer cars and are more interested in alternative ways of commuting. At the same time, this generation wants to live in cities, but is frustrated by the lack of affordable apartments.

There are at least 105 million parking places in US cities, and a growing number of those – about 50% – are under-used. What if those under-utilised parking spaces could somehow be repurposed as housing for urban-minded millennials? That question fascinated Christian Sottile, dean of the School of Building Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). After all, if obsolete warehouses and factories could be transformed into lofts, why not convert car parks into cutting-edge housing?

Over the course of the past year, Sottile translated that academic question into a hands-on exercise. Faculty staff, students, and alumni across 12 departments of the university helped to create SCADpad, an experimental encampment at SCAD’s campus overlooking Atlanta’s Downtown Connector, one of the most notoriously congested stretches of highway in the United States (you might recall photos of it gridlocked during a snowstorm this January).

As they explored ways to create micro-apartments that could fit into parking decks, Sottile and colleagues gave themselves a challenge: restrict the dwellings to the size of the average US parking spot, roughly 135 square feet. The goal was to maximise the experience of living in such minimalist space, said Sottile. While affordability was taken into consideration, the main objective was demonstrating that: “You can live large in a small space.”

Students drove the experiment. “This was designed by millennials for millennials,” said Sottile. Their priorities: incorporating technology and art into living spaces; allowing for individual customisation; emphasising energy efficiency; and creating communal spaces. “The core of the motivation is considering the future of cities and urban housing and new possibilities,” said Sottile.

The interior of one of the SCADpads, which takes up the same 135 square feet as the average US parking space.
Photo Credit: 
Chia Chong

The result was intriguing. The SCADpads themselves were fabricated at the university’s Savannah campus, and then transported to Atlanta for installation. The three modular dwellings share a common shell – bathroom, kitchenette and bed/sitting area – but vary greatly in design, reflecting the continents where SCAD has campuses – North America, Asia, and Europe. (In addition to Savannah and Atlanta, SCAD has campuses in Hong Kong and Lacoste, France.)

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