Parking lots: The future of urban housing?

Savannah College of Art and Design

A 135-square foot, eco-friendly micro house that's designed to fit into a single parking space: is this the future of urban housing?

Dubbed the SCADPad, the 16 X 8 foot dwelling designed for a single occupant fitted with a bed, kitchenette and bathroom, is the brainchild of students and faculty at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

SCADpad evolved from a project to find a solution to the growing need for "suitable, sustainable and efficient" housing in large urban centers. But, why a parking garage of all places?

"Research showed that in the United States there is an abundance of parking garages - five parking spaces for every car on the road, so we decided to tackle that as a problem," Paula Wallace, president at SCAD told CNBC on a recent visit to Singapore.

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The adaptive reuse of old buildings is environmentally-friendly, Wallace added.

"While Parking garages are particularly unattractive, they are very strong – so tearing such a building down has environmental consequences potentially for 80 years. The greenest thing you can do is use existing buildings for a new purpose," she said.

The target group for such housing is millennials looking to live on their own, in walking distance of the city-center. SCAD research found people in their 20s would sacrifice space for privacy and prefer not to spend time commuting in a car.

Test run

SCAD designers put their creation to the test this summer, building three prototype dwellings in a parking garage in their Atlanta campus and inviting students, faculty and journalists to live in them for a couple of days or weeks.

The three SCADPads had several amenities including a composting and recycling center, an organic garden watered with filtered graywater and 3D printing work station allowing residents customize their unit to their preferences and needs.

Savannah College of Art and Design

To ensure privacy, the micro-houses were built with windows that frost with the touch of a button. The total cost of each unit was around $40,000.

Students CNBC spoke to had rave reviews of their experience.

"I stayed for a week, and I really didn't want to leave. It was absolutely brilliant and opened me up to a new way of thinking and living," 27-year-old Jerome Elder told CNBC in a phone interview.

While the space was small, Elder said he didn't feel cooped up. To prove his point, Elder said he had entertained 6 friends in his SCADPad one night.

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The most difficult part of living in micro-housing was deciding what personal belongings to leave behind, said Elder.

27-year-old Sharika Menon, another student at the College, she said spent more time in her SCADPad – where she resided for nine days – compared with her regular apartment.

"It didn't hamper my daily routine in any manner, I had enough space to do my homework, cook, and entertain friends," she said.

Savannah College of Art and Design

"Things were so well thought out that I didn't feel the need to move back to a bigger apartment…I quite possibly do see SCADPads as a permanent rental option."

Menon believes SCADPad-like micro-houses could be adapted for different metropolitan cities around the world, citing Mumbai as example.

"I've lived in Bombay and seen the space constrains especially in the slum area – micro housing units could be a solution," she said.

Pipe dream or realistic prospect?

While SCADPads are a great design exercise for students to learn hands-on, they are not a realistic form of accommodation in their current form, say Singapore-based architectural designers Angie Ng and Patricia Segado.

There are a few issues that aren't addressed in the current design including its practicality for four seasons, limited availability of natural lighting and security of residents, they said. "If SCADPads are to be used in places with four seasons, more issues arise. Quite heavy insulation is required, plus mechanical heating and cooling. Space heaters would not be very comfortable. And each having their own AC unit would be too wasteful," Ng and Segado said.

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Furthermore, there would need to be a significant paradigm shift for the general population to feel comfortable in such a small space, Ng and Segado said, adding that micro housing units are more suitable as student dorms, rather than as accommodation for young professionals.

At $40,000, the cost a SCADPad is too high considering its potential resale value, which is likely to be quite low, they noted. If an individual wants to expand across three parking spots, the cost would amount to $120,000, in which case it might make more sense to invest in a house, they said.

"For a more realistic way to deal with a truly defunct parking tower, one could seal up the full parking lot and convert into apartment or lofts with regularized windows, toilets etc. and network the infrastructure (plumbing, electricity, heating) through for a more efficient system," they said.

Editor's note: Following the publication of the article, a spokesperson from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), commented that "SCADpad was built as a working model and not an actual real estate development; certainly there may be other ways to reuse defunct parking towers; however, this concept was envisioned as a conversation starter to address issues pertaining to space constraints in an efficient and creative manner."

Responding to the criticism around the practicality of the SCADpad in four seasons, the spokesperson said, "the experimental units were built with 3-1/2" of fiberglass batt insulation with an R-value of 11 installed in the floors, walls and ceilings and are equipped with a Mitsubishi split system heat pump."