The Big Squeeze: Illustrating Micro-Unit Housing

Built mostly with nuclear families in mind, New York’s housing stock falls short of addressing the needs of its increasingly diverse demographics — a topic we explored in depth in Making Room, a project of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council and the Architectural League. One of the solutions to this challenge currently generating a lot of discussion among designers, policy experts, developers, and academics are micro units — studios smaller than New York City regulations currently allow — considered one way to serve the needs of the city’s growing proportion of one- and two-person households. Last year, the City launched adAPT NYC, a design competition for a lot in Manhattan that will explore new ideas for micro-unit housing. Construction is planned for 2014.

New York’s City’s housing crunch affects every resident of the five boroughs, but the complexities of housing policy and the history that created the city’s current housing stock are understood, discussed, and decided by a relative few. As the debate continues around how micro units fit into the city’s future and plans to prepare for continued growth in existing limits, many of the residents affected by these changes are left out of the discussion. To examine the current fascination with micro units, the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) — a non-profit organization that uses art and design to break down complex urban issues into simple, accessible, visual explanations to be used as tools by educators and organizers — teamed up with students at the Academy of Urban Planning, a urban planning-themed high school in Brooklyn. The result was The Big Squeeze, a poster illustrating and simplifying many of the laws, opinions, and theories affecting the discussion around micro-unit housing.

CUP teaching artist Chat Travieso worked with a small group of students  and — through interviews, design, and presentations — created a powerful tool to make the discussion of this new housing model accessible to a greater population. The results can help empower individuals, especially the students who worked on the project, to become educated on the built environment around them, the first step towards participating in shaping it.


The Big Squeeze | Visit CUP’s website for information on purchasing a display-quality copy.

More and more people are living in New York City, yet the city’s housing stock, much of which was built with nuclear families in mind, hasn’t kept up with the rise of single New Yorkers. Many see micro units — tiny studio apartments that are smaller than what is currently legally allowed — as a way to accommodate this growing population in an already cramped city. Others fear that these cozy living spaces serve only a small group, and question their ability to meaningfully address the city’s housing challenges. So who’s being left out? And how much space do we need to live anyways?

These are some of the questions that came up during The Big Squeeze, a Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) Urban Investigation into the city’s current fascination with tiny dwellings I led in collaboration with high school students from the Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick.

CUP’s Urban Investigations aim to move beyond the traditional classroom setting by engaging students in hands-on research and using art and design to promote civic engagement and increase their awareness of the city’s decision-making processes. The goal is to create a teaching tool that is uniquely a product of the group, a result of a fun and collaborative investigation process that identifies and uses each individual’s strengths and interests. The format of this tool changes with each investigation — for this project, we discussed creating a comic book or a board game, but eventually settled on a collage-based poster that demonstrated the topic’s complexity through a sense of chaos and density, and made use of each individual’s skills and artistic styles.

The material presented on the poster was informed by a series of interviews the students conducted with a range of experts in the field of housing, each of whom offered a particular point of view on micro units. We talked to architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld about single room occupancies (SROs), sociologist and author of Going Solo Eric Klinenberg about changing living trends, Ari Goldstein from the Jonathan Rose Companies about regulatory hurdles, Andy Reicher and Emily Ng from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) about alternative housing option, and Gabriella Amabile from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) about the City’s adAPT NYC Competition.

Students photographed their models and learned about lighting, depth of field, and image framing in the process.

We started with a number of games and art projects that challenged students to think visually and outside the box. One such exercise asked the students to choose a character — ranging from Jay-Z to a space alien to an 18th century blacksmith — from a hat and build a model of what that character’s home would look like using a shoe box. This helped the students think about how different people have different spatial needs. The students then photographed their shoe box apartments, which helped them learn photo documentation skills, such as the difference between wide, medium, and close-up shots. This came in handy later when documenting the interviews.

