If we were unable to appreciate it before COVID-19, most people will be able to now; the importance of having just a bit more space in our homes. Even before the challenges we have experienced due to COVID-19, a lack of space within our dwellings has been shown to have an impact on our basic living needs, and this has become even more apparent due to our changing lifestyles that have had to evolve over the last couple of years.
Our homes sustain us and play a big role in supporting our mental wellbeing and health. Now, more than ever, our homes are having to work harder to do this, as during the pandemic many of us have spent much more time in them, working from home and assisting our children with home schooling.
Surely the pandemic has highlighted more than ever the need for every single one of us, who is responsible for the delivery of new homes, to consider how we can contribute positively to the health and wellbeing of the people who will live in the houses we design and build? And even after the pandemic has subsided, we are likely to realise the continued benefits and flexibility brought about by having a little bit more space in our homes.
How can we influence the delivery of new housing which can help create a positive impact on the health, educational attainment and family relationships of those living in these homes?
With many of us having spent much more time in our homes recently; working, living and playing, have we all been able to find the space, or have we been able to adapt the space we have, to allow us to work and home school our children? Is the societal shift we have seen in the way we live as a result of the pandemic here to stay? And do we need a wider rethink on housing typologies?
The application of minimal standards to which a lot of homes are designed, does not allow for sufficient flexibility or provide for adaptability. Even if we look further back to the 1970’s, the Government’s own research findings (first published in 1961) published, ‘With the greatly increased rate of social and economic change, the adaptable house is becoming a national necessity. Not only would it be valuable for the family staying in one house for most of its life: it would allow much easier and perhaps more satisfactory adaptation to the changing general needs.’ 1
The consideration of this subject matter is likely to have come about due to the way in which the design of dwellings had been developing at the time. The typical pattern applied to the design of our housing had occurred following changes within English society from the mid-eighteenth century. Prior to this, in pre-industrial Britain, the urban house contained a mixture of people and activities, generating a co-existence of domestic lives over-lapping with private work and recreation domains. A dislike for this style of living led to an increasing preference for a more demarcated private side to family life. And a stronger differentiation of function, and allocation of separate rooms for each and every purpose began to evolve itself into the design of our houses. This might have occurred partly due to the increasing compartmented organisation of industrialised employment, which started to be reflected in living trends.
Today, we find that the implementation of minimum space standards and the division of rooms in many houses is so well defined that flexibility and adaptation is now often impossible, too much focus is given to ‘number of bedrooms’ rather than ‘space’
But what does a lack of space actually mean?
Published by the Royal Institute of British Architects, The Case For Space, the Size of England’s New Homes (September 2011) stated,
‘A lack of space for the number of inhabitants living in their home, in extreme cases, has been shown to affect our health, our family relationships and our children’s educational attainment.’ 2
The report also stated that people occupying a newly built home in the UK (both buying and renting) are likely to live in less space than in other counties in Europe even those where population densities are similar to our own. Analysis carried out by LABC in August 2018 3 established that houses built within the 2000’s have continued to get smaller since the 1970’s (when Britain built the biggest houses).
Our problem can probably be attributed to the way buying a home is carried out in the UK. We market residential property by the number of bedrooms, and not on floor space as other countries do. This means that space is not communicated clearly and it does not enable people to easily compare homes against one another or understand what they are getting for their money.
However, we have been guided by ‘a good practice approach’ in relation to space standards for over 100 years now. This mainly came about after the First World War and was particularly concerned with improving general living conditions. The Housing Act of 1935 defined minimum requirements to overcome the problem of overcrowding, and then in the 1960’s the Parker Morris Standards provided a comprehensive set of evidenced-based space standards for house building. These standards were developed following the 1961 publication of Homes for Today and Tomorrow. The Committee behind the development of The Parker Morris Standard was mainly concerned about the space and the way people might want to use that space, rather than layouts. The subsequent standards initially guided the development of house building, until 1967 when they became mandatory. In 1980 the Government removed the clause on the regulation stating,
‘the market will provide the right type and size of homes’.
It is probably true to say that the market has driven the type and size of homes, but has this been taken forward as it was intended? What is actually driving the size of our homes in the market today?
It is well documented that here in the UK we face a growing housing crisis; a shortage of housing, including social housing, and this demand is driving up house prices. Subsequently this has contributed to many new homes being built to smaller sizes. For the developer this means more homes on a site bringing an increased financial return. It would seem that the housing market today is predominantly being driven by financial incentives.
