Colorado Has Micro-Envy! Architects Launch Tiny-Apartment Contest In Denver

Maff's Top Apartment, a short-stay micro-apartment in The Hague

Roth Sheppard’s design competition is inspired by micro-units in Europe, such as this short-stay apartment in The Hague by Maff. Photo courtesy of Maff

Architects love to design micro-apartments, but do people love to live in them? Jeff Sheppard, principal of Roth Sheppard Architects, hopes so. He and his colleagues at the Denver Architectural League are betting that tiny units will appeal to young Denverites who find themselves priced out of the mortgage market and who want to live in dense neighborhoods. The league recently launched a tiny-dwelling design competition that adds up to a particularly tall order: an eight-unit net-zero building on a difficult slice of riverbank on the outskirts of downtown. At 375 square feet a pop, the units will definitely be more generous than the 220-square-footers planned for San Francisco and the 250 now allowed in New York—but still diminutive compared with Denver’s 500-square-foot prefab tiny Starbucks. Read more!

Maff's Top Apartment, a short-stay micro-apartment in The Hague

Photo courtesy of Maff

In the past decade, the city’s industrial-fringed downtown has become increasingly residential—and more pricey—as young urbanites snap up Highlands bungalows and “NoDo” (North Downtown) apartments, which can set renters back about $2,000 per month, says Sheppard. “Even though they’re building apartments as fast as they can in the city, there’s not a lot of variety in what’s offered,” explains the architect, referring to the city’s typically U-shaped cookie-cutter developments. “I don’t think anybody’s done exploration in really thinking about how to get prices down or how to start to rethink what a living quarters could be for someone,” adds Sheppard.

TAXI, a mixed-use community in a formerly industrial area of Denver

The proposed site for the micro-apartment competition sits across from TAXI, a mixed-use business and residential district on the outskirts of downtown. Photo courtesy of TAXI

For the competition site, the Architectural League chose a thin plot of sloped land between the street and the South Platte River, about two miles from downtown. The architects selected the spot—which isn’t necessarily available—for its location across from TAXI, an amenity-rich mixed-use development and one of the first communities to colonize that part of Denver’s industrial landscape. “It’s an interesting urban enclave, but it’s really an island,” says Sheppard. “Development hasn’t gone out that way yet, but it’s starting to.”

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's plan for the updated Union Station in Denver

An expanded regional bus facility, part of SOM’s overhaul of Denver’s downtown transit center. Rendering courtesy of SOM and Red Square

The competition brief specifies two parking spots for Smart Cars and six spaces for bike parking, so residents would need to lead an SUV-free lifestyle and rely on the city’s bus system. Living in a tuna-can-size unit a bus ride from downtown sounds like a depressing existence, but Sheppard points out that Denver is adding commuter rail and transforming downtown’s Union Station into a transit-rich hub, designed by none other than Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. For the right sort of urban cheapskate, the big drop in rent—down to $500–$700, Sheppard hopes—might just be worth it.


Max, a micro-apartment proposal by Blesso Properties & Bronx Pro Group LLC, HWKN, and James McCullar Architects, is currently on view in the Museum of the City of New York’s “Making Room” exhibition. Image courtesy of HWKN

A narrow swath of slope, the South Platte River site is too irregular to accommodate standard housing, and a small building may not even make sense from the standpoint of a developer, who would have to cover the cost of requirements like an elevator core and ADA compliance with only eight units to support the investment. But the idea of squeezing a tiny building onto a leftover site that still has tons of space around it has a certain allure for sustainability nerds. Why wait for ill-conceived fill before pulling back and turning to smart infill? “We picked this site as well as the type of housing to show how we can start to think about not just housing, but developing previously undevelopable land,” says Sheppard. “Even though this is just one building with eight units, you could think about it as a whole roadway where you could develop a similar type of density.”

nARCHITECTS' winning entry in the adaptNYC micro-housing competition

My Micro NYC, by nARCHITECTS, won New York’s recent adaptNYC micro-housing competition. The project is also on view in “Making Room.”

Registration for the Denver competition ends May 1, and entries are due May 9. Roth Sheppard will host an exhibition of the entries during the AIA National Convention in Denver from June 20 to 22.