The students developed interview skills by practicing on each other in the classroom and people on the street, an invaluable exercise in learning how to be active agents in seeking out, not passively receiving, information. To prepare for the formal interviews that would inform the project’s final teaching tool, students researched our list of interviewees and developed questions as a group. We always met interviewees at their offices — out of the classroom and out in the city — where the students presented the project topic, asked questions, took notes, sketched, recorded, and photographed the conversations. This active process of experience, observation, and engagement helps the students understand the city as a place built as a result of decisions, policies, and laws, all of which were crafted and put in place by people.

After the interviews we analyzed and interpreted what we learned, came up with ways to be more effective for the next interview, and refined our questions to fill in the gaps in our research. The poster design uses a building cross section to show a number of apartments on multiple floors, with each level of the building representing a different point of view, such as how household sizes have changed over the years, the benefits of micro units, the drawbacks of these tiny apartments, other options such as communal living, and finally, the kinds of regulatory barriers that prevent these changes from happening.

Detail of The Big Squeeze poster

Each session, we discussed what stories we wanted the different floors to tell. Each student then focused on a different argument within that point of view. I would encourage them to be even more absurd or outrageous with their illustration. It was an iterative process; the students would see the progress of the overall poster and respond. Illustrator Ryan Hartley, graphic designer Yeju Choi, and architect Travis Eby gave us feedback and graphic designer Mary Voorhees Meehan helped with the typography.

The goal of a CUP Urban Investigation is not to make an argument for one side or another, but to talk to a range of stakeholders and present the complete picture of a complex issue in accessible terms. The collaborative and interactive research process is educational, challenging, and fulfilling for both the students and the teacher. The project encouraged the students to question the everyday built environment, and appreciate the varying needs of different people in different circumstances. By doing so, they refrained from blindly accepting any one solution — in this case, micro units — as completely good or bad and developed a greater understanding of the decisions that create the spaces in which we live.

The three students that participated in The Big Squeeze, Antonio Capellan, Miguel Ruiz, and Christopher Viquez, sat down with Chat Travieso and Urban Omnibus Assistant Editor Daniel Rojo to discuss their experience working on an Urban Investigation. Read on for excerpts from that conversation.

Left to Right: Miguel Ruiz, Christopher Viquez, Antonio Capellan | Photo by Daniel Rojo

How did the project start off?

Antonio: Chat asked us to look at a picture of an apartment and tell the story of who lived there and what was happening in the space. For example, I remember one photo was of a huge apartment, so I said a family was living there, because they had a lot of kids and needed room. Second, we had to think about space, and then draw whatever we thought was interesting — in the classroom, in the hallway, wherever.

Christopher: Then we did 3D models, based on scenarios that were our ideas.

What did you get out of those first couple steps before you started looking at actual housing?

Christopher: It made me feel like an architect because building models is what they do everyday. Being able to build one made me feel creative. Then we started taking pictures and learning about different angles, long shots, medium shots, and detail shots.

Antonio: We were practicing because we knew we were going to take photographs during the interviews.

Christopher: After that, we started working on the interviews.

Street interviews in Bushwick, Brooklyn

Who did you interview and why did you think it was important to talk to the people that you did?

Christopher: First we interviewed people in subway stations and asked them how much space they think they need. We wanted to know their opinions because they represent the public.

Miguel: It was also practice, to learn how to interview. And it helped us learn that not everybody in the subway station has the same opinion as we do, or the architects or writers we talked to.

Christopher: We all decided together what we were going to ask. We depended on Chat a little bit, and he would ask us to be more broad or more specific — but then we’d go too specific or too broad, so we had to keep on thinking.

Miguel: A day before we did each interview we read a little about the person and we came up with questions. Everybody had different opinions that came together in the poster. Jonathan Kirschenfeld talked about single room occupancy units and Eric Klinenberg talked about how more and more people are coming to live alone, so they can use smaller apartments.

Antonio: And Emily Ng talked about shared spaces, and how those affect other people.

