As she embarked on her plan to build a multi-unit residence in Sunset Heights, medical sales rep Lydia Afeman had her eye on several housing trends, such as smaller living spaces, an indoor-outdoor lifestyle and short-term rentals targeting corporate use, medical tourism and travelers.
Completed in July 2016, the result is a sleek, modern three-in-one structure occupying a previously split lot. Afeman says she likes the outcome so much that she plans to repeat her multi-unit prototype elsewhere in Houston, preferably on a full lot so there’s room for her own place as part of the mix.
“I love the concept,” which she suggests might also appeal to baby boomers seeking simplified living or perhaps work as multi-generation housing.
Afeman, a greater Heights resident, worked with Michael Morrow of Kinsey Morrow Architects. He calls her concept small-scale development targeting what his client perceived as an under-served market: those who seek a simplified space with minimal upkeep while they’re in it. That’s a bit of a “doughnut hole” in local housing options that are typically larger complexes or units with larger square footage.
“It’s a quirky solution for a quirky city,” Morrow says of the completed project.
The design intent was to create “a neutral space so that what you bring to it – the art, the friends, the furnishings – personalize it,” he explains. “At the same time, it feels like an oasis, a retreat from the hectic world.”
Dubbed the “3-n-1” house, the project expanded the notion of a garage apartment or guest quarters, he says, because the private units are “more integrated into the overall design.” He considers the housing an example of an emerging national trend in which more people are building or renovating space to have income-producing units. It’s under way in Houston as well.
No margin for error
The eight-month project had several design constraints. First, the higher-density footprint required a lot with back alley access. And second, the units’ small-scale spaces meant every inch of them counted.
Make that every quarter-inch, Afeman says. To have deviated from – or goofed on – the detailed plan would have had far more ramifications – including cost — than if the project had involved larger spaces.
Morrow agrees. “It’s harder to design and build a small house. There’s less breathing room. Everything has to fit just so. Even the smallest changes cascade throughout the house.”
He compared the design and build to sliding tile puzzles that require moving pieces around to solve the composition.
On the main floor, the unit Afeman initially intended to occupy as her home has a little less than 1,000 sq. ft. of space. The upper units run 434 sq. ft. and 404 sq. ft., one of which is over the carport. Two units share access to a sky-view deck upstairs and the other has a meditation garden.
The open-plan interiors are bright from natural light, full of storage space tucked behind walls of sliding doors and fitted with high-end amenities and finishes in demand by tenants and travelers, she explains, especially ones coming to Houston for medical treatment. Her research determined they prefer housing that’s “clean and green and free of VOC emissions” as well as cheery and comfortable.”
Afeman’s jump into development was prompted in part by the patients she would encounter on her rounds as a medical sales rep. They’d ask her whether she knew of any short-term housing they might use while they or their loved ones were in treatment.
The popularity of Airbnb and other online property rental companies also influenced her decision to develop small-scale rental housing. She believes her project could be Houston’s first property entirely developed with that use in mind. Her intent was to offer more than just a garage conversion.
Since Afeman’s retirement years are on the horizon, the still-energetic (and still employed) Afeman has been exploring ways to have her future home in place well before needing it, particularly since healthcare here is as vulnerable to layoffs and downsizing as other local industries.
Among the lessons she learned on the prototype was the need to “make every mistake on paper” since building small leaves a small margin for error; to be specific with expectations as well as building materials; and to interview builders and their sub-contractors.
“You have to look at every little thing. Before you sign anything, have a full set of plans.” And it’s imperative to hire a good architect – and attorney, she adds.
Architect Morrow says his client is tenacious but open to expanding her vision as merited. She thinks his attention to detail is masterful, so when she launches the similar, slightly larger project closer to Metro rail service that she has in mind, they’ll team up again.
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