The world is now 53 percent urbanised, against 29 percent in 1950 and 39 percent in 1980.
By 2050, that figure is likely to be closer to 70 percent, with as many as 100 megacities, each with a population of over 10 million. Today, the world has only 24 such cities.
This unstoppable reality brings both opportunities and challenges. The scramble for space and scourges such as air pollution and traffic jams are now a regular occurrence.
However, these pressures create the opportunity for more sustainable resource use as well as new ways of communal living prompted by large numbers of people living in close proximity.
In city environments hard-pressed for space with a rapidly growing population, micro living has taken root in urban centres like Tokyo, where domestic spaces can fall below 200 sq ft.
More recently, Seattle has welcomed boarding house-style micro housing featuring rooms of less than 100 sq ft, with kitchens and livings rooms that are shared by building residents.
As house prices rise dramatically in Kuala Lumpur (KL), residents are forced further and further out into the suburbs, resulting in increasing travel times, fuel use, traffic jams and pollution.
Micro housing could be the answer, and simultaneously work to bring new life back into the city centre.
“We cannot stop urbanisation but we can make it sustainable,” Nurliza Hashim, Chief Executive of Urbanice Malaysia, said to the Star’s R.AGE team.
Not only are micro houses models of efficiency when it comes to the use of space, they are also energy- and resource- efficient.
Due to its size and capacity, the environmental footprint created per square foot is smaller than in high energy consuming buildings with fewer inhabitants.
Jonathan D. Solomon, Director of Architecture (Interior Architecture) at the Chicago Art Institute, explained to CNN that, “Smaller spaces take less energy to heat and to cool, and use fewer resources to fit out. By and large, the smaller the space, the smaller the waste.”
Innovative designs in the heart of KL
The micro home could be just around the corner for Malaysia as demonstrated by two prototypes showcased at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year.
Both were erected facing each other in Medan Pasar, moments away from the symbolic location of KL’s founding, creating a contemporary take on the “urban village” from the city’s past.
Think City, an urban regeneration organisation, presented a micro house unit with a footprint equivalent to two car spaces.
In fact, the size was chosen specifically with the idea that open air car parks will one day become less necessary and can be converted into micro housing neighbourhoods.
Micro housing can also be constructed through repurposing under-utilised urban buildings, thus eliminating the need to open new land or build new buildings that would add to already congested city spaces.
This was the idea behind the second prototype built by the City Hall (DBKL), a 300-sq-ft light-filled, container-style design that can easily be adapted to slot into pre-existing buildings.
Meanwhile, clever design elements help to make the space both attractive and liveable.
“The tall ceiling actually makes it feel big although you are in a very tight space, but you feel the height,” Wong Wei Ping, an architect for Tatewowe Atelier responsible for the Think City micro house told the Star’s R.Age team.
Features such as shelves that double up as steps efficiently use space to stylish effect, while folding doors and windows that can be closed for privacy or opened up to the outside allows for opportunities to connect seamlessly to the larger community.
A revival of communal living suited to city life is very much at the heart of both prototypes which utilise ground floor spaces that are largely left open to the outside world, reminiscent of the semi-communal bawah rumah area found under traditional houses which are built on stilts.
“It’s not a single house but a bigger urban life that we can actually encourage people to participate in,” Wong explains.
The larger picture in the micro house design challenge was to imagine how existing DBKL parking lots might be reconfigured into mini neighbourhoods of micro homes with shared gardens and communal facilities.
At this scale, micro housing would certainly be able to benefit from lower construction costs, sustainable resource management from clustering, and even the health and social benefits of being close to amenities like schools and medical facilities while enjoying an enriching communal life with all the conveniences of being in the city centre.
For older generations of Malaysians, long used to having lots of space with a lifestyle more geared toward owning cars and large household appliances, the micro house will seem daunting.
“I think it’s a fundamental lifestyle shift,” Tyler Carr, a developer of micro housing, said to the Seattle Times. “People have different perspectives than our parents might have had. They were geared to acquire as much stuff as you can. They buy a big house and fill it up with as much stuff as they can. It’s a paradigm shift. Our generation is not being geared to the acquisitional mindset. It’s more normal for us being able to shift gears.”
Comprehensive public transportation, more environmentally-friendly than private car ownership, is increasingly vital, and dense city living will be the norm, where homes, economic activity and public services are clustered together.
The micro house looks set to be the next logical step of the future. Although problems of maintenance and shared responsibilities for communal amenities are serious issues to be ironed out, micro living will likely be one of the many diverse options increasingly available in a dynamic and adaptable global city such as Kuala Lumpur.