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A student studies in her 113-square-foot studio apartment in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

Nano-suites coming to University of B.C. students

Existing studios on campus are approximately 240 square feet, a Nano unit is 42 per cent smaller

By Jess Mackie and Rehmatullah Sheikh , in City , on October 25, 2017

Haley Lewis needed an affordable place to live on her own after moving to Vancouver for grad school. With minimal options, Lewis moved into a 237-square-foot studio near campus that cost her $975 per month. She hated it.

“It was so small, but not really affordable,” said Lewis, a University of British Columbia master’s student. Yet the option was all she could find for the $900 she budgeted for rent.

Students like Lewis are going to have to decide if they can put up with such small living spaces, as the University of B.C. plans to add 140-square-foot micro-studios to the existing housing options. The Nano Studio pilot project, which will house these 70 micro-units, will be unique in the Lower Mainland when it launches in 2019. UBC has its own housing guidelines and does not have to conform to Vancouver’s stipulation that studios be built no smaller than 250 square feet.

Weighing the price-quality trade-off

Compared with existing studios on campus, which are approximately 240 square feet, a Nano unit will cost $700 for 42 per cent less space.

The Nano Studio undercuts the price of studios on campus — which are over $1,000 per month — and in greater Vancouver. But students like Lewis may feel shortchanged by the size and price trade-off.

“We’re accustomed to much larger spaces here in North America. I think where it becomes a little bit contentious is when you pair that square footage with that price tag,” said Christopher Smith, a master’s student at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Those who consider living at the Nano will have to decide if $700 is worth the compromise on size.

“As rents grow, people prefer smaller and smaller places, as the quality/price tradeoff becomes more weighted towards price. A concern is that people might not understand what they are getting into with micro suites,” said Thomas Davidoff, a UBC business professor and director of the Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate.

Construction at the Gage South Student Residence site, where Nano Studio will house 70 of the dormitory’s 630 total students.

Small size forces creative solutions

By incorporating amenities not always found in micro-studios, UBC planners attempted to address concerns made by naysayers: a bed folds away to reveal a large desk, a kitchenette includes a stovetop range, and a shower completes an in-unit washroom. That would be a plus for some. At her micro-suite in the Downtown Eastside, UBC student Stephanie Wood has to walk down the hall to use the bathroom.

Placing the Nano at the heart of campus was a priority for housing planners. Part of the Gage South Student Residence, its location at the corner of Wesbrook Mall and Student Union Boulevard will allow residents easy access to recreation facilities, learning centres, bus terminals, and the Student Nest.

Finding the right match

“The right kind of student for this is very active on campus,” said Andrew Parr, managing director of student housing and hospitality services at UBC. “The student who likes to study quietly in their room, spending lots of time alone in their own space – this may not be the right environment.”

Parr added feedback has been positive.

“Eighty-two or 86 per cent of students surveyed thought [the Nano Studio] was a good idea, and that they would consider living in that space for that price,” said Parr.

Davidoff suggests students, compared to other types of tenants, are more willing to depart with space in order to live somewhere cheap and convenient.

As for the prospect of micro-units expanding beyond campus, “I don’t know if 140 square feet is sustainable. I can believe it will be.”