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Meet New York's go-to architect for redesigning small spaces

Architect Michael Chen explains his firm's innovative methods of transforming tiny NYC apartments

Michael Chen didn’t set out to found an architecture firm known for redesigning tiny New York City apartments, but it’s quickly become the thing his firm, MKCA, is best known for.

In 2011, with experience from firms in New York and San Francisco, Chen started his eponymous architecture firm with the goal of delivering innovative design that encompassed buildings, interiors, furniture, and urban spaces. Since then, the firm has taken on everything from renovating a live/work loft in the Lower East Side to a ground-up, new construction townhouse on the Upper East Side.


But MKCA has found a particular "sweet spot," as Chen says, with New York clients hesitant to leave their small apartments. "These are small spaces in incredible neighborhoods where residents don’t want to leave," he explains. "A particular category of work we like … is to rework those spaces."

Much attention has been paid to new construction micro apartments, like the Kips Bay rental development Carmel Place. But as Chen points out, citing a statistic from the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, 85 percent of New York’s current building stock will still be in use through 2030. "We have less new development than we think," Chen says. Much of said housing stock was not built for the single New Yorkers who now live here in high numbers, a trend developers have mostly failed to pick up on; as development rarely focuses on optimizing small spaces.

New York has less new development than we think.

That leaves many New Yorkers in small, prewar apartments, many of them divvied up from larger spaces that weren’t necessarily designed to optimize the available square footage. "There are a number of pre-existing apartments [to the 1987 zoning resolution] that technically qualify as micro," Chen says, meaning under 400 square feet. And with real estate prices climbing ever higher, New Yorkers who have managed to nab apartments in desirable neighborhoods are hardly itching to relocate and give up their beloved location.

That’s where MKCA comes in. "Clients have realized that they could thoroughly reinvent their smaller space, and it’s more economical than buying a larger apartment elsewhere," Chen says. "They’ve also made the decision that they just love the neighborhood or building too much."

One of the first tight apartments MKCA designed—and got lots of recognition for—was a 400-square-foot Manhattan studio that the firm dubbed the "Unfolding Apartment." The client, who "loved it so much he stayed much longer than he planned," according to Chen, was a single man who worked from home occasionally and liked to entertain guests. To incorporate an office and entertainment space into the allotted space, MKCA rejected the typical approach—divide small apartment up with even smaller rooms—and instead installed an oversized, customized cabinet along one wall. The giant piece holds a murphy bed, nightstand, closet, and a tiny home office. Each element can be packed away to create a more spacious, loft-like apartment, or can be expanded and adjusted to transform the apartment for various uses.

The project informed how MKCA would go on to tackle other micro projects. "Because we’re often working in a situation where the space needed to have every function or feature that the clients desire is greater than the available space of the apartment, we focus on creating strategic zones of overlap," Chen says. The firm "always [tries] to find ways for certain elements to do double, triple, or quadruple duty."

In the Unfolding Apartment, for example, there/s a flip-down panel that can be used as a console table, dry bar, or desk, depending on how the cabinet is arranged. As Chen explains, "The alignment between the panel and the adjacent cabinet creates the home office (desk, plus storage, plus cabinet for printer and files). And when the panel is open, it reveals a perforated steel screen behind that lets filtered light to the sleeping space, and also allows for the passing of power cables and whatnot to the desk/console." It’s a matter of designing something that "moves around and aligns with other elements in its various configurations."

Ultimately, the Unfolding Apartment project taught the firm "an incredible lesson," Chen says. "We realized a space like that could really work for a long time. It was a matter of understanding the needs of clients and how to satisfy them, which requires a lot of innovation."

Redesigning small spaces not only requires innovation from the firm, but an incredible attention to detail. Because there can’t be any wasted space, the firm needs to know what a client needs most in their living space. Then they integrate interior finishes that can be utilized in different ways—bars, for example, or moveable walls.

For the "Five to One Apartment," a 390-square-foot Gramercy co-op was transformed with the help of a sliding storage element that glides from one end of the apartment to the other. Again, the firm focused on materials that could be manipulated for different purposes.

Five to One Apartment MKCA

"Because the sliding wall expands one side and compresses the other," Chen explains, "there is an exchange between a morning activity like dressing, a daytime activity like using the home office, an evening activity like lounging on the sofa and watching TV, and a moment when the bed comes down and it’s time to sleep." In total, the moveable wall allows for a dressing room space with built-in clothing storage, room for a queen-sized, fold-down bed, an entertainment area, home office, dry bar, and library.

For a 700-square-foot duplex in Chelsea (occupied by a couple and their teenage son), meanwhile, MKCA designed a new staircase, packed with storage and media components, and integrated a built-in desk into a 50-square-foot, six-foot by eight-foot mezzanine level.

This work can be logistically challenging, Chen explains, because of the expense required for this specific type of design. "There’s no economy of scale for anything," Chen says. "Renovating a bathroom [in a tiny space] will cost the same as renovating a bathroom in a gigantic project."

Renovating a bathroom in a tiny space will cost the same as renovating a bathroom in a gigantic project.

Construction, too, has its challenges; MKCA realized it could only fit one construction worker at a time inside its latest renovation project, a 220-square-foot apartment in the West Village. With larger apartments, different elements of the renovation can happen at the same time, but smaller apartments require one trade coming in after the other. And as Chen points out, smaller apartments are often located in small buildings without an elevator or narrow stairways.

Overall, he has found that "between research, design, approvals, and construction … these projects generally take about 10 to 12 months from beginning to end." He adds, "The smaller the space, the more difficult they are." The firm also relies on custom elements designed specifically for particular applications and issues, which can add extra time to the design period. "We use a few off the shelf components but more often than not, we’re either designing custom hardware, or we’re combining and reconfiguring ready-made products to suit the particular motion that we’re looking for," Chen says.

In the end, MKCA takes pride in designing undeniably livable spaces that include features often excluded from tiny apartments—dining room tables, for example, are one thing the firm always tries to keep in these tiny space. "Things that are generally excluded from small spaces … there’s an obsession to integrate them somehow."

MKCA apartment

The "Party Wall," which hides a bar, five-foot dining table, and other entertaining necessities in a folding wall element.

But unlike many of the people that are often profiled as tiny-living evangelists, who downsize to extremely small spaces in order to simplify their existence, Chen says his clients are more driven by "the challenge of making it work." ("I’m not a big proponent of making huge sacrifices in order to live in a smaller footprint," he explains.)

And for MKCA, that challenge is part of the fun. "We take a great deal of pleasure in learning about how our clients want to live," Chen says, "And when they’re able to live in a smaller space without having to make too many compromises, I feel like we’ve done our job well."

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