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Public Vs. Private Space: Shifting Values in the Age of COVID-19

By Alexander Thomson. Published on May 1, 2020.
Will we rethink all our micro units and small living spaces in a post Covid-19 world?

The recent retreat of people across the globe into their private quarters has illuminated, in a somewhat harsh light, a design trend that has been accelerating since the great recession – personal space is dwindling. The downsizing trend is impacting all sectors; from micro apartments and the prevalence of studios, to hotel rooms just large enough to fit a king bed. Across America, city apartments are smaller and have fewer bedrooms on average than ever before. Renting an older apartment in the city has always come with some downsides; single pane windows, musty bathrooms, chipped tile…yet it invariably offered the sense of a house in miniature; a separate kitchen and dining area, walk in closets, even reading nooks and studies. A one-bedroom apartment designed in the 20th century typically still offered those homely aspects that help the inhabitants escape the sensation that their domain consists solely of four walls and a bed.

As development strategists and designers, we advise our clients on the best way to create a high value, unique product that will yield a high return. When it comes to the apartment market, those units with the best returns are studios and one-bedrooms.  The average square footage of each of these unit types has been trending downward for at least the last decade. To offset smaller unit sizes residential developments often offer spacious communal building amenities. These amenities have proven very enticing to renters, while amortizing the cost for the developer over a few hundred units. Proper adherence to social distancing measures now means that the vast majority of these amenities are either closed entirely or severely underused, leaving renters resentful of the premium they are paying to be confined to a small apartment.

The other irresistible factor enticing renters into an undersized unit is location, location, location. When the world is your living room it’s easy to give up some extra square footage. Other sectors also adopted the concept of city as living room. Current hospitality design trends favor casual pubs and wine bars with soft seating and low light that mimic the traditional living room. Even many workplaces feel like an extension of the living room, offering lounges, game rooms and elevated dining experiences. As the weeks tick by and workplaces, restaurants and bars remain closed, a great number of people are experiencing their apartments very differently. Rather than a desirable urban “pied-a-terre” they are beginning to feel more like lavishly furnished prison cells.

Adding to the stress, rising rents and stagnating wages have increasingly driven people to co-habit with partners and roommates in apartments better suited for solo living. A one bedroom + den unit, that would offer a single inhabitant some options for a change of scenery is now more commonly a de-facto two-bedroom apartment - a change of scenery needs to be negotiated and agreed to. The greatest impacts of this decrease in personal space are being felt primarily by those in the new crop of apartments, built since the 2008 recession, that cater to millennials and young professionals. There is an entirely additional and worthwhile conversation to be had about the lack of adequate affordable housing options that has plagued working families for decades. For those sharing apartments with multiple family members or friends, personal space has been a luxury for much longer than the virus has been with us.

Now is the time to examine these truths. For all the benefits that can be realized by reducing the average apartment size, our current confinement is calling into question the role and value of personal space. What will a renter who has been confined to a one-bedroom apartment with an untidy roommate value in their next home? Will they hesitate to pay a premium for shared amenities in a building where they may be off-limits? Or will they instead choose to pay extra for a little more elbow-room? As offices stay closed or social distancing continues, more people will experience regular work-from-home schedules. Will renters want apartment configurations that accommodate home office set-ups and amenities that support them working from home?

Owners, builders, and designers need to be creative and nimble in crafting the next generation of market rate apartments. The Covid-19 pandemic is primed to disrupt daily life and will have a profound effect on the future sentiment of renters. Will they remember the long hours spent at home in 2020 and opt for the apartment with some more elbow room? It’s a question the market will have to consider.