Experiment in urban micro-living: Part 2, the minuses

December 31, 2009 | Embryo house, New York City, Slums, Theory

By: David A. Smith


[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]


Yesterday, using as our text a words-and-pictures story from the New York Post, we met the enterprising and quirky Zaarath and Christopher Prokop, who have elected to buy a micro-home in New York.  They wanted convenience in Manhattan, controllable occupancy cost, security of tenure, and lowest payments – so they bought the smallest apartment they could find, and to judge by the Post, one of the city’s smallest possible, at less than 175 square feet.. 



1. The Prokops hold a tape measure across their tiny Manhattan apartment.


That’s barely enough room to sleep, shower, and have a cup of coffee.  To achieve even these tiny amenities, the Prokops traded away the optionality to do almost anything else.


For instance, laundry:


The couple wakes up every morning in their queen-size bed, which takes up one-third of the living space.  




They then walk five feet toward the tiny kitchen, where they pull out their workout clothes, which are folded neatly in two cabinets above the sink.



8. A storage unit doubles as a seating area.




A third cabinet holds several containers of espresso for their only kitchen appliance, a cappuccino maker.


They turn off their hotplate, and use the space on the counter as a feeding area for their cats, Esmeralda and Beauregard.


“We don’t cook,” Zaarath said, adding that their fridge never has any food in it. “So when you don’t cook, you don’t need plates or pots or pans. So we use that space for our clothes.”


If you can’t cook for yourself, food must cost more.


Meanwhile, such economy of consumption imposes a complex rigorous discipline to their routine:


Once in their running attire, the two change the cat litter box (stored under the sink) and start their small Rumba vacuum – which operates automatically while they’re out, picking up cat hair.

They then jog to their jobs in Midtown, picking up along the way their work clothes, which are “strategically stashed at various dry cleaners.”


Being unable to do laundry at home also raises the marginal cost of cleaning, and hence compels a reduction in their clothing options.



Doing the laundry outside the house, Mavoko, Nairobi, Kenya


“I have a closet at my office,” Zaarath said. “You don’t want to be standing outside a closed dry cleaners at 8:45 in your workout pants thinking, ‘Greeeeeat’ . . . It’s a great strategy. You always have fresh things to wear.”


Poverty of consumption requires behavioral ingenuity as well as multi-use spaces and appliances.



Interior wall, one-room house, Janibanagar, Ahmedabad, India


The only other furniture in the apartment is a 27-inch flat-screen TV attached to the wall; a brown leather storage bench at the foot of the bed that stores linens but also acts as a sofa;



Bring the world into your home: television and DVD, Jadibanagar


a cat climbing “tree,” and a shelf/wine rack system that holds a radio, cable box, and several bottles and glasses.



6. Their small TV is mounted on the wall next to the wine rack


They don’t have a trash can. The second something needs to be thrown out, they walk to the chute in the hallway.


Micro-housing relies on external disposal of garbage, a necessity of urban infrastructure.


Real-estate broker Steven Goldschmidt, senior vice president of Warburg Realty, showed the Prokops the apartment, which used to be one of about nine maid’s quarters in the prewar building.


That’s the clue of origin, isn’t it?


“We converted eight of them into four apartments,” Goldschmidt said, with each apartment going for a little less than a half-million dollars.


One can live in a room in a larger structure, if the larger structure delivers the remaining amenities.



7. The co-op is on the 16th floor of a doorman building on 110th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. But it’s only accessible by a staircase on the 15th floor.


“But we could not configure that one room within any of the floor plans we were looking at without spending oodles of money. So I came up with the idea to just make it the smallest apartment and see how it goes. I know a number of the luxury buildings are selling servants’ quarters and they’re not this small.”


He said he got “a lot of calls” from parents looking to find apartments for their Columbia students or business people looking for a pied-a-terre.


Like the corticos of Brazil.




The couple will pay off their mortgage in two years, when they plan to remodel some of the apartment, adding a Murphy bed and larger windows. They will then be saddled only with their maintenance fee, which is just over $700 a month.



