Op-Ed: The Merits of Micro-Units

Superkül on multiplying housing options and taking a bite-sized approach to an outsized problem.

A new micro-unit prototype designed by Superkül featuring a retractable ceiling bed. Photography by Ryan Fung.

Every day brings more news about Canada’s — and the world’s — housing crisis. Large numbers of people of different demographics are moving out of the cities they know and love in search of more affordable rents and mortgages. Most of us are already familiar with the manifold conditions that have led to this predicament. It’s a perfect multi-pronged storm that was brewing well before the pandemic created cost volatility and dramatic price increases in a short period of time, straining the seams of our already frayed social fabric. Some of the key drivers bear repeating, however, if only to underscore the complexity of the situation we are facing as a nation.

Canadian cities are facing record-low vacancy rates and record-high average rent growth, according to CMHC’s latest Rental Market Report. In the last 15 years, the combined surge in non-Canadian real estate investors and short-term rentals have given rise to a market in which rental prices have skyrocketed and a sizable (but difficult to confirm) number of condo units — the main source of rental stock in cities like Toronto and Vancouver — often sit empty. (To wit, the federal government implemented a two-year ban on the purchase of residential property by non-Canadians that took effect on January 1, 2023; it was subsequently extended until 2027. Toronto started to enforce new rules in 2021 intended to regulate short-term rental platforms in the city; British Columbia is inaugurating similar legislation starting May 2024.) This is to say nothing of other detrimental trends — renovictions and the financialization of housing — which have been climbing both nationally and globally.

Home ownership remains out of reach for many Canadians. Houses have appreciated steadily over the last several years, and higher interest rates intended to curb post-pandemic inflation have resulted in elevated borrowing costs; property tax and insurance premiums have also gone up. All of these factors have contributed to fewer people buying homes overall, putting additional pressure on an already strained rental market.

New condominium construction in Toronto, which hit an all-time high in 2023, continues to outpace desperately needed investments in and updates to infrastructure, especially when it comes to public transit. Keen to amplify housing and densify communities, municipalities across the country are revising zoning and planning guidelines to encourage the development of the “missing middle” across our neighbourhoods. But this change will not be fast; lengthy financing and approvals processes, in addition to the sheer time required to build new structures, mean that change will be incremental and slow.

Housing affordability and supply are intertwined crises that require action on multiple fronts, leadership across all levels of government, and the participation of various actors in both the public and private sectors. Case in point: at the time of writing this article, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was making frequent announcements about various new policy commitments ahead of the Liberal government’s April 16 budget, including a $15-billion top-up to the existing Apartment Construction Loan Program, a $6-billion program to build and repair infrastructure that supports housing developments, and a $1.5-billion fund to protect existing rental stock, all of which attest to the gravity of the situation and the significant ongoing efforts to address it.

Government money and targeted incentives with measurable impacts are critical. But there is no one approach or magic bullet to solving a highly compounded problem. It has had us thinking deeply about what the most effective paths could be. While architects don’t play a top-down role in setting policy or dictating development deals, we are in a position, however, to help build alternatives from the bottom up, quite literally.

One of the firm’s earlier projects, 40R Laneway House (2009) converts an existing laneway building into a compact single-family residence. Photography by Tom Arban

At Superkül, we have been called on to multiply housing options at all scales, create choice, and diversify the ways in which people can find, afford, and make a home. The firm has built its practice by designing housing. In the early years, we honed our expertise by taking on a variety of projects, from infill to complex renovations to homes of all shapes and sizes: detached single-family dwellings; laneway and garden suites; live-work duplexes. Every new residential project we took on was an opportunity to sharpen our skills with respect to functional design. Over time, we evolved and grew by transferring and scaling that knowledge to tackle larger-scale ventures: multi-unit and mixed-use developments that include rental apartments, condominiums, townhouses, and, most recently, micro-units.

