A 4-Micro-Unit House

Microhouse House - Ross Chapin ArchitectsContinuing the small house thread from our last post, we’ve been brainstorming into how tiny houses (< 350 SF) may be a viable housing option. Rather than being low-profile ‘outlaw’ houses, lets bring them into the neighborhood. Let them stand tall as beautiful homes for 20-Somethings, Active (Older) Singles, and even our Elders. 

Here’s a 4-micro-unit house with shared kitchen/living/dining …MicroElder Plan 8 scale.PC9

Each studio unit is 320 square feet, with their own exterior door opening out to a large south facing covered porch. The micro units have a kitchenette with undercounter fridge and small sink, but no stove. Residents can come together for shared meals, movie nights and hangout in the Commons Room. Because there is only one kitchen, the units would be considered as bedroom suites within one single house, permitted on a single-family residential lot. The total size of the house is 1808 square feet. 

Microhouse House 2- Ross Chapin Architects

What do you think? Would this be a viable development model? Would it work as a rental? For sale via coop ownership? Would it be too much of a hassle, or a welcome alternative?

This entry was posted in Cohousing, Design & Planning, Living in Community, Retirement Living, Sharing Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to A 4-Micro-Unit House

  1. Shelia says:

    I love the idea. I have been trying to figure out how to live affordably when I retire and still be near my daughters and grandkids. If I could get three friends together to join me, this is entirely doable. Basic building costs last time I checked in the Dallas, Texas area are about $100 per square foot, making the cost about $180,000 to $200,000. Divided by four that’s $50,000 or less each. Assuming we could find the right lot, and the city didn’t block us, this could happen.

  2. Richard Lachance says:

    Great ideas and comments. As we boomers age, we have the opportunity to go out with a final statement using the accrued value of our homes (assuming it has not been blown already). Perhaps its the outrageous construction cost increases of recent decades or the desire to foment something new. I am amazed at all the new ideas for living being suggested by different people, groups, regions. Bring them on. Don’t let people shut out ideas before they are even tried. How many vacant living spaces are there anyway? Someone will find it a perfect fit for them. I hate to hear we can’t do that because of zoning and city codes. There should be large parcels of land set aside in towns and cities for experimentation in developing communities that allow multiple ideas and patterns approved only by those who live within the parcel.

    Ross, keep challenging us to dream the impossible.

  3. Cheryl says:

    This reminds me of the tenament houses my grandparents lived in when they were young (during the Great Depression) several families lived In the same bumiding each on one floor but sharing laundry space, heat source (old coal and wood stove) back and side yard and shed for gardening and clothes lines. i remember visiting them as a small child in the 70’s. There was a few corner stores, church, park at the end of the street. Everyone gathered on the front porch and everyone knew their neighbors up and down the street. As a kid I lived in a more suburban area and the large dead end that led to a forest served as the common shared space for kids to play and families to have large block parties. Our back yards didn’t have fences so we played freely running house to house. We has a real sense of community. This is missing in the Southern California tract homes I’ve been living in as an adult. Over the past 10 years kids have stopped going out to play, they can’t gather at the local elementary schools because they are heavily gated and have security patrols. It’s rare to know your neighbors anymore. We need more shared space and community over pristine manicured lawns. Hoping to find and build a space for famimy in the future. We are definitely looking for alternatives. Pocket neighborhoods and shared community space are so crucial to overal health of our families and communities.

  4. Joe says:

    Love the design. Reminds me of quad housing from college days. Definitely would have to check local codes as this would not pass as a four bedroom single family house. My local code requires all parts of the house to be connected via conditioned space.

  5. Jason says:

    This reminds me of the Japanese “engawa”, where the rooms of the home are on the interior and an external corridor wraps around the entire perimeter linking them all. I’ve considered this for my own small home in the future.

  6. Amy Turnbull says:

    I love the idea of the connected units. I see a lot units like this in the valley neighborhood I live in in Los Angeles. I think most of them are being replaced by three-story apartments, sadly. Typically, the connected units resemble a home, with the door facing the street, but the rest of the building recedes into the lot, with connected units opening to an interior courtyard. There is usually a nice green space and often, trees.

    I have always admired your work, Mr. Chapin, and I enjoyed your session at the Build Small, Live Large Summit last November. … I think this micro unit development has great potential.

