Since the enactment of NYC zoning over the last 100 years, the resulting apartment buildings tended to have 8 foot ceilings and studios could be built as small as 300 SF. Since then NYC changed zoning rules to penalize new buildings that had a large number of studios. This, coupled with the enactment of America with Disabilities Act, have resulted in an increase of the size of the minimum allowable apartment to approx. 400 SF. Thats a 33% increase in size!
Given that zoning regulations limit total building height and total number of units, developers are encouraged to fit as many floors in the allowable height so they can maximize the number of units they can build. The result is a typical apartment ceiling height of 8 feet.
Density is determined by taking the multiplying the lot size by the Floor to Area Ratio (FAR) of the district it belongs to. So a 10,000 SF lot in an R6 zoning with a 2.43 FAR allows for a building totalling 24,300SF. Using the table below the max. number of units in the building will be 35.5 units (rounded down to 35 units). Assuming a 15% loss factor for common areas then the indoor dimensions of the apartment will be 581 SF (684 SF minus 15%). With the average apartment being 581 SF you cannot have 35 studios of 400 SF each because you paid for land you won’t use. Similarly you can’t have 1,000 SF 3 bedrooms because you can only have 24 apartment. Basically, you are forced to build darn close to 35 apartments of 684 SF each even though the people can’t afford it.
Density refers to the maximum number of dwelling units permitted on a zoning lot. The factors for each district are approximations of average unit size plus allowances for any common areas.
What this zoning code does NOT let you do is to be creative and pass along the savings to your customers. Alternatives that have been successfully used in the past include mezzanine apartments.
These residential units where created when loft or factory buildings where converted into residential. These buildings tend to have ceiling heights of 12-15 feet and given that you ideally need 8 feet floor-to-ceiling clearance, these loft building where unsuited to fit 2 stories. Consequently, developers became creative and kept the living room, kitchen and bathrooms below and created mezzanine spaces for the bedrooms; typically above the space occupied by the kitchen and bath. A 100-150 SF bedroom fits on top of a kitchen consuming no floor area – albeit with a low ceiling clearance of between 4 and 7 ft! This arrangement also allowed for living rooms of 12-15 foot double height ceilings which created the illusion of a much larger space. Also, apartments with taller ceilings call for more window space which translates into more natural light into the apartment.
By placing the kitchen and bathroom below and the bedroom in the mezzanine you take up 100 sf less footprint. Assuming that lower floor takes up 250 sf, one could fit 4 apartment with mezzanine bedrooms instead of 3 apartments with the bedroom on the same floor. Fitting more units in the same lot size will bring down construction costs while the cost of the additional height of each floor is negligible because you are not changing the number of bathrooms or kitchens -which are the most expensive part of the apartment.
One benefit derive from the set up is that the living room would have a much higher ceiling akin to a double Height ceiling and, even though the apartment is small, the height of the apartment would make it feel much larger than it really is.
Government officials: Time to get creative!
For more on zoning see my prior post Anniversary of the Real Estate Funnel