Christopher Viquez interviews architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld while Antonio Capellan documents

What did you do with the material from the interviews?

Christopher: We started making the poster on tracing paper. We sketched what everything was going to look like, and then we divided into groups to see who would do what. Everything was hands-on. We cut out pictures from magazines and made collages. That was the base of the project, collage.

Antonio: We each did different sections. We planned the poster in levels, and we each contributed to each level. I did one room, he did another.

Chat: We all worked together. We talked about our ideas and how to best represent them. Then I took all the collages, scanned them, and started putting them together. Then I printed it out and we talked about it, traced over it, drew over it, and did more collages to fill in all the blank spaces. It was iterative, more and more stuff.

Working together making collages for the final poster

How was this different from your other schoolwork? Had you worked on any projects as a group like this before?

Christopher: Normally, when they assign something at school it’s independent. I like independent work, but working in a group like this was more interesting. There was also more pressure, because we had to work under strained time. I think you learn more when you work hands on.

Miguel: There was also more pressure because we had to present the ideas to other people. It wasn’t just in school. We didn’t receive a grade for this, it was about people’s opinions. And coming up with the questions was hard. I liked all the research we did, the interviews, the creative thinking, what you can show without words, what you can show in pictures and drawings.

Has this project changed how you look at housing and the city?

Miguel: I know a lot more about housing now, what the different apartment sizes mean, why they can’t be too small, and you can’t put too many of them in one building. It changed my views.

Christopher: It inspired me to think about becoming an architect.

A critique session with illustrator Ryan Hartley, graphic designer Yeju Choi, and architect Travis Eby to get feedback on the poster

Did you talk about this with your families and friends? Do you think this is an important thing for the average person walking down the street to know about?

Christopher: I brought my poster home, all of us did. My family said it was nice, but they didn’t ask any questions. I think it’s important for them to learn more about where they live. If they’re interested, they can find out more and they can take a stand. The community makes a lot of decisions. If they have any objections, and they have information, they can make an argument.

How does this make you think differently about the houses or apartments you live in now?

Christopher: I want to live in one of these micro units. When I leave home, if I don’t live on campus during college, I could live in a micro unit.

You guys are still living with families at home, micro units are not great for families. So why are they important if they’re only for a small chunk of the population?

Miguel: Things are changing now, back in the day a lot of people were in one apartment. Now a lot of people are coming to live alone, so you don’t always need a big apartment for one person.

Christopher: And they’re important for people who can’t find affordable housing, and people who are by themselves, or going to college, or don’t want to live in a huge apartment because they’re going to pay too much rent.

Illustrating Single Room Occupancies as part of a post-interview analysis

How else was this particular project different than most of your other classes?

Antonio: We decided what we did, not the teacher, and based it on the needs of the people. At school we don’t usually do projects about our environment, or what happens around us. We do more history, math problems, or English. But this project was for ourselves.

Christopher: There was more real thinking involved, because we did so much analysis before and after the interviews.

Miguel: I like projects about things that are happening out in the city, like the micro units in Kips Bay.

If you were able to do this one more time, this whole process, is there something else that you’d like to look into?

Antonio: Skyscrapers. How strong the structure has to be, the engineering.

Christopher: Different transportation methods, and the routes, and how the routes were developed. Because they look like random paths. I wonder how they decide those routes.

Miguel: Yeah, how to deal with traffic, roads, bridges, and those sorts of things.


Chat Travieso is a Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist and designer who creates interactive urban interventions that engage communities and deal with issues of public space and the everyday built environment. He is currently working on a number of public art installations including Paths to Pier 42 with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the Lower East Side Waterfront Alliance, and the NYC Department of Transportation’s Summer Streets Urban Art Intervention. He is also the Design Trust for Public Space’s Participatory Design Fellow for Under the Elevated, a planning study that will develop strategies to maximize the function, use and spatial qualities of the spaces under New York City’s elevated transit infrastructure.

Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of Chat Travieso.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

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