Exploring the need for affordable urban housing as well as the trend towards living small

This century belongs to the city.

As the global population continues to concentrate in cities, SCAD set out to model a new strategy for adaptive reuse at the confluence of two major global forces: The need for urban housing and the trend toward living small. Most cities have an underappreciated asset that may present a significant opportunity for reuse — their underperforming parking structures. Some 50 percent of those structures remain empty all the time. Concurrently, millennials have been at the forefront of a migration back into city centers and many are embracing space-conscious living. As cities see fewer automobiles and the need for compact affordable housing intensifies, aging parking structures could be to 21st-century urban pioneers what aging warehouses were to the 20th-century artists who colonized them, creating what would become the urban loft. So, as design educators, SCAD decided to pose the question: How might this underutilized urban real estate be inhabited creatively?

The university took eight spaces offline in our SCAD Atlanta parking deck to stage an experimental urban micro-housing project. The prototype explores both the urgent need for affordable urban housing and the trend towards living small.

Within the eight-space footprint, three microhomes were built, each one sized to fit into a standard parking space; the remaining five spaces accommodate adjacent courtyards for the units, as well as a common area with green space, an organic community garden and a common workshop space that includes a 3-D MakerBot printer.

Welcome to SCADpad.

More than 75 SCAD students and 12 faculty members across 12 academic degree programs worked over than 10 months to create the modular wall systems, remote home control, sustainable waste management, interactive physical computing and custom furniture for the three pilot units. Another 37 SCAD alumni collaborated to create unique visual identities and multi-sensory experiences for SCADpad, which they attuned to SCAD’s global presence in Europe, Asia and North America. Perhaps most significantly, the project was directed by Millennials for a Millennial audience.

APPLIED TECHNOLOGIES TO ENHANCE THE MICRO-HOME EXPERIENCE

SCAD wanted to see how technology could enhance the experience of living in a tiny inhabited creatively?

The university took eight spaces offline in our SCAD Atlanta parking deck to stage an experimental urban micro-housing project. The prototype explores both the urgent need for affordable urban housing and the trend towards living small. space. The goal, and one of the projects chief pillars, was to make that technology entirely invisible. One of the major challenges was to create a space with no switches: None of SCADpad’s technologies are engaged with switches or buttons. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.

The following technologies were integrated into SCADpad to enhance the experience, engage the senses and delight the user:

PSYCHROMETRIC LIGHTING

Inside, the unit lights itself in response to the climate outdoors. If it is hot, LED luminaires intuitively turn to cool blue hues; if cold, the interior reddens. Without resorting to a thermometric change of temperature, “cooling” and “heating” are ecologically recast as a mindset. Using iPads, residents can adjust the lighting to their mood. An anxious resident may calibrate to relaxed conditions, for ex- ample. SCADpad also syncs to calendar apps and raise up the luminaires to effect a sunrise while playing the audio of your choice.

INTERACTIVE WALLPAPER

The notion of not touching household walls is one of the traditions SCAD sought to evolve in SCADpad. For wallpaper, M.F.A. students designed geometric prints to overlay with a soundboard designed and programmed by sound design majors. This “human conductive wallpaper,” triggers an algorithm that releases randomized sounds, such as birds, bells and waves. One can effectively “play” the walls and, because each channel is wired to a different tonal range of the pentatonic scale, the program changes key every five minutes, the system can produce an orchestration of infinite possibilities.

TOUCH-FREE 3-D PRINTING

Students designed the hundreds of items that stock the menu of the community’s MakerBot printer. These items can be realized on-site to immediately customize the unit to your needs and tastes. Residents can print a toothbrush holder or a shelf bracket.

GAMIFIED DATA MIRRORS

In the bathroom, the vanity mirror displays video games designed by students to gamify sustainable, effective hand-washing. In the course of playing, hand-washers observe water conservation and scrub for the FDA- and CDC-recommended 20 seconds. (You can quit early, but if you do so, be warned: The boulder will clobber the bunny.)

KINECT SENSORS

The public gathering area occupies the deck’s best view of Atlanta’s skyline. Here, digital social gaming underscores the sense of community: Motion-sensing input devices in the ceiling observe bodily movement below, which in turn triggers the projection of colored circles on the ceiling. When these circles touch, they “influence” each other’s trajectory, much the same as human interactions do.

ELECTROCHROMIC WINDOWS

The windows employ smart glass. Floor-toceiling panes open up the home to the world around it. The panes automatically fog when you enter the bathroom; likewise, leaving the unit automatically “draws the curtains.” Using the SCADpad app, one can instantly switch from opaque privacy to public transparency.

AFFIRMATION WALL

The European-themed unit includes a boucherouite-like wall woven from 40,000 pieces fabric. This interactive fiber wall offers affirmation when properly engaged. Not unlike a pet, the more you stroke it, the more it responds. “You look great!” it will say. Or, “Today, you will succeed.” If you comfort it enough, the wall will eventually pronounce “I looove you.”

DIGITAL CANDLES

A metaphor for the tapers people used to extinguish before bedtime, the doorways are marked by a digitally expressed “candle.” The lamplight flickers to its own melody, a sign of the life therein. Upon departure, blowing on the candle locks the pad and powers it down into energy-saving mode.

NUBOX SYSTEM

A community garden brings life to the sterile structure. Herbs, flowers and vegetables are irrigated with filtered gray water and grown under fiber-optically redirected daylight. The foundation of this operation is a revolutionary multifunctional product we have dubbed NuBox (short for nutrient box). NuBox includes recycling, waste and composting features.

