Urbaneer Uses Thinking Small in a Big Way for Business

By Jane Whitttington on June 19th, 2016 / Comments

The Grand Rapids startup Urbaneer is informed by two trends in housing. One is for sustainability, minimalism and the goal of living in smaller, more efficient spaces. The other is the return to the city. Turning the dream of a McMansion in the suburbs on its head, Urbaneer is focused on urban living in small spaces without giving up comfort or aesthetics.

In Time magazine Sam Frizell wrote, “Americans are experiencing an urban renaissance of unanticipated proportions, as young people graduate college and flock to cities, delaying buying a home and perhaps rejecting the suburban ideal altogether.”

Alan Ehrenhalt, author of The Great Inversion, says, “I believe that the problem for central cities in the coming years won’t be creating a demand to live there; it will be creating a supply of housing adequate to meet the demand.”

As for the trend toward sustainable living and reducing the use of resources, a study from Dodge Data and Analytics for the National Association of Home Builders reports that, “More than half of builders and 39 percent of remodelers say they are working on green projects. These figures are expected to rise over the next five years.”

Bruce Thompson, President of Urbaneer, says it’s about the story of innovation for them.

“The story of Urbaneer is really a story of innovation. We are a company that is a spinoff of Rockford Construction; they remain partners with us as we make our way out into the world,” he said.

Four years ago their parent company began thinking about ways to bring innovation to living spaces. Trends were showing that people who wanted to return the city, the urban center, also wanted to live in simpler more efficient ways.

“We wanted to create spaces that were compact and adaptable. We created a moveable wall system that we have patented, a way of changing up spaces to arrange the living area into different configurations,” Thompson said. “We use the old Murphy bed idea. The bed folds down from the wall and can be put away when not in use. Furniture adapts to different uses. We have built the design around the occupants and allowed them to live larger in a smaller space.”

In researching ideas, Thompson looked at other markets where urban living in small spaces is becoming the norm. Cities like New York City and San Francisco which have limited boundaries and huge populations were filled with examples of the kind of design Urbaneer was interested in creating.

Two years ago, Urbaneer worked on a Rockford Construction development at 600 Douglas Street using their vision as a template for the design. They also created eight studio apartments in the recently renovated Morton House in downtown Grand Rapids. (Information about these studio apartments is at www.themortongr.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/The-Morton-Floorplans-Studio.pdf) They have also partnered with the Gillespie Group in Lansing in the building of Outfield Apartments in downtown Lansing, adjacent to the Lansing Lugnuts minor league baseball field.

Proximity to Grand Valley State University and the Michigan State University School of Human Medicine as well as the influx of young entrepreneurs based in the city generates a natural market for the apartments. Empty nesters looking to leave the suburbs and live an urban lifestyle are another market for Urbaneer.

Upcoming projects include Barley Flats above New Holland Brewing, which will be ready for occupancy this fall. Urbaneer has also been contacted by a developer in Traverse City to design affordable housing for employees in the tourist industry to give them the option of living close to their jobs in the city center.

Perhaps the most ambitious project is the single family home they will be building in Heritage Hill. Urbaneer was able to find a lot on Pleasant Street; the home previously on that site had burned.

“This house, which we are calling the Urbaneer bungalow, will function as a ‘living lab’ for our ideas,” Thompson said. “My wife and I will be living in the home, which will be 800 square feet of living space with the option of creating usable space in the basement and attic. We like to say that it will be 800 feet that lives like 2,000. The exterior will be very traditional in order to fit seamlessly into the Heritage Hill aesthetic. But the inside will be totally open with a moveable wall system in place. We hope to build a series of single-family homes using many of the ideas we have developed for apartments. We are also looking into the idea of building condos somewhere down the line.”

Pushing innovation in housing design is the Urbaneer story. For more information about what they do and photos of many of their projects, go to www.urbaneerspaces.com.

About the Author

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Grand Rapids. A Michigan native and Michigan State University grad, she enjoys reading, travel, politics and volunteering.