Beijing's Capsule Apartments Not for Claustrophobics

As real estate prices continue to skyrocket in China's major cities, the dearth of affordable housing options has pushed low-income earners toward increasingly cramped quarters.

In March, Beijing's tiniest apartments hit the market. Measuring 7.9 feet long, 2.4-3 feet wide and 6.6 feet high, these "capsule apartments" are a twist on Japan's capsule hotels/ The compact housing does not include restrooms, so tenants must leave the building to use public facilities.

The capsule apartments are the patented invention of 78-year-old retired engineer Huang Rixin. The project began in 2008, when Huang saw a photo of a capsule hotel on the internet and was inspired to adapt the design to apartment-style housing.

Moved by the plight of Beijing's "ant tribes," communities of recent college graduates living in crowded, one-story houses on the city outskirts and struggling to get by on meager salaries, Huang felt there was a real societal need for new, affordable housing options.

"China is still a developing country and is still relatively poor," Huang told ABC News. "Its land is mostly fixed, but its people are alive and changing. My concept touches on an ongoing issue, which is how can you create enough housing to accommodate this growing population?"

Huang rented three rooms measuring 80 square feet each in a building in Liulangzhuang, Haidian district. He then divided the rooms into eight smaller rooms, or capsules.

With an area of about 21 square feet each, a capsule contains enough room to fit a twin bed with an adjustable desk. A wire-mesh ceiling provides ventilation, and power outlets installed in the units allow tenants to watch TV and surf the net.

"The capsule apartments protect people's right to life and right to privacy. The design also protects against burglars and fire, while the ventilation system protects people from extreme heat. People can sit, sleep, watch TV and live there for a relatively long time," Huang told ABC News.

Capsule Apartments Prove Hit With College Graduates

Throughout Beijing, the average monthly rental price is 1000 yuan ($146) per person and the average monthly income is 2500 yuan ($366) per person, according to the Global Times newspaper. With a price tag of 250 yuan ($37) a month, Huang's tiny capsule apartments are in demand.

Huang intended for his capsule apartments to act as temporary housing for the college graduates and migrant workers flocking to Beijing in search of better job opportunities. Once tenants are in a stronger financial situation, they can move out and find more permanent lodgings.

One of Huang's former tenants, Zhang Junyou, is a recent college graduate who came to Beijing from Jilin to look for a job. After booking a hotel room for the first few days, Zhang started running out of money and sought an alternative place to stay. Having heard of Huang through media reports, Zhang called the retired engineer, rented a capsule apartment and was able to extend his job search.

"I felt the living conditions were okay, at least for someone who has little other options in Beijing," Zhang told ABC News. "At least the capsule apartment gives you a space of your own and some amenities."

Huang spent more than 30,000 yuan ($4,392) building the eight capsules. In addition, he spent 180,000 yuan ($26,350) to build two loft-style "luxury" capsule apartments in Andingmen.

With a monthly rent of 1900 yuan ($278) for two rooms, these luxury apartments are furnished with soft beds and come with a communal kitchen and solar-powered heater. One unit has been rented out to a musician couple.

Though currently seeing a loss on his investment, Huang is not concerned about profit.

"Because I'm a scientist, not a businessman, I wanted to demonstrate first my technical skills by constructing these capsule apartments," Huang told ABC News.

"In the beginning, I had trouble finding tenants, but once the apartments received so much media attention, all eight were rented out. I was contacted by reporters from China, Japan and America. With all this media attention, I feel like my technical skills have been sufficiently recognized by the public."

Chinese Bloggers Praise Affordable Capsule Apartments

Huang's attention now shifts to securing investors. As Huang searches for funding to carry out the next phase of his designs, he faces skeptics who question the capsules' legality and marketability.

In an appearance on Qinghai television station's "One Million Giveaway" that aired on June 6, Huang presented his idea to a five-member panel of judges in the hopes of receiving 200,000 yuan ($29,278) to build 60 capsule apartments and start a company to manage his project.

Huang unveiled a miniature model and exclaimed that it would provide the perfect sleeping quarters even for Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets star from China and who at 7-feet, 6-inches tall is the tallest member of the National Basketball Association. Despite Huang's best efforts, the panel voted 3-2 to deny Huang funding.

Huang maintains that he holds the necessary patents and certificates to build his designs and will keep them within legal requirements. Supporters of Huang's designs in the Chinese blogosphere credit him with providing affordable housing to those in need.

"The capsule apartment helped me out of a financially difficult situation," Zhang told ABC News. "I feel that if they pass the market's test, and if their designs are determined to be safe, then society should support them."