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Micro-homes: part of the solution or part of the problem?

  • 9 Comments

With the housing crisis continuing unabated and prices skyrocketing are compact homes the answer?

We asked some of the country’s leading housing experts what they thought of micro-homes, such as Pocket’s new ultra-compact concepts and what part they might play in tackling the UK’s housing crisis.

This week micro-flat developer Pocket revealed the finalists in its contest to design a new model for a compact two person, two bedroom home. The smallest proposal is just 51m².

Given the calibre of the architects taking part and the high standards of the resulting designs, is it time to reassess the role of the micro-home?

Gerard Maccreanor, founding director, Maccreanor Lavington

Gerard Maccreanor, founding director, Maccreanor Lavington

The housing discussion in London is often centred on the shortage of homes and meeting the needs of Londoners. However, London’s growing, dominant world city position is generating a complex housing market, which needs recognition.

An increasing number of ‘stayover’ commuters, a growing transient work force and more students add to the pressure on the existing housing stock.

These groups, along with many young professionals, use the city as their public living room; their domestic requirements are different and micro-units can be appropriate.

As a part of the housing offer within a cosmopolitan London, micro-units certainly have a place.

Julia Park

Julia Park, head of housing research, Levitt Bernstein 

 

The scale of the crisis, and the lack of political will to do anything about it, means that there probably is now a case for micro-flats. But, be in no doubt, if they are part of the solution, they are also part of the problem. Smaller homes lead to higher densities; higher densities lead to higher land prices and higher land prices lead to crazy purchase prices. Each time a micro-flat is sold, it sets up a chain reaction that nudges up the price of everything else.

Pocket’s recent design competition is a worrying preview of where things seem to be heading. One of the two-bedroom flats has a master bedroom with no window. In another, described as a family home, you have to choose between a bath and a wardrobe. With two double bedrooms squeezed into a floor area of 51m² and an unremarkable and under-furnished layout, where is the ‘exceptional quality’ that supposedly makes up for having nowhere to play or put anything?

The designs claim to be compliant with the London Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance, Lifetime Homes and the Code for Sustainable Homes. But they fall short in terms of space, accessibility, daylight and more. Standards exist to prevent one beds from masquerading as two beds, to ensure decent storage space and they require that rooms have space for furniture, natural light and a view. Is this too much to expect?

Sally Lewis

Sally Lewis, founding director, Stitch Architects

There is most certainly a role for micro-homes as one of myriad options for tackling the housing crisis. But they come with a big caveat about quality. Many people will compromise on the size of their home to get a foot on the ladder and this could be hugely exploited if micro-housing becomes mainstream.

An organisation like Pocket has quality at the top of its agenda and will continue to innovate, with the assistance of excellent architects. But if this model gets into the wrong hands, we are in trouble. I’d widen the discussion to include the whole customer experience, not just the detail of the home itself.

The journey from street, to front door, to living space is all-important. While it is very reassuring to see the attention to detail inside the [Pocket] homes, we need to see more about the part these buildings will play in creating good streets for London.

Andy von Bradsky

Andy von Bradsky, chairman, PRP Architects

There is a place in the market for homes that are smaller than the minimum space standards [but only if] they are well designed, well managed and targeted at a specific housing need – for example at young people and key workers. Pocket targets its product at a specific market sector, prioritises good-quality design and, most importantly, ensures affordability at point of sale and into the future.

It is appropriate that space standards are regulated under planning, rather than Building Regulations, so applicants can explain their reasons and make a case for departing from national space standards. It is essential that the consumer is provided with good information about space standards and how products perform against national standard benchmarks, so they can make informed choices. This is the case for home performance labelling.

Meredith Bowles

Meredith Bowles, director, Mole Architects

 

By a combination of excellent design and marketing, Pocket is translating a negative perception [of micro-homes] so small there’s not enough room to swing a cat into a positive: ie perfectly designed, compact urban living. It doesn’t alter the fact that London has the smallest flats in Europe, or that even these flats cost more than five times the combined income of two people on an average salary. Levitt Bernstein’s Housing Design Handbook beautifully analyses the effect of reducing space standards on living conditions, demonstrating what successive reductions mean in real terms. When all we have left is what is essential, what is lost are the spaces that simply make life easier to live. Micro-apartments sound cute, but have nowhere to put a pram, store your skateboard, put your ironing, or hang up your bike. They’re an intelligent response to a broken system.

Matt Ollier

Matt Ollier, co-founder, Ollier Smurthwaite Architects

England is a small land mass and the most densely populated of the larger European countries. Homes have to become more compact to avoid losing more countryside. These micro-homes work. They are well-designed, with efficient layouts and minimal circulation.

They are also combined with good communal space, which helps foster a vibrant community. Pocket also provides housing that people can afford. There is a role for micro-homes.

Marc Vlessing, Pocket Housing

Marc Vlessing, chief executive, Pocket

Pocket made a name for itself developing a 37m² one-bedroom home for the intermediate affordable housing market. We sell them at a discount with the caveat they are only sold to people who qualify for affordable housing. Some local authorities began asking for two-bedroom apartments.

The only way we could do that was with the 61m² standard for two-bedroom, three-person homes. So we looked at two-bedroom, two-person homes. It would make a huge difference to viability – the extra 10m² costs the market £30,000-£40,000. There are about 750,000 people in London who would be in the market for this sort of two-bedroom home. Ten years ago it was key workers, but the landscape is more diverse now and policy hasn’t caught up.

