Micro-units – flats starting at 20m² – were having a moment just before Covid. The first micro-units – or apartments – were going up in Woodstock, Cape Town at 1 on Albert and other developers were copying the idea.
But with the pandemic, there was a move for people to leave the cities to work from home or seek bigger living spaces with room for a home office. This happened locally and globally. However, year two into this pandemic, micro-units are still popular. So, why have middle-class South Africans continued to buy and rent small living spaces?
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Well, say the experts, size doesn’t really matter when it comes to location, location, location… and economics.
Now, more than ever, given the state of the economy, people are chasing value and micro-units offer that, says Patrick Gardner, director of Gardner Property Solutions, who brought micro-units to South Africa with 1 on Albert.
Another reason, it appears, is that worldwide enthusiasm for working from home is beginning to fade with hybrid working solutions coming into play and, in places such as London, we are seeing workers returning to the office – some willingly – tired of the isolation of country living and longing for the theatre life, clubs and buzz of a city.
“In Cape Town, people did leave the city but they are coming back now, too, big time,” says Gardner. “Cape Town CBD is filling up with workers again. Traffic is approaching previous levels, which is irritating for commuters and this helps drive our micro-market.”
Experts say another reason for the rise of small is that many who bought in the countryside during the pandemic also want an economical, smaller place in the city for the days when they have to work in the office.
These are known as crash pads – affordable, fuss-free and centrally located. Since the days of 1 on Albert, other micro-unit buildings have begun shooting up all over the country. Keith Anderson, Dogon development and sales agent for a number of micro-units in Cape Town, says affordability and the minimalist movement are driving the popularity of these units.
“People with big apartments have discovered they rarely use all their space but are still paying high levies and rates. Added to that, with many people having active lifestyles outside the home, big living spaces are no longer a prerequisite.”
Lesley Rensburg, a Dogon Property Group agent who also represents a number of micro developments, agrees.
“We see a trend of buyers who live small because they are constantly on the go; they work on the go, eat on the go and literally just need a bed to lay their heads. “People spend less time at home and so need less room. They also travel a lot and need a space they can easily lock up and leave.”
Gardner adds that people love their own space, even if it’s small. “Our units are renting very well, both long and short term. There is a new development in town where the rents are similar to ours but the units have shared kitchens. The uptake has been poor. People want their own space.”
Architect Lauren Bolus, partner at Fabian Architects and Make Studio, interior architects of the new (inside and out) green micro development the Fynbos in Cape Town’s Bree Street, believes micro-apartments are popular because they are cheaper which attracts youngsters. “Cities need residents to keep the city alive, so it is a great way to regenerate a city centre.
“It’s a new way of thinking for many. Embrace the essentials for living and don’t gather unnecessary belongings.” Live Easy in Gauteng is an example where small has worked – but for another market. These are people who, in the absence of any other dignified, cost-effective accommodation, would previously have rented a bed in a shared room or small flat. Here nano units – starting at 13m² – offer affordable accommodation in busy nodes to the gap market where cash-strapped, but upwardly mobile, young South Africans can live close to their work.
Live Easy co-founder James Huff says property economics dictate that the closer to central or desirable nodes you live, the higher the property prices.
“By reducing the size of your living space in these desirable nodes, you, in turn, reduce the total price paid for that space.” Much like micro-units for the middle class, the emerging market for nano living ranges from young to old, says Huff. Rensburg says middle-class buyers are also diverse.
“Our buyers range from middle-aged professionals, parents buying for varsity students and Joburg investors. Surprisingly, retirees are also buying into these developments – it seems the older you get, the less hassle you want, and maintenance can become expensive.” Will the trend to small continue?
Gardner says: “This is just a guess but I believe if the economy turned, and we were thriving, we might see a return to bigger apartments. But for now, micro-apartments make the most sense.”
An idea to reality
They were inspired by overseas trends and a student accommodation offering in Adderley Street,” says Patrick Gardner director of Gardner Property Solutions, developers of 1 on Albert, the first micro development in Cape Town to go to market.
“If our neighbours were selling new studios for R1.8 million, and we could offer the market smaller quality ones at R1m, then we figured they should fly – and they did. It also opened up a market segment that had not really been tapped into.
“It took a while to convince the banks of what we were doing but they all came on board for granting bonds.
“Most of the studios to rent in the city had no parking, so we made that an option to purchase. Separating units and parking were also a first, as far as we know. Again, the banks took a while to buy into it. Now it’s an acceptable norm.” But how did they get middle-class South Africans to buy an apodment?
“We believed the market was shifting and needed a more affordable option – there were plenty of people out there renting studios for the same amount as our micros’ bond costs would be.” It worked, says Gardner.
“Limited space in the centres, and traffic being a pain, meant that people wanted to live close to work and add two hours to their free time. “Buyers jumped in – it really is a sign of the times when people are economically stretched and looking for value.”
How do you make small living appealing?
Patrick Gardner of Gardner Property Solutions, says: “We upped the spec in the offering: floor-to-ceiling glass to maximise outlook, balconies on each unit to have more break-out space and high-spec appliances.
“The units were cleverly designed to maximise the space.” Architect Lauren Bolus, partner at Fabian Architects and Make Studio, adds the design of a micro-apartment needs to be carefully considered as every centimetre counts. Although one needs storage space, it is better not to clutter the space with lots of cupboards as this would make it feel even smaller than it is.
“The key to successful micro-living is to offer a lifestyle outside of your apartment and include a desirable option in the shared spaces.” “When providing exceptionally small apartments to live in, it becomes important to offer some generous common spaces, like shared workspaces, cinema rooms, green spaces, gyms and pool areas.
“Retail spaces also become an active ingredient in such buildings as the residents depend on them for meals, working and entertainment. If such spaces are provided, the apartment dweller doesn’t need to cater for large areas for cooking and entertaining.
“The apartments become a hotel suite where one’s living is reduced to more essential events such as sleeping and showering.”
Asked what clever designs for micro-living she uses, Bolus says: “I prefer studio units to a one-bedroom unit. Studio apartments allow more open-plan living, creating the illusion of a more generous space. Large windows and views make a space feel more comfortable.”