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Upending the micro-housing myth in Denver

Small spaces can be beautiful, functional and energetic


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Denver has a housing problem. You’ve undoubtedly heard that one. Report after report is declaring a Front Range housing shortage, stemming from an unprecedented influx of new residents and a historic decline in housing inventory. Condominium development has become virtually non-existent and yet people continue to move here. These factors have meant a meteoric rise in rents and home prices that – without alternative solutions – will eventually lead to all but a select group of people being priced out of the market.

Fortunately, local government and development leaders are working on thoughtful solutions that take advantage of several timely actions.

With the state and local investments in public transit, as well as bike and pedestrian-friendly streets, there are more neighborhoods accessible in the Denver area than ever before. This means a newfound ability to live and work in or near your neighborhood without a car. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Austin and New York City have experienced declines in the use of personal automobiles by embracing alternative transportation. In addition to traffic and pollution reductions, fewer car-owners means developers can focus their attention on building quality housing that offers unique livability, without the distraction of underused and derided parking.

One type of housing transforming the Mile High City, and dozens of other world-class urban communities is small-space living or “micro-housing.” Small space living is rapidly expanding for two major reasons:

1. The aforementioned rise in home prices. Smaller units offer attainable ways to own or rent property in a desirable area, without the significant price tags of larger properties.

2. The second and more compelling reason small-space living is taking off is the undeniable lifestyle and cultural shift happening among all age groups to spend more time and money on experiences than on stuff, and that stuff includes a home and a car. Being able to live in the heart of town and rely on public, foot, bicycle or car-sharing has led many to a different way of experiencing the American dream.

Living in vibrant urban areas provides people with easy access to the experiences they want:

  • A wide variety of dining choices
  • Arts and cultural activities
  • Live music
  • Entertainment
  • Exercise
  • Outdoor activities
  • The ability to connect with their neighborhood in many ways.

What’s more, Denverites are craving ways to get out of the city’s traffic, which small-space living promotes through its focus on location and accessibility.

The term “micro-housing” conjures images of sterile hotel-like spaces that fail to offer aesthetically pleasing or even livable design. Many of the micro-housing projects in other cities merely take advantage of a financial opportunity to pack more people in a desirable neighborhood, rather than solve a true small-scale living solution.

Micro-housing should not mean compromise.

Instead of a drab four-walls-and-a-sink stereotype, the best small-space housing understands spatial proportions and the relationships between the common areas and the units, and within the units themselves. The key to making small space living attractive is investing the time in researching how people can most effectively live with the minimum and then determine the arrangement and position of those elements in a way that serves more than one function.

Livable small spaces hinge on a few key factors to make them pleasant and appealing. The design must consider higher ceilings, delivering as much natural light as possible, as well as an efficient use of space, like loft-style beds and multi-functional areas such as a long kitchen counter that doubles as a desk area. There should be enough room for a guest to visit, and ample storage space, that is ideally tucked away out of sight. High-end finishes make a big impact in small spaces; just because it’s small and resourceful, does not mean it needs to be rudimentarily finished. 

What’s more – micro-units’ success often lies in the building amenities, precisely what draws attention to a standard condo or apartment building. However, with the smaller living quarters, the focus on these spaces being truly effective and the need for them to be true enhancements to the project are essential. Community rooms for co-working or gatherings such as sharing a coffee or beer with neighbors, exceptional bike and personal storage, and creatively designed and functional outdoor spaces are just a few ways in which we help make small living more desirable.

In fact, these public spaces deliver what Colorado residents truly seek, regardless of the size of their home:

Community.

It’s contrary to common wisdom, but, small-space living is designed for people seeking the company of neighbors. Community is at the core of these projects, such as the housing development going in at 39th and Tennyson streets in the Highlands/Berkeley area, or the new multi-family residence at 16th and Humboldt, and a host of other micro-projects found throughout the Front Range. The people who will live here – a broad mix of generations not limited to millennials alone – are seeking an experience where they engage as neighbors, more so than virtually every other type of living situation.

This is the true essence of small-space living. While microhousing is not for everyone, for a significantly growing population of Denverites, smaller living is about achieving a lifestyle dream. Rather than settling for a smaller space, it’s about choosing to live life through experiences and neighborhood engagement rather than ownership of more stuff and more property. Minimalism is not just a style, or descriptor, it is a new-found way of living that is here to stay.  We’re fortunate to have diverse options in how we choose to live, and Denver’s population is to be commended for recognizing it.

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Nate Jenkins

With more than 19 years in the industry, Nate Jenkins has an extensive understanding of the design process from development to construction. He is collaborative and passionate, fostering long-term relationships with clients. Jenkins has worked in varied practice areas including retail, hospitality, workplace, resorts, multi-family, K-12 and higher-ed. Jenkins has also become an industry leader in the growing micro and small-unit design space.

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