Levitt Bernstein: minimum space standards 'more important than ever'
The mastermind behind the proposed new space standards, Julia Park of Levitt Bernstein, explains her view that the government must not walk away from regulating the size of new dwellings
It’s no surprise that the Housing Standards Consultation is particularly cagey when it comes to Space. Not only does the overall review have a deregulatory ambition, the ‘S’ word has a unique ability to raise house builders’ hackles. That national, cross-tenure space standards feature at all is good news if you think Space matters. It undoubtedly matters to homeowners and tenants so it ought to matter to Government, especially if they are genuinely looking for more efficient ways to house a growing and aging population. (Sorry, but bungalows and bin stores aren’t the answer).
Levitt Bernstein’s own Space mission was originally prompted by concern about the inadequacy of the Housing Quality Indicators (HQIs), especially when designing to Lifetime Homes. Unconvinced by any other past or present space standards available at the time, we decided to look at it a bit differently. Working our way up from 1b2p to 2b3p, 2b4p and so on, we charted the floor areas of range of ‘decent house plans’ and found a pattern. It sounds obvious (and it is) but the things that trigger space are the number of people (bedspaces), bedrooms, bathrooms, WCs/shower rooms and the number of storeys. By uncovering the numerical value of each of these five variables, and adding them to a starter figure, we devised a simple calculator that provides reliable floor areas for any dwelling type – areas that work when every bed is being slept in.
Many others have since contributed useful work. In 2009, HATC produced space standards for the National Housing Federation, and the GLA embarked on the London Housing Design Guide (LHDG) with MAE Architects. Different approaches yielded very similar figures, and eventually consensus, when the calculator was used to generate the expanded set of space standards published in the 2012 London Housing SPG.
Meanwhile, we had turned our attention to Accessibility - the standards themselves, the countless local versions and the nonsensical assessment regimes. It can’t be right that Part M (the easy one) is assessed under Building Control - Lifetime Homes by planners, funders and Code assessors - and wheelchair housing (the most technical) often not scrutinised at all. We also looked at whether these three current standards could be condensed to two. Though undeniably simpler, we worried that without a middle option, the only workable choice for people with mild to moderate mobility difficulties, might be expensive wheelchair housing. However, for an intermediate standard to be credible as ‘accessible housing’, justify wheelchair-oriented features and constitute a sensible, ‘right-sizing’ option for older people, step-free access feels essential.
We therefore proposed that three levels (with lift access at level 2) could be taken into ‘new-style’ ‘Building Regulations for Housing’ as ‘regulated options’ to simplify assessment and improve outcomes. Based on local needs assessments Local Authorities would specify the proportion of homes required at the higher two levels. This would be ‘Localism’ at its most sensible, and an idea that could be extended to other themes.
Back to Space. The original calculator had factored in the furniture and activity spaces of the HQIs and the spatial implications of Lifetime Homes. Clearly these floor areas wouldn’t be enough for wheelchair housing and would be hard to justify when only designing to Part M. So having plumped for three levels of Accessibility, we developed higher and lower variants of the calculator. It seemed to us then (as it does now) that three tiers of one and two tiers of the other, just wouldn’t add up given the interrelationship between the two issues.
Together with work on Space Labelling and Benchmarking which we produced with PRP, HTA and PTEa, the three-tier ideas were offered to the Harman Group and passed on to Government for consideration as part of this review - a process that appears to have been robust and democratic.
The proposals were developed by the DCLG chaired working groups and now form part of the consultation though discerning exactly what’s on offer isn’t easy.
Government seems to have ruled out regulation and is less than enthusiastic about standards -particularly the Level 1 baseline. Only Space Labelling is given any real backing but who wouldn’t want to make it easier for people to understand and compare the sizes of the new homes they might be buying or renting?
We’d like labelling to extend to room and storage areas, but still feel it’s not enough. On balance, we stand to gain more than we’d lose by introducing sensibly pitched minimum space standards with specific safeguards for bedrooms and storage. By pinning down what we mean by a decent bedroom and an adequate bedspace, standards allow us to assess the capacity (reasonable occupancy limit) of a given home. With private renting on the increase, and affordable housing tenants faced with working out whether they can afford to keep a spare bedroom, this feels more important than ever.
We wonder how many of the 93 per cent of owner-occupiers reported by the NHBC to be happy with the size of their new home have a spare bedroom or two. For many households the spare room isn’t spare, it’s the wardrobe, storage and study space that’s missing, and under-occupying is the only way to manage at all. It’s obvious that by building small you achieve more dwellings per hectare, but a new metric of ‘people-actually-housed-per-hectare’ might expose the inherent inefficiency of constructing homes that can’t work when fully occupied. Impact assessments and viability testing tend to ignore issues like this.
All things considered, Space is on something of a knife-edge. Governments’ desire for a cross-tenure approach is sensible given that the tenure of any home is liable to change over its lifetime. But it could mean no space standards at all (even for affordable housing) or it could see the first ever, national set of reasonable, universal requirements designed to safeguard the interests of a diverse population. We know which we prefer.
- The views expressed in this article are those of Julia Park and Levitt Bernstein