Living Small is
Last year I relocated to Dhaka and was desperately looking for a place to stay, close to where I would be teaching: BRAC University at Mohakhali. I didn't need a large apartment. I was looking for a small and affordable one- or two-bedroom apartment, preferably not more than 600 square feet (sq ft). Finding such a place was not easy, if not impossible. The idea of small apartments for middle-class urbanites almost doesn’t exist in Dhaka. There may be a few exceptions here and there, but small apartments (for example, under 500 sq ft) are not part of the mainstream housing solution. Eventually, I had to settle, kind of reluctantly, with a spacious and expensive three-bedroom apartment. Having done some research, I concluded that my experience was hardly unique. Many small households face the same problem in Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh.
The experience was also somewhat unexpected. One would think that Bangladesh being overly populated and a relatively small landmass, the country’s habitat policies would champion living small, which would then result in a thriving market for small apartments, as in, say, Tokyo or Hong Kong. The idea of living small as both an economic necessity and an environmentally conscious response to Bangladesh’s asymmetric land-population relationship is surprisingly absent in the public discourse.
This is counterintuitive, primarily because in the past two decades or so the country has witnessed the spectacular rise of the real-estate market and a range of innovations in housing design. Why didn’t the dynamic partnership of real-estate developers and design professionals produce a demand-based, affordable housing market?
There are deep-rooted social causes. We have long glorified the idea of a baro bari as an unassailable middle-class mythology or the shinning terminus of social mobility. We may be a small urban household of four, but we dream of a 3000-sq ft house. This dream is embedded in our cultural DNA. Deep down we are all zamindars and we need our sprawling palaces with gardens all around. In the privacy of our dream worlds, we are all Canadians, a nation of 37 million people living on a vast land of 3.855 million sq mi.
The upper-crust residential areas of Banani, Gulshan, and Baridhara—planned as low-density urban enclaves in the 1960s—showcase our ingrained baro bari aspirations. This geographically-inconsiderate mind-set has in recent times resulted in an “Antilla effect,” the urban phenomenon best represented by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani’s 27-storied Mumbai residence Antilla. This Mumbai “landmark,” named after a mythical island, increasingly reflects the pattern of isolationist spaces that the moneyed class seeks to carve out from the boisterous and crowded metropolises of the developing world.
In a democratic society, Ambani has the right to build whatever he wants to build inside his plot, as long as he abides by the city’s building setback rules and height restrictions. But the aerial view of Dharavi—Asia’s largest slum, where more than a million people huddle in an area of approximately 0.81 sq ml—from Antilla’s penthouse should raise a broad range of questions related to urban planning, environmental ethics, and economic disparity. When I visited Mumbai a few years ago, I thought Antilla was the city’s greatest caricature and a giant middle-finger gesture to the city.
The housing market in Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh demonstrates the Antilla effect at various scales. Real-estate developers and architects found a niche market and delivered scores of mini-Antillas, seldom considering the growing housing demand in the city and its crucial implication for a reasoned land-use planning. In the absence of a sustainable and ecological vision for the city’s future—not just what the city will be but what it should be—the narrow focus on our need to own a baro bari takes precedence over the city’s broader wellbeing and a sense of social justice that frames it.
The tiny landmass of Bangladesh is burdened with 170 million people. Bangladesh’s under-34 demography is 70 percent of the country’s total population. The coming generations would need a much larger supply of urban housing. But can the middle-class afford 2000-sq ft-apartments valued somewhere between USD 150 and USD 400 per sq ft?
We need to become accustomed to living in small places, particularly in our cities that are likely to host 50 percent of the country’s total population in two decades or so. We should create a robust market for affordable small apartments. Small shouldn’t mean sacrificing aesthetic design or uplifting spatial experience. In fact, living small could mean both less economic headache and homey, especially for small households.
Let’s look at the world. The “tiny house” (houses under 500 sq ft) movement has become global, particularly after the 2008 housing crash. In many places, tiny houses—together forming a community with shared values—are viewed as a way of rebuilding society on the foundations of social justice and environmental consciousness.
Typically sized between 100 and 500 sq ft., tiny houses are appearing in major American and European cities as an affordable and eco-conscious solution to the housing crisis and unnecessary human carbon footprint. The former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated a programme called adAPT NYC that sought to bring “micro-apartments” to New York City’s 1.8 million households, consisting of one or two people. In San Francisco, a 98-unit condominium unit called Cubix opened in 2008. The largest unit in the building is 350 sq ft, while the smallest 250 sq ft.
Living small has always been an economic and geographic necessity in Japan. There is a growing trend across Japanese cities. The younger Japanese, who can’t afford to live in the city proper and have been living in distant suburbs, are increasingly reluctant to undertake grueling commutes by train every day. They are returning to city centers to live in “ultra-compact micro-homes,” known as kyosho jutaku.
A “less-is-more” philosophy is reshaping the Japanese urban housing market. For instance, factory automation makers and housing companies are partnering to manufacture quickly deployable modular housing units, seeking to meet the rising demands of the micro-house market.
Living small is not just about the relative economy of your pocket. It is a life style, based on voluntary simplicity, eco-consciousness, and social justice. In his classic book, Small is Beautiful (1973), German-born British economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher offered a radical critique of late-20th-century’s hyper-consumerist world, caught in a web of dehumanising economic systems, environmental degradation, and excessive human footprint. What he sought to champion was a people-centric economic organisation, based on human scale, environmental stewardship, and a culture of simple living.
We don’t have to be romantic idealists to understand and empathise with Schumacher’s small-is-beautiful ethos. In Bangladesh, the idea could or should very well be an economic and environmental necessity. Small-is-beautiful as a policy could not only meet growing urban housing demand, but also create a bottom-up culture of eco-consciousness in a fragile deltaic land where the significance of the natural environment couldn’t be overemphasised. The policy could be the driving force of a new type of housing market that could actually be more profitable than the current one, focused predominantly on large, high-end housing units that only a tiny fraction of the urban population can afford.
Consider this simple math. Let’s say a public-private partnership has 45,000 sq ft of total floor space to design an apartment complex. Following current market trends, it can build fifteen 3000-sq ft apartments, priced at USD 300,000 each, generating USD 4.5 million. But if the partnership builds one hundred 450-sq ft apartments, priced at USD 50,000 each, it can generate USD 5 million. It may be a small difference but consider the larger social scene. The city brings affordable housing options to a much larger pool of prospective home buyers whose pockets are not very deep.
The future middle-class urbanites will form smaller households. They neither need a 3000-sq ft apartment, nor can they afford it. But with hard work and saving, they can afford a compact 450-sq ft place. This is how a great many cities around the world are meeting their housing demands.
Small is not only beautiful but also profitable. But, most important, it is social justice.