Journey of an Architect is a blog started by Tim Ung to document his journey to design 30 projects by the age of 30 (May 2020). His posts focus on his design process, thoughts, struggles, and successes throughout his journey.

1x30 - 01 Introduction to NYC Micro Dwellings

1x30 - 01 Introduction to NYC Micro Dwellings


As I begin my new architecture journey to design 30 theoretical architecture projects by the age of 30, I immediately encounter my first challenge. In architecture school and in the profession, we’re usually given the general parameters of a project. A client or professor provides the architectural typology, location, and programs for the project. With the New York City Micro Dwellings, I have total design freedom, which means I need to answer two major questions; what architecture am I going to design and where will it be located? Although these may sound like simple questions, it’s difficult to answer because there are an infinite number of possibilities. My initial task for the NYC Micro Dwellings is to determine the architecture typology, programs, location, and a concept that I’ll develop through research.

Finding a project site

My first step to developing project 1x30 is to determine a general location, which will be New York City. As my hometown and a place that I often return to, I’ve experienced nearly all of Manhattan and a large area of the Bronx. Every time I visit my family in NYC, I usually go for a walk on the High Line and look at all of the new condominiums that are under construction or completed.

NYC Construction Along the Highline

In searching for a specific parcel for the NYC Micro Dwellings, I thought back to the many parking lots along the High Line. From there I am able to select one of the more favorable locations from a few potential parcels. In particular, there’s a parking lot on the corner of 10th avenue and W 20th street adjacent to the new condominium residences at 505 West 19th Street, designed by architect Thomas Juul-Hansen. With its location adjacent to the High Line and a 10 story luxury condominium, this site provides several design opportunities for a residential tower. As the site for project 1x30, its area will encompass the existing parking lot, spanning from the corner of 10th avenue and W 20th street, to the area under the High Line and combine two existing parcels into one. 

NYC Micro Dwellings Site – Map was produced by The City of New York

After deciding on the location of the project, my next step is to determine the programs that will work with the surrounding architectural context of the site. A majority of buildings in the area are residential, there are some offices, and buildings that are a combination of both with public storefronts on the ground floor. My decision is to design the building as a combination of storefronts on the first and second floor with residential units above, which is a typical architecture typology and programmatic distribution.

Initial Research

Now that I’ve figured out the general architectural program and site, the research phase begins. My initial focus is on statistical data including: the population of the world, The United States of America, and New York City; as well as the wealth distribution of New York City’s population in relation to the cost of living in lower Manhattan. Results from this research will help me determine the design objectives, design brief, and design issues that the NYC Micro Dwellings will attempt to solve. Using the design objectives and brief, I’ll develop a design concept and ideas that will influence my precedent and case studies.

While conducting some preliminary research in these research areas, I discover several architectural and social issues on the relationship between location, price of living, wealth distribution, and architecture typologies. The cost of living in lower Manhattan was affordable between the years 1940 and 1970; ranging from $40 in the 40’s and rising to $335 in the 70’s. Adjusting for inflation between 1940 and 1970, $50 is equivalent to approximately $125 and according to the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average income in New York City was $1,745 in 1935 and $12,159 in 1972.

1943 Profile of Hell’s Kitchen Manhattan from the 1943 New York City Market Analysis

The Village Voice 1970 Jan 1 Rental Prices in NYC

The Village Voice 1970 Jan 1 Rentals in Manhattan

Continuing with this research topic and method, I begin defining relationships between the cost of living and average income in New York City between the years 1980 and 2010. The average cost of living in Manhattan in the year 1980 was $1,700 and in 2015 was $3,800. Adjusting for inflation, $50 in 1940 is approximately $275 and $800 in 2010. The average income in New York City was $26,983 in 1984 and $58,003 in 2010.

From this information, it’s clear that the cost of living in New York City in the 21st century would be impossible for the lower and middle class if there weren’t rent controlled or multi-tenant apartments throughout the city. It was also evident that the price per square foot for purchasing or renting an apartment in New York City was exponentially increasing between the years 1940 and 2010. In 2015, the average price per square foot for purchasing a condominium in Manhattan was $1,453 and for renting was $55.41. With these costs, it’s nearly impossible for anyone in the middle class earning a pre-tax annual income of $80,000 to rent an apartment larger than 600 – 700 square feet and be able to save any money. In a New York Times article entitled, What Is Middle Class in Manhattan?, author Amy O’Leary focuses on the struggles of middle class professionals living in New York City and writes,

“By one measure, in cities like Houston or Phoenix — places considered by statisticians to be more typical of average United States incomes than New York — a solidly middle-class life can be had for wages that fall between $33,000 and $100,000 a year. By the same formula — measuring by who sits in the middle of the income spectrum — Manhattan’s middle class exists somewhere between $45,000 and $134,000. But if you are defining middle class by lifestyle, to accommodate the cost of living in Manhattan, that salary would have to fall between $80,000 and $235,000. This means someone making $70,000 a year in other parts of the country would need to make $166,000 in Manhattan to enjoy the same purchasing power. Using the rule of thumb that buyers should expect to spend two and a half times their annual salary on a home purchase, the properties in Manhattan that could be said to be middle class would run between $200,000 and $588,000.”

Analysis of the Cost of Living in NYC from 1900 – 2010 by decades

Design Concept

After compiling this research, my next step is to define the overall concept of the NYC Micro Dwellings starting with the design objective. The main goal of the project is to design the Micro Dwellings to provide a mix use building consisting of a public program on the lower level and studio apartments above that’s catered to lower and middle class New Yorkers. The design of the Micro Dwelling’s residential units should focus on creating simple spaces filled with natural light and create a sense of community between occupants of the building. A majority of the studio apartments will be 400 square feet and some will be 600 square feet. Another major challenge of the Micro Dwelling’s residential units is to design every unit as an accessible unit so that each unit could be used by all New Yorkers.

Next Steps

With the site selected, research completed, and a rough draft of my design concept, I’m ready to move onto the conceptual design phase of the New York City Micro Dwellings. To begin this phase, I’ll start by researching any CAD drawings of parcel maps, high quality photographs of the site for future architecture visualization purposes, adjacent buildings, and any architectural elements that may influence the design of the Micro Dwellings.

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1x30 - 02 Conceptual Design of NYC Micro Dwellings

1x30 - 02 Conceptual Design of NYC Micro Dwellings