Superkül has over 20 purpose-built rental projects either completed or in-progress. Pictured here, Oben Flats Leslieville (2016). Photography by Michael Muraz

Living small has gained popularity over the last several years for being a more economical, sustainable, and ultimately responsible way of life. Micro-units, which are typically defined as residential spaces under 400 sf, have been popular for some time in cities like Hong Kong and Seoul. They have become increasingly popular in American cities since New York’s Carmel Place became a case study for more affordable and elegant micro-apartment design in response to a competition that was explicitly launched to address that city’s housing crisis.

And now micro-units are gaining traction in Canadian urban centres. Historically, small-scale living quarters, usually classified as single-room occupancy units found in rooming houses and hotels, fell out of favour, as the quality and standards of the units were difficult to regulate and enforce. New zoning laws, changing urban conditions, and advances in product design and design solutions have all changed significantly in recent decades, however, setting the stage for a rebirth — and a rebrand — of the typology.

As of April 2024, Superkül is pursuing micro-unit design in no less than three new developments in central Toronto that range from 10 to 22 storeys, including an office conversion. These projects excite us for a number of reasons. Geared to students and young working adults, micro-units offer young people a way to live in — or in close proximity to — the heart of the city. This is critical to keeping our downtowns vibrant, diverse, and prosperous. Micro-condos provide first-time homebuyers an opportunity to get into the real estate market at a more affordable price; micro-apartments add much-needed rental stock to the city and cost less to rent than their bigger square-foot counterparts. Importantly, the typology adds density to areas of the city that have the existing infrastructure, commercial landscape, and community amenities to support more people. Just as the city needs more family-sized condo and rental units, it also stands to benefit from embracing a typology for single people and couples who are studying or starting out their careers and want the flexibility to live in a part of the city that is close to school, work, and/or family.

A new micro-unit prototype designed by Superkül. Photography by Ryan Fung.

Providing uplifting and generous community amenities within buildings that include micro-units is also essential to the overall design approach. People’s ability to access these right outside their door, both directly in the building as well as in their neighbourhoods, underpins the long-term success of these developments. Work areas, shared kitchens, outdoor spaces — these communal amenities are always critical to the health of multi-unit buildings. But they are especially integral to the success of purpose-built micro-unit developments in which well-being and densification go hand-in-hand. Meaningful programming that optimizes daylight and provides access to the outdoors to complement individual living quarters is paramount. Our job, as architects, is to develop schemes that help tenants maximize the different ways in which they can use their units and their buildings in combination so that their individual needs are met and their everyday experiences enhanced.

One of the most fun and gratifying parts of designing these smaller dwellings is how they challenge us to solve a puzzle on hard mode. The units must ultimately behave like a Swiss Army Knife: they need to be both hyper- and multi-functional, with every unique piece nesting into the whole to create a small but powerful “tool” for living. In the face of more stringent spatial constraints, every square inch must be leveraged for efficiency and/or perform in more than one way. The most analogous design feats are boats and airplanes, which strive to satisfy multiple functional requirements as efficiently and seamlessly as possible. Contemporary furniture solutions, like retractable ceiling beds, collapsible closets, and moveable television and desk consoles, are innovations that make it possible to optimize further for versatility and configurability. In keeping with Superkül’s general design tenets, we strive to produce clever and considered designs that deploy clean, neutral, and modern materials, giving people every opportunity to personalize and make these spaces their own.

A new micro-unit prototype designed by Superkül for Forum Asset Management. Photography by Ryan Fung.

We know that micro-units won’t solve the housing crisis. When it comes to a home, there’s no one-size-fits-all; every individual’s criteria, budget, and desires are different. We do believe, however, that they have a role to play in multiplying the range of available options in a city that must broaden its approach to providing more housing than it currently does. Toronto still needs more deeply affordable housing, more low-rise multiplexes, and more units designed for families. Micro-units aren’t a panacea, but they can go a small way in helping to tackle the bigger problem.