Making Space: The Case for Adaptive Spaces

When you think of single-family housing, you think nuclear family — as in a married couple with 2.5 kids and a dog, don’t you? However, demographics are changing. Today, nuclear families make up only 20 percent of America’s households. In 1950, these families represented 43 percent of our households; in 1970, it was 40 percent. Since then, unprecedented shifts in demographics and lifestyle have redefined who we are — and how we want to live.

And, these changing demographics are causing housing specialists and developers to rethink the housing stock they are offering so that it meets the needs of the rising households of single parents, singles with roommates, multi-generational families and more. But, that innovation is happening at a snail’s pace due to outdated zoning regulations. Enter the Citizens Housing Planning Council (CHPC), which has an ongoing research program called Making Room that led to two museum exhibits — the first at the Museum of the City of New York (January to September 2013) and the second, a national exhibition, at the National Building Museum, open through January 6, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Focus on New York City Housing

“We first focused on the New York housing stock,” says Sarah Watson, Deputy Director of the Citizens Housing Planning Council in New York, N.Y. “To understand housing, you have to understand how households are configured. The Census puts them in categories of families vs. non-families, so we created our own housing categories, so we could drill down. What we discovered is that two types of households dominated New York housing — single people living alone, whether young or older, and those sharing a space, such as roommates and extended, multigenerational families.” The problem? Most apartments, condos and homes in New York City didn’t reflect this non-traditional household. “For us, it became an education project around zoning and regulatory reform in New York, so we could build alternative housing,” she says.

In New York, there are three eras of zoning regulations — the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1980s. Those regulations set out to improve housing stock but didn’t keep up with reality, according to Watson. “We’ve been building bigger apartments for nuclear families but not paying attention to the cultural and demographic shifts. Also, housing is expensive, and many people will opt to give up space and supplement with the amenities located around them,” she says.

Jacqueline Schmidt, director of design for Ollie (www., an all-inclusive co-living platform providing fully-furnished, shared micro-studios and shared suites with hotel-style services, amenities and community agrees. “Cities are becoming very expensive, and it’s hard for residents to claim a space and an area in a desirable neighborhood. Many people are willing to forgo space in exchange for having the environment in their area of choice, conveniences and a community. They can spend more time doing the things they like rather than isolate themselves outside of the area they want to live in.” The New York exhibit featured a fully furnished 350-squarefoot apartment with transformable tables, bed systems and seating allowing the compact space to be reshaped into five different configurations.

Taking It National

Through the New York City exhibit, visited by over 160,000 visitors from all over the country, the researchers realized that this issue was not unique to New York. “We were floored that this was a universal issue in small towns, cities and all over the United States,” says Watson. That’s when the idea to crunch the numbers on a national level came about, according to Chrysanthe Broikos, curator of the National Building Museum and the Making Room: Housing for a Changing America exhibit in Washington, D.C.

Conceived as a rallying cry for a wider menu of housing options, Making Room showcases how architects, policymakers, developers, planners, and the general public can use design as an integral tool to meet today’s housing needs. According to Broikos, “There is no better way for the public to understand the power of design than seeing and experiencing it firsthand.”

“We worked with the CHPC to take Census Bureau raw data, added proprietary number crunching and uncovered nationwide demographic trends,” says Broikos. They discovered that the No. 1 household category nationwide is single people living alone. The second is couples with no children. “That means that 50 percent of our households are one- or two-person households. There’s a fundamental mismatch between who we are today and what our housing stock looks like,” she says.

The Open House

As part of the national exhibit, The Open House was created. “The Open House is the perfect vehicle for demonstrating how thoughtful design, and smart and flexible products, can transform how we live. Visitors are truly amazed by the multi-functionality of the furniture and you can sense, almost immediately, how their world of possibilities has just been expanded,” says Broikos.

“We wanted to wake people to what may be possible in housing,” says Lisa Blecker, project manager for the exhibit and director of marketing for Resource Furniture, a sponsor of both exhibitions. “The takeaway is that people don’t understand what a space can really feel like. A small, well-designed space with multi-functional furniture feels a lot bigger than people expect.” She notes that the exhibit got some negative press before it opened, with coverage that said the space was the size of two parking spaces or a shoebox. “But, when people walked into The Open House, their faces would change. They couldn’t believe such a small space could look so big.”

The Open House was designed by Italian architect Pierluigi Colombo/Clei to showcase how flexible space can seamlessly adapt to accommodate three entirely different living arrangements. And, everything in it is available to buy now, not prototypes. Initially set up to house four roommates (two singles and a couple), the space was transformed to house a multigenerational family and again reconfigured to house a retired couple with a caretaker (it included a rental apartment).

“We all know that households are not static — they grow and shrink regularly as people age, have children, move out, and move back in.” says Ron Barth, co-founder of Resource Furniture. “But most homes are not designed to anticipate these inevitable shifts. This was the challenge we faced in planning and furnishing the 1,000-squarefoot Open House. The home was expressly designed to accommodate morphing households without altering the structure or the layout. The hyper-efficient layout, acoustically sound moving walls, hidden storage, and multifunctional furniture, such as the wall beds with sofas, all contribute to the home’s ability to function like one twice the size, while easily meeting the needs of the people living there — whoever they may be.”

Resource Furniture is involved in 16 different areas from Nashville, Tenn., to Park City, Utah, helping developers understand that the market is changing, and that people are willing to trade square footage for amenities and location.

Regulatory and Zoning Changes

In fact, there are projects all over the country capitalizing on these demographic trends and regulatory and zoning changes that allow them to build. In New York city, a zoning requirement that stated a minimum size for apartments was removed. And, density controls that limited the number of studio apartments in one building have been tweaked in high-density districts, according to Watson.

Boston designated innovation zones where minimum size is waived. “Atlanta is doing some interesting things with alternatives such as accessory dwelling units and basement units, which were previously not allowed because of zoning regulations,” says Watson. “We’re advocating and showcasing what certain jurisdictions are doing — new ways of approaching things,” says Broikos. “Policymakers have come through the exhibit. In Washington, D.C., there have been a bunch of changes to zoning in November 2016, allowing accessory dwellings as long as they were approved by zoning first,” she adds. “They eliminated one of the hoops required and made it easier.” Most of the changes have been to local laws, not statewide change. Although both California and Virginia have made changes concerning accessory dwellings.

And, one large builder, Lennar Homes, is innovating with a model called the Next Gen. It’s a home within a home that allows for innovative floorplans to accommodate your family without sacrificing comfort. Says Broikos, “It’s not marketed as an accessory unit and it doesn’t trigger zoning code issues because of the lack of a second full kitchen, but it does have a range and a cooktop.”

For Watson, who has been studying the topic of changing demographics for 10 years, “now is the time for these alternative spaces to be embraced. Digital technology and social media have lessened our need for things such as books, CDs and more. Our culture has changed. You can live your life adequately with a laptop and that’s a revolution as far as space is concerned.” She also notes that younger generations are much more open to shared spaces, such as kitchens and recreational rooms, than older generations. “Even 10 years ago, these concepts would have been thought of as bad things, but with innovation, they are accepted and desired. Now is the time for housing changes that meet the needs of the changing demographic.”

Tracey C. Velt is an Orlando-based freelance writer who specializes in business and real estate.
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