Multistory Car Park in U.S. Transformed Into Designer Micro-Apartments
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 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.)
At $40,000-$60,000, the prototype units are loaded with hi-tech features and high-end furnishings. Controlled by an iPad, “smart glass” windows switch from opaque to clear with just a tap on the screen, and programmable LED ceiling lights create any mood, from rosy dawn to midnight blues. Though tiny, the kitchens are equipped with induction stovetops, fridge/freezer units, microwaves, and stainless steel sinks.
Some features are more whimsical than functional, understandable given the university’s arts focus. An ornate ceiling designed for SCADpad North America by alumnus and acclaimed artist Marcus Kenney includes hundreds of buttons, beads, and strips of fur and leather. “Sound-conductive” wallpaper covers one wall of SCADpad Asia; press on a pattern and you might hear chimes or ocean waves. Metal grooves in the walls of all three units hold adjustable shelving and other accessories – all designed by SCAD students and faculty and most produced using 3D printing. (An on-site 3D printing station allowed SCADpad’s test residents to select from a catalogue of student-designed products like spoons or towel hooks.)
With such tiny footprints, the SCADpads obviously cost little to heat or cool. Other eco-friendly features include a recycling system that repurposes “grey water” from the sinks and showers to irrigate the community garden; a waste-processing system; and composting bins.
The three SCADpads are only part of the entire project, a mini village in the parking garage that includes a parking space-sized private patio for each unit, the community garden, two lounge areas and an artificial-turf “park”. The SCADpad installation opened in April, with students, staff, and alumni occupying the units through June. “It’s exceeded our expectation of what’s possible,” said Sottile.
While $60,000 for a micro-apartment smaller than a caravan doesn’t seem cheap, that cost does qualify as affordable housing. Consider, for instance, the 276-unit millennial-friendly BOHO Old Fourth Ward project in Atlanta just completed at a cost of $35m, or $128,000 per unit. SCAD’s initial research shows that car park owners could double or triple the revenue their revenue converting from housing cars to housing young professionals, while those renters would pay less than half the average rate of studio apartments, said Sottile.
“This is targeted at the demographic that wants to live in the city,” he said. The SCADpad concept is intended to the create “housing of choice”.
But could you really live in a place this small? I spent a weekend in mid-June in SCADpad Asia while my husband, an adjunct professor at SCAD-Atlanta, stayed in SCADpad North America. We offered to share a space, but the SCAD staff insisted that the units are too small, and indeed, our testing certainly showed these are singleton dwellings.
I’ve lived in studio apartments before, but nothing quite so tiny. However, while small in square footage, the SCADpad felt more spacious, thanks in large part to the airy design and those big smart-glass windows. That said, the kitchen is minute: it’s impossible for two people to work side-by-side. The sofa/beds are spacious: two of us comfortably lounged to watch Italy play England on the iPad (the SCADpads are equipped with speedy Wi-Fi). But when friends stopped by to visit, we quickly learned that it’s difficult to fit four people in one of the units.
All the art is lovely, but were one living in a SCADpad for longer than 48 hours, you’d want to replace most of the decorative items with more functional furnishings; a wall covered in leather fringe is fun to look it, but would be a lot more useful if it held shelves and hooks.
The biggest success of SCADpad is the inclusion of communal spaces. There was no room for us to comfortably entertain guests in our tiny apartments, but the common-area lounge was relaxing, and offered great skyline views. The community garden offered a soothing contrast to all the concrete – and yielded salad for dinner.
The SCADpad concept is still in its infancy, but has considerable potential. I presently live in a converted cotton mill; my loft once held massive looms and spindles. After the factory closed, the building sat vacant for decades. If you’d asked me back in the 1980s if I imagined anyone living in the hulking brick structure, I’d have laughed. Ask me now if people might be moving into the dozens of parking garages in downtown Atlanta one day, and I’d say, it just might be possible.