Design students are designing efficient, attractive micro-home interiors, and a graduate student in the Business School is researching how location impacts the cost of micro-housing.

As micro-housing gains a foothold in Boston -- with a target market of young professionals willing to live in tiny, affordable apartments that provide easy access to urban amenities -- students and faculty from across Suffolk University are collaborating on research and creative work that inform public policy and private-sector decisions regarding micro-housing.

Design by prospective residents

To demonstrate what living in a micro-unit is really like, students at the New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University did a real-scale floor plan of a micro-unit that was displayed at a recent campus Sustainability Fair. They also have created sample designs that for display during a panel discussion on micro-housing to take place March 26 at the Modern Theatre. Professor Anna Gitelman is heading up the design project at the request of Richard Taylor, executive in residence and director of the Center for Real Estate at the University’s Sawyer Business School.

“It was a perfect challenge because most of these students are graduating in the spring,” says Karen Clarke, who with Gitelman is co-director of the Interior Architecture master’s degree program. “It presented an opportunity to create an environment that would appeal to them.”

The project is timely, as developers are constructing micro-units as small as 350-square feet in the fast-growing Seaport District. So far there are more than 700 units being built on Boston’s waterfront, including the $100 million Boston Wharf Tower, which is under construction on A Street.

Cost vs. location

While the student designers began planning the sample interiors, Taylor and research assistant Michael Gesualdi, a master’s degree candidate focused on taxation, assessed micro-unit costs per square foot according to location. Their study focused on "core-city" areas like Boston neighborhoods and "connected-city" areas like Quincy, Malden and Somerville, which offer lower rents and access to public transportation into the city.

“Our data sought to explore the rental price differences in neighborhoods outside of the Innovation District that are close to the public transit system,” says Taylor. “Access to public transportation is critical so that young professionals can take advantage of growing job opportunities in life sciences, technology, medicine and education.”

A launching pad for young professionals

Personally, Gesualdi sees the advantages of living in a smaller space.

“I don’t view it as a compromise,” he says. “It is an opportunity for young professionals to live in an urban center for less money. If we are spending less on rent, we have more disposable income, and we’re more likely to participate in all the city has to offer.”

Taylor says that these small units work well if developers invest in common areas, such as roof decks, cafes and gyms, that allow residents to eat, work and socialize outside of their individual units.

Living better with less space

“We are the demographic that Mayor Thomas Menino wants to retain,” says Interior Architecture Master’s degree candidate Sonya Randall, 29, one of the micro-unit designers. "Our goal ultimately was to design a space that we ourselves would be excited about living in.”

Micro-units bring costs down by being more efficient with space.

“They are ecologically sustainable and built with thoughtful innovations and attractive amenities,” says Clarke.

The result is a comfortable and flexible personal space that offers an opportunity to be part of the city life. The interior designs created by Gitelman’s students -- four themes reflecting different tastes and styles of living -- reflect these attributes.

"My own place"

“When I thought about the prospect of living in a micro-unit, I realized that for the first time in years, I could afford to live alone, without a roommate,” says Randall. “I love socializing, but at this point in my life I’m looking forward to having my own place.”

Gesualdi thinks the micro-units are a great idea. However the units in the Innovation District are still beyond his reach at about $1,200 per unit a month.

“The city is definitely on the right track,” he says. “I would simply encourage a focus on more cost-effective areas for young professionals.”

University's impact

Taylor believes that this is one of a number of opportunities where Suffolk University can explore and add to the discussion of major public-policy and private-sector issues in the City of Boston.

“This is especially significant given our location,” he says. “I hope that this data analysis helps encourage other developers and architects to consider developing these units."