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Marc Vlessing: 'Detailed design can make compact living work'

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Marc Vlessing, the chief executive of micro-home developer Pocket, explains why they have run a competition to design a super-compact two bedroom, two person home?

Tell me a little about the contest?
We made a name for ourselves by developing a 38m² one-bedroom home for the intermediate affordable housing market. We sell them at a discount [comapred to market prices] with a caveat they can only be sold to people who qualify for affordable housing.

We got some money from GLA which has allowed us to do more housing projects. Now some local planning authorities have begun asking for two bedroom homes as well. The only way we could do that was with the 61m² standard for two bedroom-three person homes.

We asked whether there could be a two bedroom-two person home. It would make a huge difference to viability because the extra 10m² costs the market around £30,000 to £40,000.

What does the market need? We asked how large is the market for singles who work from home, couples with no children or individuals who can only buy if they rent out a spare room and we found there were a lot of people who would want that sort of housing.

If we are going to do something as bold as that then we are going to go out to the community of architects and see what they come up with. We’ve been surprised, thrilled and amazed by the quality of what they have come back with.

How large are these two bedroom apartments going to be, in square metres?
We haven’t settled on a figure yet. If you look at our commended entries Mikhail Riches’ scheme is 54m², Weston Williamson’s 52m², HAT Projects’ 57m², Henley Halebrown Rorrison’s 51m² and David Kohn’s 58m².

The mayor’s current guidelines have a one bedroom-two person apartment at 50m² and a one bedroom-one person studio at 37m² so there is nothing between the 50m² and 61m² standards. We haven’t decided what the ideal two bedroom-two person apartment looks like.

I can’t tell you which design we will use.

If the Mayor of London found they wanted to bring it into the design guidelines that would be great. If they don’t its OK .That’s not going to stop a local authority approving it. It’s not in the policy and it’s not against the guidelines.

What role does quality architecture play in persuading buyers to settle for smaller-than-average homes?
It’s all about detailed design which can make compact living work. They must have ample storage, under floor heating so there are no radiators telling you where to put furniture, oversized fenestration to maximise daylight, generous shared spaces and communal bike storage. Even after 10 years we don’t have much competition because the average developer looks at the detail we go into and says, “Forget it!”.  We have a director of interiors and a director of exteriors who scrutinise everything we build.

Because we are so prescriptive about design quality the best architects take that on as a way to free themselves up and do more innovative things they wouldn’t normally do.

Roughly how much will one of these homes cost?
I would be disappointed if they were more than £275,000. Currently the average for a two bedroom property in London Zone 2 or Zone 3 is between £335,000 and £400,000.

The average income for our one bedroom apartments is £39,000 for a £230,000 home. So if we go up to £275,000 we can expect the [required] income to be £50,000. The average deposit for our one bedroom apartments is £40,000 so for the two bedroom home it would be £50,000.

Who are the likely buyers?
There are around 750,000 people in London who would be in the market for this sort of two bedroom home. The average age is around 34 or 35.

Ten years ago it was about key workers such as nurses and fire fighters but the landscape is more diverse and complicated now and policy hasn’t caught up with it.

We’re talking about both public and private sector employees, not necessarily nuclear families, singles who work from home, gay people and older people looking to downsize.

Our developments are as car-free as we can make them but if a planner insists on car parks we can have them but the more space we have for cars the less return we have and the shallower the discount will become.

We can’t stop people from having babies. Most people only move out of our one bedroom homes when they get a job abroad or have a baby on the way. There is nothing we can do to stop overcrowding other than making sure we build enough units.

Why does London need more of this sort of housing?
Our dream is to help people access home ownership in a way which is safe. I’m not going to say to someone in their thirties they will always have a job, their salary will always go up and so will the value of their property – that is a lie. I want to create a two bedroom property market where the owners are not at risk of having negative equity. I would much rather my son or daughter bought a two bedroom home at £275,000 than an open market two bedroom home at £350,000 or £400,000 because they can service the mortgage more easily and won’ have to do jobs they don’t enjoy for so long.

I don’t think the housing market will fall rapidly but, if it does fall, people in Pocket homes will have a buffer. I don’t see demand going away or supply going up so I don’t see high prices going away in London.

How will this competition contribute to the future of Pocket housing?
We are really impressed with all of the architects who were commended in the contest and we would like to work all of them. We are currently working with the Stirling Prize winner Haworth Tompkins on a scheme in Kingston and there are 12 other projects in planning or construction. We are on site in Lewisham with JTP and in Camden with HTA. We are also working with Waugh Thistleton in Hackney and on a large scheme with Metropolitan Workshop in Wandsworth.

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