Micro-living – is it about to take the world by storm?

As part of the study “Microliving – Urbanes Wohnen im 21. Jahrhundert” (Micro-living – urban living in the 21st century), the GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute looked into changes in the way we live. Stefan Breit, co-author of the study, talks about trends that will shape the future of living with Mélanie Ryser of Alfred Müller.

Forms of living reflect the social and cultural state of societies as a whole – and gradually adapt themselves to people. So what form might living take in a world whose inhabitants are growing more numerous, urban, desirous of experience, mobile and weary of possessions?

You recently published a study on urban living in the 21st century – what’s it about?

In a sentence, the study could be summarised like this: two trends dominate future living, individualisation and densification. This leads to micro-living. So, it is not primarily technological developments that shape the future of living, but social trends. These sweep across the built-up environment, with the power to influence how we will live in the future. Almost more important than densification, however, is the fact that many living needs are now satisfiable in less space than before. We will no longer need so much home space as we do today.

What does micro-living mean in practical terms?

Micro-living is about reducing to the max. In Switzerland, this means apartments with an area of around 30 square metres that provide everything necessary for independent living: a kitchen, a bathroom, a bed. What micro-living means globally, depends very much on the local context. In Japan, you can live within an area of 5.8 square metres. The East Coast of the USA defines micro-living at 37 to 46 square metres, in contrast with 28 square metres on the West Coast. The point in common between all those definitions is that micro-living involves a less-than-average area. Interestingly, it’s not so long ago that much of the world’s population lived in micro-apartments. According to a United Nations study, only 18 per cent of city dwellers worldwide had 20 square metres or more per person in 1995. This concept is now making a comeback. For many, living is no longer just a matter of prestige; they would rather spend their money on leisure time activities and travel. Micro-living is an answer to the thing really necessary to living: a sheltered and secure space.

Two trends dominate future living: individualisation and densification.

In the study, you identify six housing trends. Which ones will most impact our way of living?

I am convinced that it will primarily be the first trend: Collective Diversity. This considers a society that increasingly emphasises the individual and how that impacts the way we live. The number of single-person households continues to grow. When people live alone more frequently and for longer periods, a new need for community arises. And while this may seem paradoxical, it actually makes sense. Accordingly, this megatrend of individualisation will exert a major impact on the built-up environment.

You say that the number of people living alone continues to grow. What does this tendency say about the state of our society?

It’s rather risky to take individualisation as a basis for drawing conclusions about the state of society. Yet, conclusions certainly can be drawn from the appearance of the housing landscape. It’s not for nothing when people say that the form of living mirrors society. For example, where many people have large living areas, that points to affluence. When single-person households account for 50 per cent of the total in certain cities, that exerts a social influence. But the megatrend of individualisation should not be equated with egoism. Individualisation has increased people’s confidence in themselves and represents a shift from determination through outside factors to self-determination. Living alone and being alone are increasingly everyday phenomena that are being embraced with growing self-confidence. It follows that the trend towards single-person households spreading throughout society today no longer affects just individual age groups.

People and their needs change faster than building architecture. Does micro-living fit better with this dynamic of change?

Architecture can pick up only on fundamental trends; many short-term ones just bounce off the brick walls of the buildings. However, I believe that individualisation and densification really do have the potential to effect long-term change in the built-up environment. The advantage of micro-living is that it can suit everyone, from young students to pensioners. The only question is how micro-living will be put to use when the trend towards single-person households declines again. That will call for some fascinating architectural concepts. Trends and counter-trends often work in parallel. In an increasingly individualistic world, people are looking for a new form of community at the same time. This may no longer mean family but friends or fellow students – a substitute family, so to speak. For this reason, forms of living that serve the individual and provide opportunity for communal exchange will become increasingly important in the future.

In your study, you mention co-living arrangements, an intriguing concept for start-up residences that is so far unknown in Switzerland. How does co-living work?

