When most people talk about decreasing the size of their carbon footprint, they think about driving less, composting more, or eating locally. What doesn't often get considered is how much personal space we are taking up on this planet.
Treehugger founder and wealthy entrepreneur Graham Hill's sermon on "small living" lit up the TED talk circuit last year after he gave up a Seattle mansion to shack up in a 420-square-foot micro-apartment full of convertible furniture. Now, his consulting firm, Life Edited, has launched a project in the Brazilian megacity of Sao Paulo, where Hill is working with local developers to construct a building consisting of 173-square-foot apartments. It will rise in the Vila Olimpia neighborhood, an area that caters to university students and corporate tech giants.
Hill and Life Edited chief designer Catalin Sandu have just released the first renderings. Like Hill's first apartment, the living spaces feature a bed that hides behind a wall, an expanding table that can seat five, and high-quality, locally sourced furniture. The VN Quatà, as the apartments are called, also include a kitchen counter that can transform into a desk, a full bathroom, and a 75-square-foot balcony. The building will include hotel-like services, like daily room cleaning, as well as a lounge, a café, and a pool. The first apartments, which are being developed in conjunction with architecture firm Basiches Arquitetos Associados and developers VITACON, will likely be available by 2016.
Traditionally, apartments can be considered "micro" if they range up to roughly 400 square feet. But Hill's apartments are far more extreme—they will have less square footage than four ping-pong tables pushed together. And while price is tentative, Hill says developers expect each to sell for $160,000 a pop—at $974 per square foot, that's more expensive than the price per average square foot in New York City's highly coveted Park Slope neighborhood. In October, the average price of real estate in all of Sao Paulo was $311 per square foot.
So who might sign up to live in the VN Quatà? "[The developers] think it'll be a lot of young university students, a lot of young professionals, people who are divorced, and older people," Hill said. "When suddenly there are only two of you, or one of you, and all the kids are gone, and you lived in a rural area, you can be a little closer to the center of the action."
Hill says that his main ambition for the project is to foster a more environmentally friendly way of life for workers and university students who may have otherwise needed to spend long hours burning up carbon and commuting into the city center. "It's important to me that there's an environmental angle to all this. Helping people not commute is the big benefit, but also living in much smaller square footage, there's less to heat, less to cool, less space to have more stuff," he said.
Still, it's difficult to imagine the elderly having a particularly easy time folding up a full size bed and adjusting tables every time they want to sleep or eat a meal with friends. But Hill says that the size of the apartment apparently doesn't violate health or building regulations—nor does he think it should.
"For me, people should be able to build whatever they want, and if people don't buy it, the developer goes out of business," Hill said. "If someone wants to live in 90 square feet, and it's healthy, great, go for it.
It's also important to note that Sao Paulo's larger housing market functions much differently than in the Vila Olimpia district. Earlier this month, police released tear gas on a crowd of 100 protesters demonstrating over forced slum clearances and evictions. But Vila Olimpia is also home to Google, Intel, Microsoft, Unilever, and several other multinational offices—and micro-living could serve a very specific, though small, demand. VITACON already has seven pieces of real estate in the neighborhood serving a young professional demographic.
"I think most micro-apartments go up around innovation districts, like in Boston and New York. They're seeing enormous amounts of tech growth and attraction of relatively young tech workers, some of whom are coming directly out of college," explained Bruce Katz, founding director of the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. "This seems to be responding to a small, almost infinitesimal housing demand. But this really doesn't describe the Sao Paulo housing market writ large."
Hill, though, hopes to expand micro-living to more than just the moneyed classes, though micro-living as a solution for everyone has much to prove, and much skepticism to overcome. (See the sordid histories of single room occupancies, or SROs, in the United States.) "It's a space for every income bracket. We're very interested in that," Hill says, though he acknowledges 173 square feet might not be the best place for a family. "I don't just want to do stuff for rich people."