Another solution to the space problem: multiple uses at different times


That maintenance fee is no small change for an apartment of only $175 square feet.


“It’s like having a rent-controlled apartment,” she said. “We’re going to own something in Manhattan in two years. How many people can say that? And we’re very happy doing more with less.”


Whereupon, having obtained it, they will almost certainly acquire another space somewhere else.


She added that because they save money on their home, they can spend money in “areas that make our lives better,” like restaurants and vacations. The two just got back from Beijing and have been to Japan and other countries.


Where they stay in larger hotel rooms than the apartment they inhabit.


It’s quite clear that the Prokops have made a conscious choice – foregoing large elements of what you and I would consider minimum acceptable living in exchange for security of tenure and controllability of occupancy cost, some potential for appreciation, and above all reduced occupancy cost.  They then have taken the resulting savings and spent it on things they value more than their mousehole apartment.



The welcome mat marks my territory


In making that choice, what have they renounced?


* Children


Unlike cats, they cannot be left alone all day, and unlike dry cleaning, they cannot be parked elsewhere overnight.


* Entertaining guests


She joked that the tiny apartment gets her out of hosting duties and dissuades long-term guests.


“No one ever stays too long,” she said. “It’s too small.”


Am I the only one who hears enforced brightness in their comments?



9. Christopher, 35, and Zaarath, 37, pop open a bottle of champagne.


* Extended family


She said Christopher’s parents stayed in the apartment while they were in China, and the two suitcases they brought was too much.


“They were sort of fumbling over each other,” Zaarath said.


Most people would be.


* A home life


“We get to really experience life and enjoy ourselves,” she said. “We eat out all the time.”


A further choice is implied here.  Are they eating cheap, or spending more?  Home is handy because one can provide the daily necessities more cheaply.  Slum dwellers face the same problem at a lower level – water costs them much more per liter than people hooked up to the municipal system.


“On the weekends, we’re outside exploring the neighborhood. We’re at Riverside Park all the time. We’re not nesters. This apartment is perfect for someone active. If you want to stay home or entertain, this is just not the apartment for you.”


That last conditional signals the Prokops’ awareness that what they have is not in fact a home.  It’s actually their own uncatered condo hotel room.  In it, they are not fully living; instead, they’re using their micro-home to sleep and to base themselves.  Their lives are lived in the larger city, not in their tiny space.


Micro-housing is always associated with such lively urban environments, where the home exists primarily to be a base from which to sally forth every morning, and to return mainly for sleeping at night.



Visiting a one-room self-built house, Durban, South Africa

Owner (and builder) explaining his plans for the future


You can put up with anything if it’s short duration, and if you envision something better.



Explaining design of the proposed new houses to be built, Durban, South Africa


With the holidays coming, the Prokops plan to hang a wreath and put up Christmas bushes – but in the hallway.


“Maybe I’ll just get Christmas-tree pajamas and wear them around,” laughed Zaarath. “That’ll be good.”




10. Toasting their choices


Certainly the Post, while sympathetic, is skeptical, as the article was titled:


Cozy-crazy couple makes tight all right in the city’s tiniest studio



Comment from jonathan r.
Date: February 21, 2010, 9:10 pm

these people are actually living in a BUBBLE!

they’re explanations/excuses for all of their choices paint them as irresponsible and poor money managers. i totally like the idea of small spaces…..that WORK! when you cannot afford something large, a place like this would be a godsend to the right type of person. however, a tiny closet and kitchen appliances would be needed. then, a single person could make due with this.

however, they traded big spending on a home that could actually fit 2 people and 2 cats for something cheap, and then contorted it to make it work around their spendthrift lifestyles, which are anything but ideal or smart – not cooking and eating out at restauants all the time, using kitchen space, various laundromats, and office closets to store clothes, and arranging the space to look like a booze-hound’s museum is all just so overwhelming.

there is nothing positive to be gleaned from this story. these are idiotic people who need to grow up.