Co-living blends working with living. In such an arrangement, residential curators try to bring together people with similar values and interests, so they can enter into fruitful mutual exchange. This quickens the need for a living “comfort zone”. It is interesting for landlords because tenants will stay longer when they feel comfortable in their surroundings.

Architecture can only pick up on fundamental trends.

Do you think that our mobility will lead to a massive reduction in office space and the rise of micro-working?

That’s an interesting point. For many, living and working are becoming harder to separate. There are plenty of people whose professional activity requires nothing more than an Internet connection and a power outlet. For society, this marks a fundamental change that affects our way of living and working. Take Zurich, where office space is already standing vacant while people work in cafés, on trains and in parks. Having an office to work in is becoming growing more and more unnecessary.

Micro-living is an urban concept mostly seen in large cities such as Tokyo, London, New York and San Francisco, where living space is extremely expensive. Will it come to Switzerland as well?

I am sure it will, especially as cities expand further and people’s amount of living space comes under pressure. In the future, living in small spaces will no longer be perceived as inherent sacrifice. The association of well-being with space occupancy will dissolve. But I don’t know whether concepts like the one in San Francisco will succeed here. Over there, they currently have eight projects that provide dormitories or “dorms”: you no longer sleep within your own four walls but together with 20 other people in the same room. Very high rents are the main driver here.

Just how far such concepts can go has much to do with the cultural context. Here too, a combination or mix of differing residential uses is likely in the future. When all the functions of living can no longer be satisfied within our own four walls, it will affect the general fixtures and fittings. This raises the question of what we are prepared to share. Can we do without our own kitchen? Bathroom? Bedroom? This is something for everyone to decide individually.

It’s not for nothing when people say that the form of living mirrors society.

The study also talks about the “neo-village”. What exactly does that mean?

This term addresses the megatrend of individualisation and the new need for community. Residents of some urban developments are trying to generate a kind of village character. But one danger here is the creation of a filter bubble built of stone: your housing complex provides for all your wants and you no longer need to engage with developments and people outside of it. In summary, the neo-village addresses the change that will make it possible to live a village-style life in an urban setting.

What do you personally consider to be the study’s most profound insight?

It was very interesting to see how many people live alone. Take a walk through Basel and knock on a random front door. The chance of that door leading to a single-person household is 50 per cent. Countrywide, the number of people living alone exceeds the combined population of Switzerland’s eight largest cities!

What also stays with me is the example of an interesting thought experiment, the human cube: were you to pack all humanity together, the result would be a cube with sides 1.3 kilometres long. Such a structure would be small enough to jog around in only half an hour. It is extremely impressive when you realise that the many people living on earth would occupy so little space if they were compressed together. This cube represents exactly the questions we need to ask ourselves about the future of living: how close do we want to be to one another, who do we want to live with, how can we live a life that allows for expression of character? The social changes here are more interesting than the technological ones. In terms of living, it makes relatively little difference whether robots build our houses or whether we have solar panels on the roof. While technologies such as these don’t impact the living experience per se, they definitely do impact the experience of living together. Having a smartphone, with family and friends in your pocket all the time, impacts how we communicate with our neighbours. And it impacts how much land we need to occupy for our well-being.

The future of living – study of iLive AG

The study identified six theses from which statements can be derived on how we will live in the future: 

  1. Collective Diversity: continuing divergence in forms of housing and the rise of the collective.
  2. Peak Home: deconstruction of housing functions leading to co-evolution between apartment, neighbourhood and city.
  3. Platform Living: increased flexibility of living; some degree of mobility coming to fixed property.
  4. Augmented Convenience: technology’s capability to make living a highly personalised experience.
  5. Branded Living: living in developments bearing a corporate brand name, “branded residences”.
  6. Somewhere Strikes Back: as the trend towards a mobile, open lifestyle grows stronger, so does the counter-trend towards a rooted, simple lifestyle.

The study is downloadable (in German) at gdi.ch/microliving18

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