    Parking is problematic, it seems. I’m not sure I would like to look out from my porch onto a parking lot. Perhaps some creative screening might work. The rendering resembles a roadway inn. Where are all the wonderful Craftsman details and graduated fronts that are so unique to your work? Please include them in this creative project!

    • Ross Chapin says:


      We’ve enjoyed the bungalow and apartment courts in Southern California. If you have favorites, send us a few pics and their location.

      Your comments about parking, looking like a roadway inn, and lack of details are heard. We have a single corner lot and have been exploring initial ideas on alternatives to the a typical single family house. Can we serve people who want to live simply, but not be isolated? … Seems like we can, but most people come with a car. What do we do with these? That’s a conundrum.

      • Amy Turnbull says:

        I love the idea of car sharing–perhaps that might be an option. And there’s always off-street parking, if you can get the city to approve it.

        I’d love to send some pictures I’ve taken of bungalows in Southern California–just let me know where!

      • Ross Chapin says:

        Car sharing – yes!

        What pics to send? … Your favorite bunglaow courts.

  7. Eli Spevak says:

    Nice! Would the jurisdiction where you have this lot allow sinks outside of bathrooms in the bedrooms in the studios (without labeling them as ‘kitchens’)? When I did the Ruth’s Cottages project with 2 detached bedrooms, Portland treated them basically as a detached addition to the existing single family house on the property – much like you’re proposing here. But since then, I hear that code reviewers are getting stricter in their interpretation – and would likely say now that the sinks outside the bathrooms in the studios indicate that they’ll be used as self-contained units, making it unlikely to be approvable as one single-family house. Love the idea, though! I’d stretch it by (1) ditching some of that off-street parking to make room for a little more on-site shared open space, and (2) line the wall of one 1-2 of the studios with bunks (see image here: http://mcha-jp.com/11671) to create some really affordable options. Bring back the boarding house!

    • Ross Chapin says:

      It may be that code reviewers are stricter in some jurisdictions. Most, though, define a house as having a kitchen with a stove. Here, there are no stoves in the units. Think of them as bedroom suites. / I’m enjoying the creative thinking this is sparking. Thanks for your contributions!

      • Alline Thurlow says:

        Hi Mr. Chapin –

        I believe there is a growing, vibrant market for the micro-houses you’ve designed with the growing number of progressive “baby-boomers” who are retiring and want a simpler lifestyle that allows for both the privacy we are used to while inviting community.

        I agree with the notion of trying to shift the parking away from the “front” of the living spaces if possible and would personally love to see some other common work/play space that would foster creative projects that actively engage people (preferably inside and outside!)

        Also, wondering if you’ve considered adding a second story to the main common house that could potentially serve multiple/flexible functions as consensually agreed upon — e.g., a rental unit? that inside creative space perhaps? a caretaker unit? manager unit? space for visitors.

        I notice that there appears to be a possible second story on the end (west?) unit of your rendering. Anything possible of course, …

        Finally, as someone currently living in Seattle where the housing market has rapidly changed, I’m wondering where the lot you’ve designed this space for is located and if you have any cost projections as yet?


      • Ross Chapin says:


        Do you see the market for this as ownership or rental?

        Yes, we have been exploring a second story above the commons room – it could be a caretaker/manager unit, creative space, or an additional independent apartment. The west-most unit has a loft accessed by an alternating-step stair. The lot we are looking at has limited options for parking, unfortunately. I’d love to do this for an alley-accessed lot. And a bit more space for a garden. Of course, all these good things add to the costs. Speaking of which, this plan is just in exploratory stages and we haven’t anchored the costs.

  8. Anne Everitt says:

    I love this concept, but I have already done a bit of research and thought about communal living, having been involved for a couple of years in the creation of a co-housing project. I have also lived in very small spaces. I love the design and the well thought out shared space. Many of the comments mention all the things people don’t want to give up, own kitchens, garage etc., but the notion for this kind of living is that you do give up things to have a smaller space to take care of and shared community is part of the bargain. I think what throws people off about the drawing is the choice of furniture. There is no bed, only a couch with the possibility of a fold out. There is a table for 4 when clearly only two people could live in this space, so this amount of space given to a table seems unbalanced. I’d work it out so that you had a small table for two, possibly with a gate leg table (that folds down) and a bed. Of course a Murphy bed would offer more space. The idea that most of the residents would eat communally or at least in the communal area would give you more room to work with in your private space.