 

 

 

  • 9 Comments

Readers' comments (9)

  • It is fascinating reading comments on micro housing whilst living in a city that has mastered it. Hong Kong. Designers would do well to study the solutions, the effects on health and well being and so forth before setting out on this journey. Hong Kong works because residential is tall (up to 32 storeys), would the UK adopt tall again? I personally don't feel it provides the psychological wellbeing that we need as human beings without well planned public spaces and respite opportunities to support it, weather permitting etc...

    By Richard Dorkin of Ryder

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  • Making flats smaller will be self defeating. It will not reduce dwelling prices for the occupier. Housing is (mostly) market lead. The market takes each buyer to the limit they can afford. All micro units will do is to mean that that limit will not buy as much. So scarcity and price will remain the same, but the consumer will get less, and land values will be the winner, taking a massive hike as more can be put in the same plot area.
    Legislation for minimum size dwellings is the way that will ensure reasonable size homes are provided.
    This simple intervention in supply and demand economics, via the town planning process, is already proving its benefit in London Boroughs that have adopted it.
    The other issue that will enable more housing to be provided is allowing higher and more dense buildings, to give greater density. Not necessarily high rise. Too often the planning and NIMBY process prevents a building being replaced with a more dense solution. This is the natural process of the evolution of cities, invasion and succession by greater intensity of use, to cope with a growing population. The Town Planning profession needs to get its intellectual house in order and create policies to accommodate intensification both now and with long term plans into the future. To say a building is out of scale with its ancient neighbour is to deny the implications of population growth and the natural evolution of cities.

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  • Paul McGrath

    The key aspect of micro homes is that they should be well designed, so that there are places to store skate boards and provide private indoor and outdoor communal spaces. The big practices that monopolise housing, who sit on committee's and also work for the leading housing associations aren't renowned for "innovative" housing. In truth, UK large mass housing has become somewhat formulaic as the plethora of housing guides demonstrates. It is the small scale architects and developers - like Pocket - who are small enough to be more responsive and astute enough to meet constantly changing demands who are thinking creatively about how to solve the housing crisis.

    There is also the question of who determines what "well designed" micro-housing might look like. Putting that responsibility on the planning system is unlikely to produce constructive conversations with planners around the merits of using space more efficiently.

    Clearly, any architect or developer who wants to "innovate" will in future have their wings clipped by the proposed minimum space standards if they stay in their current form. By using architects creatively to demonstrate to politicians what life could be like at the smaller scale can, Pocket can only be applauded.

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    I am a supporter and fan of Pocket Living and argued strongly in favour of the Mayor's Housing Design Guide making an exception for their product, which it did - in the end, with the rather paradoxical outcome that having set great store in outlawing 'hobbit homes', the Mayor then went and invested in a Pocket led JV to develop loads of flats smaller than the minimum standard!

    The key issue is the relationship between design, tenure and management and I have always said that a design standard alone is no guarantee of quality of life in homes which can be adequately sized for one family but are sometimes allowed under poor management to accommodate one family per bedroom - it's the occupancy that matters. Pocket manage their homes well and the lease arrangements pass on the discounted price in perpetuity.

    I note that the Mayor of New York has actively promoted microflat development competitions (Pocket went in for one such last year) and if you go on the LifeEdited website you'll find a whole on-line community that supports the idea that micro-living is the only way to save the planet!
    Ben Derbyshire

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  • Is anybody promoting these micro homes actually living in one long term while expending absolutely every spare penny they have on it?

    The answer to London's housing problem is to find a solution that deals with it, not to provide an answer which simply compounds and perpetuates it.

    Find a way to reduce the demand by making the rest of the country a better option.

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  • Isn't Pocket Living just an answer to a very specifically inner urban area problem, for that read London, Birmingham, Manchester. The UK is not short of space for good sized homes at reasonable densities, but lacks well connected places, with the infrastructure, facilities and job opportunities paying decent salaries that make viable liveable neighbourhoods. As architects I suspect we love the challenge of making beautifully crafted flexible space using economy of means. But is this what people want? Invariably they end up having to accept what the housebuilding industry provides, poorly designed and ill considered spaces.

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  • As Julia Parker reflects the failure of an adequate housing delivery system is central to this response to growing and unfulfilled needs for suitable affordable accommodation. But reducing the standard and quality of housing and life opportunities is a race to the bottom. This is driven by current supply imperatives and failures which in the widest context are unsustainable. If regarded as a generic housing solution, micro flats seem a desperate and expedient measure reflective of the times. Where it ends needs consideration. I would strongly suspect that few if any proponents of these sized flats have lived in such small accommodation, or would do so given the opportunity.
    Our profession has bursting enthusiasm to support creative engagement with problem solving. A danger is that sometimes we get placed in positions were we are unable to see the wood for the trees, which can lead to inappropriate solutions in social terms. Perhaps to many this might appear arrogant and architecturally deterministic; but repetition of some previous periods of historic failures should be avoided. Working together to increase pressure for decent affordable housing for all in the forthcoming election seems more relevant.

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  • I would encourage everybody involved in this debate to review all of the submissions, and the accompanying commentaries provided by the competition jury, and which directly address many of the comments above.

    This can be viewed at:
    http://www.pocketliving.com/homes/ebook

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  • Paul McGrath

    As a long term supporter of so-called micro-homes (a nomenclature which is only possible if a minimum benchmark is generally recognised) 37m2 seems rather an arbitrary figure to define the "bottom" considering students live quite happily in self-contained spaces much smaller in area. Of this I have personal experience - not as a student - but as a responsible designer of student accommodation. I have also lived quite contentedly in a self-contained home having a total area (GIA) of 12.5m2 (that I personally designed) for nine years. So I feel well qualified to offer opinions that are based on a whole raft of personal experience that I am able to draw upon when claiming that micro-homes have a role in providing suitable accommodation.

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