Possibly as a result of the changing historical developments applied to the design of housing, many of us are now faced with the difficult challenges of trying to work effectively in our own homes and trying to provide sufficient space for our children to complete their schoolwork. These are functions that our homes are no longer designed to accommodate easily, mainly due to a lack of space, and due to space that does not perform flexibly or allow adaptation.
Many of us will probably agree that we can be at our most efficient and work most effectively when our surrounding environment is quiet, devoid of distractions and when it enables us to sit comfortably at a desk. Positioning our work desk, whether it be for our daily job or for a teenager revising for exams, within the corner of an open plan living space distracted by the frequent comings and goings of the rest of the family or having to set up and clear the dining space each day so the family can sit down and eat their meals, is not very ideal. However, the current situation is probably forcing us to work in this way, because our homes do not permit us work in another way.
Our bedroom spaces are too small to accommodate even a small desk, and the box room (small bedroom) is used for storage because our homes do not have purpose-built cupboards or space for cupboards to store our belongings. And even if this has only become apparent to us during the last couple of years of having to work at home, surely, we were able to appreciate prior the COVID-19 the importance of creating a suitable environment with minimal distractions for our children to complete their homework and exam revision at home?
The Case For Space published by the RIBA provides us with the information that many homes would benefit with only an additional 4m2 of floor space. 4m2 is not an awful lot of space, but it could be enough space to allow us to work comfortably at home, sitting at a desk and with additional space for a sofa. If that space was doubled to 8m2 then we have enough space for a small spare bedroom, which can easily adapt to a workspace, for adults or children, when needed.
When houses and the rooms within them are designed to meet minimum standards, the inhabitants are unlikely to be able to move furniture around to create a different layout or introduce new furniture when needed. A lack of space for storage can also contribute to the inflexibility of use of the space, as any leftover space is likely to become used for storage, again making flexibility and adaptability of rooms difficult.
Within the social housing sector we became familiar with designing homes to meet the Housing Quality Indicator system. Generally, quality was the driving factor, not just cost, and the layout and size of the dwellings were assessed alongside the scheme’s location and environment. In relation to unit size the assessment method introduced the construction industry to the consideration of rooms requiring ‘activity zones’ alongside furniture items. Minimum storage area requirements were also incorporated. However, the HQI system was aligned to the housing funding programme for affordable housing and the standards were not relevant to general new build housing developments. Additionally, the funding programme only led up to 2015.
The National Described Space Standards, published by the Homes and Communities Agency, has been adopted for use since October 2015. However, these area standards for housing only remain optional. Many of those responsible for the delivery of housing are choosing not to build to the minimum standards set out in the NDSS (and these really should only be considered a minimum). As many local authorities have still not adopted the guidance into their own local planning policies there is no enforcement for new housing to be designed to meet these minimum standards. However, we are tirelessly place making and designing new housing developments with the required number of car parking spaces, the defined depth gardens, the necessary interface distances and even in some cases the prescribed garden areas; so why not the actual size of the homes themselves?
It was not so long ago we were designing houses (mainly for the social market) to meet criteria of the Code for Sustainable Homes. It might have turned into a bit of a tick box exercise, but the homes that were designed to meet the necessary criteria for the ‘Home Office’ within section Energy 9, are likely to have made life a bit easier for its occupants during the pandemic. Likewise, the occupants of any dwellings built to meet the criteria of Lifetime Homes are also likely to have found the additional space within their homes useful and adaptable, to suit their need to work at home. The additional space is also likely to have proved useful due to occupation by the whole family for much longer periods of time.
For those of us who are responsible for the design and delivery of new homes surely, we must learn something from the pandemic? Should we not give more consideration to how we can influence the creation of quality homes, those that offer greater flexibility and adaptation? Do we need to provide more choice in housing typologies?
Designing to minimum space standards alone is rarely going to achieve positive benefits for future occupiers of the homes being delivered. But by providing homes with even a little more space, alongside consideration of layout, activity and furniture, we are more likely to positively affect the longer-term mental well-being and health of the people who will live in them.
Surely, we can all agree that if we can take anything positive forward from this pandemic, then this should be it. Let us deliver homes that, allow people to live in them and live in them for longer, allow them to adapt to suit changing needs, provide sufficient space in them so families can store their possessions, help our children have space in them to play and learn for the best possible educational outcome and help the families living in them maintain healthy mental wellbeing.