    • Ross Chapin says:

      Thanks for your comments. Perhaps having more flexible personal space gives people more options. Perhaps a larger dining/work table. Or a fold-down table making room for yoga/exercise.

  9. Kol says:

    Ross, I love this idea. This wouldn’t easily sell on spec, but as a furnished rental, it’ll likely have great appeal. I don’t know the demographics in your area, but they are akin to what most cities have, this concept hits the mark. Build it as a rental.

    I LOVE that it fits neatly into the standard zoning laws; so it can be done anywhere right now, unlike other missing middle housing options.

    Since you first mentioned the idea, I’ve been daydreaming of different shapes and forms to best deploy this same idea on a standard 5,000 sq ft lot.

    This concept may also be a way to rethink the use of oversized McMansions with crafty internal partition walls.

  10. I shared this on FB and got lots of positive response. My take on this is that its might be ideal for elderly folks (like me and my baby baby in 25 years) combining with others to create a mix of skills and capabilities for resourceful living. If I make it to 90, I’d love to still have “my own place.”

  11. Ok idea for like minded people. Let’s call it a Dorm Room. Or assisted living model, shared common space. I floated this idea 10 years ago for a retreat house. The exact concept. Over the course of a year the participants dropped out for various reasons.
    The communal kitchen is a bust to me. It’s hard enough to keep a kitchen for 2 people much less 4. Small is good, but I think all units need to be self contained. This is just really a small building form of condo, apartment or town home. Depending on the legal description of one building.
    The concept is good. It would fit into a neighborhood. My neighborhood, Plaza Midwood has examples of mixed buildings on quiet residential streets. We have duplexes and quads mixed in with single family. All the multi family options were built before zoning rules did away with these options. They cannot be built today. The McMansion has taken their place for infill.
    The big issue to me is scale. If the patterns are 900 to 1500 foot homes. The new projects need be no more than that. But not the 2.5 story 3000 plus square infills. The Dorm concept works for all the right reasons relating to patterns.
    I think it would be a good experiment to try some of these very modest homes out. See what happens. As the developers say. Build a product the market will buy. The very unfortunate result of capitalism is money is to be the judge, size, scale, massing and beauty are non factors. Success is based on Buyers? For those left to live next door, well you can only control what you own. Getting the city zoning rules to buy in. Well that’s for another discussion.

  12. Tom Low says:

    Hi Ross, always impressed with your creative ideas. Interesting layout of units – thinking these can be placed on what size lots and which sides could face a street and/or common? It might be nice to study using both the narrow side and the long side of the lot as frontage? Also, what space are you thinking as the shared pocket – I see the gathering space between the pool and the common room – is there also a pocket green adjacent where several of these would be arranged around a common court? How could you add flexibility so repeated units do not all need to face south if there are variations fronting courts/streets with different compass orientations?

    • Ross Chapin says:

      Hey Tom, good questions!
      This plan was designed for a corner lot that I own – approximately 60×120. I think versions of this would work on center block lots. Facing south is nice, but I think it could work with other orientations, too. Ideally, my sense is that 5-6 micro units would be better than 3-4 to make use of the commons room. I’d like to see a slightly more enclosed shared garden (vegetables and otherwise). And car ports or garages. The highlight of this approach is that it is a single house. Not sure how a group of these would be in a larger a pocket neighborhood with a larger community common house – when each small cluster would have a common house. … I’ve also been wondering how it would function as a rental — renters are not known for taking part and taking responsibility. Sure stirred a lot of ideas, though!

      • Dirk Richmond says:

        This seems to me like a terrific option for people looking at assisted living centers but unable to afford them. Another, larger, unit could possibly be added for a “caretaker” of some sort if desired. I may be looking at the plans wrong, but in the northern climates I would be concerned about having to go outside to reach the common area.

  13. Robin says:

    I would love this. It would be a great way for my kids to have their own “home” yet still be part of a community.

  14. Penny says:

    It would be great for those that like the company. But I wouldn’t want to share my kitchen with anyone. I like my quiet privacy too much. Apt. living is bad enough…A shared yard and garden area with each having their own plot would be great.

  15. Vi says:

    I thinking on this further, I think living this way would have to be with compatible like-minded people, especially those living in the unit with the shared kitchen where these folks privacy would be most impacted.

  16. D. Radke-Bogen says:

    The garden court pattern rides again. Put the parking underneath with the houses on the parking area lid.

  17. L Carson says:

    It would be great if each unit had it’s own kitchen.