After the local composts have been further processed by a vermiculture, the nutrients are used to fertilize the garden. NuBox’s modular plant containers are removable — should your nachos want for fresh cilantro, you can bring the whole lot of it inside. Residents can fetch a bucket of flowers, uncut, and return them to the garden alive after they have graced the dinner table.

WHAT WE DISCOVERED | TAKEAWAYS FOR OTHERS

The initial residency period spanned the summer of 2014. Twenty-eight students and guests took turns with SCADpad residencies and shorter “test drives.” The feedback was very positive. Most residents indicated they could not believe they could live so comfortably in a parking spot-sized area. Skeptics emerged as enthusiasts. “Once you get it,” NBC Today show host Jenna Wolfe said after her visit, “you’re hooked.”

In the end, three overall points were illuminated for us:

1. DESIGN FOR EXPERIENCE

We needed to use technology as a tool for spaces to adapt to people, rather than forcing people to adapt to the confines of the space.

Indeed, each tiny unit has space for sleeping, food prep, a bathroom, workspace and room for lounging. We were able to make that small space livable by keying it to technologies that mitigate, or even erase, user burden. Again, there are no light switches in SCADpad. If you wake in the middle of the night, the unit knows it is dark, so it gently lights a path to the bathroom for you. The lights fade out when it knows you are sleeping. Otherwise, the whole unit is controllable via iPad. “

Living in SCADpad has really changed howI think about living,” one of our studentresidents said. “I know now that I do not need a whole lot of space.”

“I feel,” another expressed, “like I can make any space a home after living here.”

2. PLACE MATTERS

The physical community and proximity of the residences to each other were strong components of the SCADpad experience, further enhanced by technology and virtualization.

SCADpad represents a rare opportunity to prototype a new vision for the way people think about living in an urban context. The thoughtful interface of technology and art made SCADpad successful at both a community and a personal household level.

The granular details of SCADpad’s interior art choices are inseparably linked to the interactive technology. We found we were able to maximize the experience of technology in the space by marrying it to artful design. More specifically, we found we needed to relate the technology to the art in order to generate a truly positive experience. By doing so, the technology promoted a sense of magic. For residents, their home and community were full of surprise and delight.

“This,” one of our students said, “is luxury living.”

3. TECHSONIFY

We needed to make the technology invisible and, at the same time, emotionally connected to the residents.

Cutting-edge technology has no value unless it serves to improve the human condition. By layering the units with technologies that make them behave in an entirely personal way — learning your habits and preferences so as to anticipate residents’ needs — it is as if these homes are alive to their residents. When residents make an emotional connection to “home,” the size is not as relevant.

Used holistically, we saw that technology can help us re-imagine the prospect of living in a tiny space. Altogether, in fact, it can be a wonderfully satisfying experience — what The Financial Times likened to Thoreau’s residence at Walden Pond, a 150 square foot cabin.

We’ve coined the term “techsonified” to capture this strategy of sewing technology seamlessly into the units, in such a way that the invisible technology emotionally connects the home to its inhabitant (in effect, personifying it). As Time magazine remarked about SCADpad: “The Smart Home is Human.”

LOOKING AHEAD

In a scene in Disney’s Aladdin, Robin Williams’s genie boasts, “Phenomenal cosmic powers!” Then he shrinks down inside his and bemoans “Itty-bitty living space!” While many cannot imagine existing in such dramatically reduced quarters, that reaction does not align with Millennials, who will reinvent cities in the next generation. Technology linked with positive and extraordinary experience allowed us to reduce the physical footprint that is perceived to be required to live comfortably and even luxuriously in the 21st century. “If you’d asked me back in the 1980s,” Rebecca Burns wrote for The Guardian, “if I imagined anyone living in the hulking brick structure, I’d have laughed. Ask me now, if people might be moving into the dozens of parking garages in downtown Atlanta one day, and I’d say, it just might be possible.”

Going forward, many questions are in the air: What can society do with these obsolete structures? The largest mass return to the inner city since the Industrial Revolution is currently under way, but with new technologies and a new attitude, where are these people going to live? Then, once you commit micro-housing, how can we overcome the possibility that these new parameters will be claustrophobic? How do we make miniaturization delightful?

We present SCADpad as a “now” solution. The three residential units model an immediate strategy for sustainable adaptive reuse, something SCAD has championed in more than 100 building revitalizations worldwide since its founding in 1978. SCADpad has started a new conversation on adaptive reuse and affordable urban infill. Here is a model for vertical neighborhoods in the very near future — a new living arrangement infused with art and technology for the new generation of city dwellers. As Architectural Record titled it: “New Generation, New Pad.”

Victor Ermoli, IDSA, M.E.Des., is dean of the School of Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. BusinessWeek named him one of the top “40 under 40” designers in America. In 2000, ID Magazine named him one of the best “Forty under Thirty” industrial designers. In 2011, DesignIntelligence named him one of the “25 Most Admired Educators of the Year.” In the same year, he appeared on Café CNN to discuss his life, career and aspirations.

Christian Sottile is dean of the School of Building Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Sottile led the design of the SCAD Museum of Art, a provocative preservation project that revived a National Historic Landmark and the only extant antebellum railroad complex in the country. As principal of Sottile & Sottile, he has won more than 30 awards, including a recent National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust and three