Are micro-apartments bad for your health?

Micro-apartments might be a popular idea these days but some experts suggest they might be bad for the health of certain groups:

“Sure, these micro-apartments may be fantastic for young professionals in their 20’s,” says Dak Kopec, director of design for human health at Boston Architectural College and author of Environmental Psychology for Design. “But they definitely can be unhealthy for older people , say in their 30’s and 40’s, who face different stress factors that can make tight living conditions a problem.”

Home is supposed to be a safe haven, and a resident with a demanding job may feel trapped in a claustrophobic apartment at night—forced to choose between the physical crowding of furniture and belongings in his unit, and social crowding, caused by other residents, in the building’s common spaces. Research, Kopec says, has shown that crowding-related stress can increase rates of domestic violence and substance abuse…

Susan Saegert, professor of environmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center and director of the Housing Environments Research Group, agrees that the micro-apartments will likely be a welcome choice for young New Yorkers who would probably otherwise share cramped space with friends. But she warns that tiny living conditions can be terrible for other residents—particularly if a couple or a parent and child squeeze into 300 square feet for the long term, no matter how well a unit is designed…

“When we think about micro-living, we have a tendency to focus on functional things, like is there enough room for the fridge,” explained University of Texas psychology professor Samuel Gosling, who studies the connection between people and their possessions “But an apartment has to fill other psychological needs as well, such as self-expression and relaxation, that might not be as easily met in a highly cramped space.”

While this is largely framed in terms of negative consequences for mental health, it strikes me that a lot of these concerns are built around social expectations about private space. In modern America, people expect a certain amount of space, whether in public or at home. This reminds me of the findings in Going Solo where more and more Americans want home spaces where they can get away from relationships. But, just how much space do they need? Is the ability to handle small spaces proportional to the space in an average new house (around 2,500 square feet in the United States) or to the large living spaces usually portrayed on TV?

It seems like there should be comparative data from other countries. For examples, some European countries as well as Japan have had smaller spaces for decades. Do they have higher rates of stress and other negative outcomes?

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