  18. This could be the solutions we are looking for! OASIS Community of West Michigan is a family led organization creating alternative housing for special needs young adults transitioning from their parents’ homes to interdependent living arrangements. Affordability (many live on Social Security Disability) and access to community opportunities for social involvement and employment are crucial. I do think zoning could be a challenge, but a worthwhile challenge. I’d like to know own more about cost.

  19. Joseph Readdy says:

    Intriguing design, Ross. Thanks for posting. I’m helping a couple with a five-acre parcel in Washington County, Oregon establish their vision for its future. This is one of the concepts that represents one possibility.
    Nice sketchup work, too…
    Take best care,

  20. Holly Doe says:

    Where are the bathrooms? How Many/ type? There are some coop housing alternatives here already in Atlanta that are similar in design. I can research if zoning/ multi family dwelling issues became a problem

  21. Dan Neumeyer says:

    great expression of such a sensible approach. When do we start building?

  22. Anonymous says:

    Add the garages!

  23. Blanche Nicholson says:

    I think it is a great idea. I concur with the gentleman who commented that covered parking is desirable. In FL/LA/AL you might want to screen the porch as well. It would be a really good idea for group living for older people (speaking as one who is getting there).

  24. Ginger says:

    Space wise, it’s similar to assisted living facilities and seems like it could be a nice addition to pocket neighborhoods that want a place for frail elders or even terminally ill folks to live out their lives. Shifts of sitters (either paid or from within the community) could oversee all 4 units if need be. It could be a great way to age in place rather than in an impersonal facility. Another option if there’s no significant dementia or other handicaps, elderly people can often help with the care of one another.

  25. Kim says:

    My high school friends and I decided long ago that as old ladies we would share a home. These plans are a much better solution than the old Victorian we had envisioned. We joked about fighting over garden space. The only thing that we did not think of was fighting over kitchen space. I wonder if the “old lady” version shouldn’t have two kitchens to reduce the bloodshed? I would definitely be interested particularly if the price was manageable.

  26. I would put a garage over those parking spaces, with an 800-sq ft “ADU” above it.

    Here in Portland, it would be the by-right “house” and “ADU”…

    • Carol says:

      @Garlynn – sorry, what is ADU?
      I like the idea of adding the garages, but it would be nice to still have some easily accessible out door space – maybe a front porch, instead of a back patio?

      • Garlynn Woodsong says:

        Oh, sorry, forgot to define the acronym. ADU = Accessory Dwelling Unit. So, it could be a carriage house, rather than just three surface parking spaces…

  27. Gretchen Krampf says:

    This is what I have been talking about for the past 15 years. Single family lot, co-op ownership. And bringing beauty & function into the commons. Add a Caretaker’s Studio over the garage so there is somebody managing onsite and gardens. Sweet! Let’s talk!

  28. Karen Fruchtenicht says:

    I’ve been a huge fan of your designs for years and I love this concept. My sister and her husband, and my husband and I, are looking for a design like this for building a shared vacation home to become a retirement space in Northern California. We would probably turn two of the bedrooms into bathrooms with walk-in showers and soaking tubs! So lovely and perfect for people like us who will need to get permitted for a single family home.

  29. Betsy marvin says:

    What about someone like me who would like a piano in a private space and a sewing room. Currently I use a 10×10 bedroom as my sewing studio, but this wouldn’t fit a concept like this. ??

  30. Betsy marvin says:

    What about sunshine like me who would like a piano in a private space and a sewing room. Currently I use a 10×10 bedroom as my sewing studio, but this wouldn’t fit a concept like this. ??

  31. Vi says:

    Be great for retired folks who are active but want much less to take care of. Would like this on the S. end of Whidbey Island.

  32. Jonathan says:

    This looks great Ross. It could be a really interesting conversation piece in the mix for discussions over here on the mainland about increasing density in Seattle’s single family neighborhoods. I like this because I have been trying to think of ideas for situations like mine: I am married and childless, my sister is single, and my mom is in her mid 70s. Individually none of us can afford to buy in Seattle, but a blended typology like this could create a really interesting solution.

  33. Ron says:

    Nice plan Ross. I have been considering that concept as well – I think it has great possibilities.

  34. Christine says:

    Love this idea! We need more outside the box ideas to bring reasonably sized housing back.

  35. Jana says:

    I love it but what about zoning and other regulations.

Leave a Reply to Betsy marvin Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.