At 225 square feet, Ryan Harris's East Village apartment is solidly part of the microdwelling club, but when he signed the lease two years ago, he "kind of thought it would be temporary." Harris travels a lot for his job as a transit planner with Jacobs Engineering, so he was looking for something small, though this is a bit tighter than he anticipated.
"It's not small, it's tiny," he says of his second floor walk-up. "But there's so much character here, I saw the potential." The previous occupant had a Queen-size bed plopped in the middle of the room, but Harris wanted the space to be more functional. He also needed storage; the apartment had exactly zero closets. The solution? A custom-made transforming unit with a Murphy bed, night stand, dresser, armoire, and hallway closet that Harris designed and built entirely by himself.
Harris signed his lease in November, but didn't move until February of the following year, and he spent those three months designing what he calls "the cabinet." Harris's professional skill set obviously was an asset, but a love for building runs in his family. His father is also an engineer, and when Harris was growing up, he built a lot of their furniture. Harris had previously fixed up an apartment when he lived in Washington, D.C., and before signing this lease, he took a woodworking class at Makeville in Gowanus. All of that is to say that Harris had plenty of experience to prepare him for this project, but it's a whole different ballgame when you're actually working in an enclosed 11-foot wide room.
The unit is 4 feet deep, 8 feet tall, and 13 feet long. Harris chose to work with plywood because it is affordable and easy to work with, plus, since he thought the space might be temporary, he might need to disassemble it. On the day he moved, he piled all of his belongings into one corner of the apartment and went to Home Depot to buy the wood. He had the biggest cuts made at the store, and did literally everything else inside the apartment. He owned all of the tools he needed, but he had to build a sawhorse. "I thought there would be space," he says, but there was, unsurprisingly less space than anticipated.
The unit measures exactly 8-feet tall, and he had to assemble it standing up, using a step ladder to support pieces while he attached them. It seems like the job would have been much simpler with help, and Harris admits that another pair of hands would have made it easier. But he says, "I wanted to do it on my own." Construction occurred over two months, but "minus all the swearing," Harris says he built it in a "solid five days." "There was a lot of redoing things," he says.
The system is like a lo-fi version of the foldable metal unit that turned an Upper West Side studio into four rooms (though much less expensive). There's a 4-foot wide "utility closet" shelf near the door that holds things like shoes, tools, and laundry. A three-drawer dresser sits under a large closet with a shelf, which is separated from the Queen-size Murphy bed by a book shelf and nightstand. And while Harris is certainly satisfied with his work, he sees a lot of room for improvements. The wood warped in some places, the shelves are not perfectly flush on the front, and the magnet closure on the closet doors is finicking (but Harris will be fixing that).
But it's hard to complain too much when you've spent less than $1,000 and turned a micro studio into a one-bedroom apartment. "I actually have people over quite a bit," says Harris, "and they are never in my bedroom. They are in my living room."