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Hong Kong-style microflats arrive in the US

Architect behind New York development drew inspiration from living in Ma On Shan as a student

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 March, 2015, 4:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 11:52am

Memories of life in Ma On Shan are helping to influence New York's tentative first step into the world of Hong Kong-style microflat living.

Ammr Vandal, who spent two years as a student in the New Territories town as a teenager, is one of the architects behind Manhattan's first complex of flats measuring less than 400 sq ft. From 1996 to 1998, she shared a flat with other students at the Li Po Chun United World College and found it a far cry from the large, colonial home where she was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan.

"As a former Hong Kong resident, my experience of living in small and efficient living spaces definitely influenced my own lifestyle and belief in the idea of living 'micro'," Vandal said. The experience helped shape her ideas about urban design.

She had the opportunity to put those ideas into practice when nARCHITECTS, the New York firm where she works, won a 2013 competition sponsored by the city to build low-cost microflats in Manhattan.

Called My Micro NY, the 10-storey block will comprise 55 modular flats between 260 sq ft and 360 sq ft. While that would be not unusual in Hong Kong, in normal circumstances they would breach New York building codes, which state that all flats must be more than 400 sq ft. The rule was waived for this project, set up as the city looks for ways to address a problem familiar to Hong Kong: a lack of affordable homes amid some of the world's most expensive real es tate.

While Hong Kong's government has tried a raft of measures to cool soaring prices, many Hongkongers crowds into tiny, subdivided flats or cage homes, putting their health at risk.

Vandal said her team did not look at any specific Hong Kong projects, but "we were trying to answer similar issues of density and housing demographics that Hong Kong also faces".

"For both cities, it's a lack of space, changing demographics and in Hong Kong, it's almost a political question of how do you provide housing at the right time, the right place and the right scale," she said. "New York is starting to address these same questions through such programmes and projects.

"Hong Kong, for any architect, is always present because of what's going on there. There's no way to avoid Hong Kong, it's one of the prime examples of the built environment that we have in our world so you can't not think about Hong Kong."

Vandal said the project reflected a growing global trend for "microliving", something Hong Kong pushed to the extreme in October with the launch of its tiniest flat at Mont Vert II in Tai Po, measuring just 165 sq ft.

"New York and Hong Kong have a lot in common," Vandal said. "There are a lot more young professionals in Hong Kong and New York than in other urban environments but these apartments are also catering to the elderly who don't need or want larger spaces to take care of."

The modules for the building are taking shape in the Brooklyn Naval Yard before being taken across the East River to Manhattan, where they will be stacked up to form the apartment complex.

Each flat will house one or two people, with monthly rents ranging from US$2,000 to US$3,000. About 40 per cent will be reserved for low-income tenants, with rent starting from US$950.

"It's a definite no-brainer that this would definitely work in Hong Kong," Vandal said.

The flats have received resistance - the New York Post memorably headlined its story on the development 'Desperate New Yorkers to live in glorified shoeboxes'. But Vandal says that smaller flats will be needed in the long term, despite the resistance.

"Living small isn't a new concept as people have been living in small living quarters for a long time, but it is becoming more of a trend as people become more environmentally conscious and begin to live beyond the four walls of their home," she said.