Test Drive: Spending the weekend in a 135 square foot SCADpad

Living tiny presents sizable challenges—and big opportunities

Some people flip through Architectural Digest or Dwell with dreams of classic mansions or custom homes filled with designer furnishings. My domestic fantasies run smaller: a daily scroll through Tiny House Blog and obsessive scrutiny of every small space featured on Apartment Therapy. Some people take pilgrimages to furniture showrooms in North Carolina. I like to wander through Ikea displays: “Living in 273 square feet!”

So several months ago, when my husband, an adjunct professor at SCAD-Atlanta, got an email requesting faculty volunteers for the SCADpad microhousing experiment he said, “This sounds like something you’d love.” Oh, how true. 

Last Friday, we finally checked into our SCADpad. Make that two SCADpads: Don’t overestimate the size, the SCAD staff insisted when we offered to bunk together. You each need your own.

Indeed, the SCADpads are tiny—135 square feet, or the size of the average parking spot. That’s not an arbitrary number; the project is an elaborate thought exercise that addresses three demographic trends: Urban areas are dotted with under-used parking structures; a lot of people—especially those in their twenties and thirties—want to live in cities but can’t afford to; and the number of single households is surging. Why not repurpose parking decks to contain millennial-friendly micro apartments? “Our motivation was to consider the future of cities and urban housing,” said Christian Sottile, dean of SCAD’s school of building arts, in a phone interview last week. Sottile and SCAD president Paula Wallace came up with the concept, and over 10 months, students, faculty, and alums from 12 university departments transformed an academic query into an actual mini development, installed in the back corner of SCAD’s Peachtree Street parking garage.

While the SCADpads themselves are diminutive, the installation sprawls over dozens of parking spots, and includes three SCADpads, three private patios, a community garden, two lounges, a giant chessboard, an artificial turf “park,” and a work area—complete with a 3-D printer.

enter image description here“This was designed by millennials for millennials,” Sottile stressed. The students’ major priorities: integrating art and technology, sustainability, customization, and common areas. “That tracks with the demographic,” he said. “They embrace smaller living spaces but crave collaboration and community space.” (Think about it: These are the folks moving into those apartment buildings on the BeltLine and taking up all the tables at Octane and Dancing Goats as they stare at their mobile devices.)

Jim and I hardly fit the target demographic—after all, we’re parents of a millennial—but I do a lot of reporting on development, and we spend considerable time thinking about living in small urban spaces. A few years ago we traded a 3,500 square foot, four-bedroom house for an 1,800 square foot, two-bedroom loft and in the process purged a lot of un-needed stuff. We embrace the idea of intentionally simplifying how we live. But what would it be like to downsize so radically?

Form, meet function

There’s a common framework for the SCADpads. Each contains a kitchenette (fridge/freezer, induction stovetop, sink, microwave, Keurig coffee maker, and patch of counter space about the size of a placemat) and a bathroom (dual-flush toilet, sink, and shower). The shells were fabricated at SCAD’s Savannah campus and transported to Atlanta to be assembled and decorated.

Interior of SCADpad EuropeWhile the pads share a skeleton, they vary wildly in appearance, each inspired by a continent where SCAD has a campus. I was assigned  SCADpad Asia—design motifs included carp and dragons while the exterior resembled origami in progress. Jim moved into SCADpad North America—leather-fringed walls, a hide-covered drum/coffee table/stool, and flooring made of recycled yardsticks (my favorite of all the design ideas). A serene Buddha gazed over the patio outside my pad, while Jim’s was guarded by a trio of fanciful beasts crafted of fur, beads, and sequins. Our neighbor hadn’t arrived, so we snooped around SCADpad Europe: Fabric strips evocative of tapestry spilled down one wall and round windows gave it a vibe somewhere between circus caravan and submarine.

While the décor was surreal, the technology incorporated into each unit and controlled via iPad proved to be even more strangely fascinating. One wall in SCADpad Asia appeared to be crisscrossed with electrician’s tape; but lean against those black stripes and you might hear chimes or ocean waves—the wall was sound conductive. Programmable LED lights dot the ceilings; you can design your own sunset or choose to live in moody blue illumination. I opted for a skin-flattering pink glow, while Jim created an all red-lighting scheme and dubbed it “Roxanne.” We loved the “smart glass” windows: One tap on the iPad switched them from opaque to clear. I know liquid crystals are involved, but it seemed like magic. That enchantment doesn’t come cheap; each of these prototype pads cost between $40,000 and $60,000, said Sottile. “We looked at affordability but really wanted to show the possibility of living by choice in these spaces,” he said. “This was about living large in a small space.”

Initially all that tech was discombobulating, like when you travel abroad and aren’t quite sure how the faucets work or forget you need adapters for your electronics. I kept indevertently switching on a chandelier and “opening” my windows. By the end of the weekend, we had the hang of the controls but also one gripe: Although you could turn off the ceiling LEDs, a tiny strand of lights, like those on the floor of a movie theater, could not be dimmed. This explained why each pad came equipped with an eye mask.

The North America and Asia units contain beds that double as sofas, while in SCADpad Europe, a bunk hangs over a desk, dorm room style. This seemed like a smart solution—until we actually tried to use it. No one over five feet could possibly sit upright in the bed or comfortably below; to avoid gashing your head on the bed’s underside, you had to perch on a stool and lean forward,  more like holding a yoga posture than working at a desk. These micro dwellings just don’t have enough vertical space for loft beds. On the other hand, constructing steps to the bed using storage bins? Inspired.

One design feature completely baffles: the lack of bathroom doors. Three SCAD staffers assured us no one else had considered this a big deal and “lots of hotels have open bathrooms.” Maybe so. Modesty aside, my concerns were practical: the main living area needs to be shielded from the shower. The floor in SCADpad Asia was damp, thanks, I learned, to a previous resident taking a lengthy shower and flooding the catch basin that funnels water from below the lattice flooring of the bathrooms to the irrigation system. Naturally, this happened in the one pad with a carpeted floor. (Cool design idea: SCADpad Europe’s flooring made of printed wet-suit material—comfy to walk on and super water repellent.)

Science, meet art

The SCADpads demonstrate what happens when left- and right-brained thinking collide. In addition to the high-tech lighting and audio, ingenious eco features abound. The communal garden is irrigated with gray water collected from the showers and bathed in solar light gathered using a Swedish contraption that harvests sunbeams via fiber optic cables linked to arrays installed on the parking garage roof. But whimsy prevails. The lamps in SCADpad Europe are crafted from copper colanders. The walls of the Asia unit are draped with macramé hangings embellished with fish shapes. You don’t really need a “monkey gargoyle” outside your door, but it sure is fun to have one.

enter image description hereCertainly, there were a few times we wished more practical minds had prevailed. If you have limited space, you don’t want a table dedicated to a giant ornamental teapot and a pair of teensy cups. Making coffee required untangling the Keurig from all that macramé, like some kind high-tech bass trapped in a net; if I’d been there much longer I’d have been tempted to rip it off the walls. On the other hand, the ceiling collage designed by SCAD alum and artist Marcus Kenney for SCADpad North America was a terrific idea, transforming a utilitarian surface into something visually fascinating—without encroaching on precious floor or wall space.

I loved the multifunctional shallow bowls designed for SCADpad Asia; but when Jim checked into his unit, he was issued a warning: Don’t put those lovely copper mugs in the microwave. When we tried to use that Brobdingnagian chess set (aside: could big chess become the new bocce?) we realized that the brightly hued squares didn’t follow any discernible light-dark pattern, making actual play impossible.

Quibbles aside, the integration of art throughout the project is the real genius of SCADpad. Yes, you could engineer more efficient space and could cut back on gee whiz technology. But this fusion of function and fantasy captures the imagination and makes discussions of urban development and housing trends palatable to an audience beyond planners and policy geeks. Turning the corner of a parking garage and coming across the SCADpad village is like stumbling into some kind of urban Narnia; no wonder everyone from Elle Décor to Car and Driver has been intrigued.

The Bottom Line: Could this actually work?

A few thoughts after spending a weekend in the SCADpads—and many years writing about urban development:

These are viable—for one person. The kitchen is so compact that two people can’t work side by side. To prepare dinner, Jim made pasta in his pad, I fixed salad (with greens from the community garden!) in mine, then we met to share and eat in the common area. I applaud the intellectual exercise of restricting these protypes to the size of a parking space, but a slightly bigger footprint—even 200 square feet—would remain radical but allow for more real-life use, not to mention the occasional overnight guest.

All that art is charming, but in real life, you’d have to ditch most decoration. A wall covered with 40,000 pieces of fabric looks cool, but a wall with a closet or shelving would be even cooler for a stay longer than 48 hours.

enter image description hereThe communal spaces are key. Our stay was fun, largely thanks to good weather. Had it rained all weekend we’d have gone stir crazy. When guests came by, we quickly learned that four adults can barely stand in one of the pads—let alone sit and chat. Instead, thanks to balmy evenings and lots of seating, we lingered for hours in the outdoor lounge watching the sun set over the skyline.

And on that note, location matters. A lot. The SCAD-Atlanta parking lot provides a spectacular view of Downtown and Midtown; I’d love to have a buck for every SCAD student Instagram shot from that angle. If the deck overlooked, say, a vacant lot, or a sea of air compressors, the experience would be altogether different. Those smart glass windows were magical in part because they clicked open to a glorious view. It would be less enchanting to tap a control and reveal . . .  the blank side of another building.

So does safety. SCAD’s in a safe part of town and there was 24/7 security. What precautions would you need with dozens of microhomes in a sketchier area, which, presumably, is where most of those under-used parking garages are located? The community garden and compost/recycling centers are grand, but what about rats?

But those questions are surmountable. This is the early stage of an experiment, but it’s a fascinating idea with significant potential. The obvious use for this type of housing is an alternative to dorms or studio apartments. But it’s conceivable versions could be deployed as homeless shelters or emergency housing. On the other end of the economic spectrum, a possible use might be urbanized eco-tourism; I’d gladly choose a week in a SCADpad over the teensy hotel rooms of New York or Paris.

We were one of the last groups of residents. Now students, staff, and faculty are in debriefing mode as they think about the next phase. In the meantime, the SCADpad installation will remain in place through the summer (with some landscaping adjustments) for more study. “This is the first entry into a huge conversation,” said Sottile.

I, for one, was delighted to hear that a next phase might include “doublewide” SCADpads that occupy two parking spaces. At 270 square feet, that would be the size of my Ikea showroom dream home.

My snapshots from our weekend are below.  Click here for my article on SCADpad from the June 2014 issue and a gallery of much better photographs—shot by Jeff Herr.