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What could the new housing space standards look like?

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The proposed introduction of national space standards marks a radical shake-up for new homes, but architects fear the new rules will fail to make an impact. Laura Mark reports

The ‘biggest change in housing standards in a generation’ is imminent, says PRP’s Andy von Bradsky.

Next week a consultation closes on the government’s much-anticipated regulatory shake-up for new homes – a major overhaul of housing red tape announced in 2012.

Central to the draft proposals, unlikely to change much before coming into force next year, is the first national space standard.

The new rules will apply to every new home, from one-off houses to the entire private rental sector, and will see the rest of England adopting similar standards to those already in place in London.

‘[These] standards should mean the average home gets a bit bigger and the smallest homes will get substantially larger,’ says a hopeful Julia Park of Levitt Bernstein, who provided technical guidance to the review.

The code will be based on a gross internal floor area (GIA), with the space standards setting out a minimum size, dependant on the number of bedrooms and occupants (see table). A more complicated and potentially ‘troublesome’ three-tier standard has been shelved. Park says this shift to a gross area will provide more flexibility for architects. ‘Having minimum GIAs is useful … having enough floor area means there is much less excuse to design badly,’ she says.

Ben Derbyshire, managing partner at HTA, agrees that the rules should allow designers, housebuilders and consumers to compare size against a standard.

‘Specifying GIA at least means we have the opportunity for the market – consumers, local authorities as well as producers – to measure up against a benchmark,’ he says.

But there are still concerns that the sizes are too small, and initial calls by architects for the space standards to be made part of the Building Regulations have not been taken up (AJ 30.08.13).

Gus Zogolovitch, founder of home-funder Crowdestates, says the new rules ‘will not stop rabbit hutches being built. Frankly, some of the spaces in the standard are still small.’

Russell Curtis, director of RCKa, is even more sceptical: ‘A new national housing standard would add yet another layer of unwelcome and unnecessary legislation,’ he says. ‘Instead, the inclusion of space standards within Building Regulations would have been a major step forward – built into the planning system there seems to be limited scope to enforce non-compliance.’

If adopted, the space standards, would be an ‘opt-in’ planning standard and not a regulation, and it is this optional element that has raised the most concern, with many fearing it could prevent take-up of the changes.

Former Urban Splash director Nick Johnson comments: ‘The viability opt-out is an issue, given that both developer and local authority have equal incentive to maximise a consent … The use of the viability opt-out will depend on budgetary pressures, not the desire to improve the quality of our homes.’

David Cross of Sheffield-based Coda Studios says viability is already an issue and this is unlikely to change with the new standards. ‘In some northern areas it’s difficult to create viable developments even with the current set of rules,’ he says. 

But communities minister Stephen Williams, who is overseeing the regulatory shake-up, has played down the viability ‘loophole’.

‘Viability shouldn’t feature as strongly as it has in previous years,’ he says. ‘Developers will no longer be able to play local authorities off against each other because it is a national standard.’

The consultation closes next week (7 November), with the changes set to be adopted in 2015.

  Minimum area (m2)
Number of bedroomsNumber of peopleOne-storey dwellingsTwo-storey dwellingsThree-storey dwellings

Further comments

Russell Curtis, director of RCKa

‘It would be difficult for anyone other than the most mercenary housing developer to argue that some kind of minimum standards are not, in principle, a good thing. The carrot has obviously failed, so here comes the stick. In London we’ve had the benefit of space standards for a while and early concerns that these might result in a stifling of innovation seem to have been largely allayed; yet the fact that many local authorities are so ill-equipped to evaluate designs that creatively challenge prescriptive area requirements there remains a lingering fear that intelligent schemes that unlock difficult urban sites will be knocked back at planning, depriving us of much-needed homes.

‘A new “National Housing Standard” would add yet another layer of unwelcome and unnecessary legislation. Instead the inclusion of space standards within Building Regulations would have been a major step forward - built into the planning system there seems to be limited scope to enforce non-compliance in the same way that many Councils seem impotent in ensuring the Code for Sustainable Homes is implemented after consent, but this would of course have made the requirements nationally mandatory regardless of viability. However if such space standards can be made to work in London then I fail to see how anyone outside the capital could argue that the addition of a few square metres of space suddenly renders a scheme economically unviable - anyone disputing this should rightly receive short shrift from residents already living in Britain’s notoriously pokey homes.’

Robert Sakula, founder, Ash Sakula Architects

‘Obviously bigger is better. My grouse is the multiplicity of different agencies one has to satisfy. It leads to endless complications: TRADA say one thing, but NHBC demand another, endless different targets for accessibility, etc, etc. So a single national standard would be a great help.’

Nick Johnson, former Urban Splash director

‘Space standards are generally to be welcomed but they are deployed as an easy means of control because they are a measurable metric. They are only one of many components of, and not a proxy for, good quality housing, many factors which are far more difficult to measure are equally, if not more important.’ 

Julia Park, head of housing research, Levitt Bernstein

‘We’re very happy with the space standard itself, including the secondary components that provide specific protection for bedrooms and storage - the areas that typically fall short in today’s new housing. Our concern is that it is optional - even for affordable housing now that national funding standards have been withdrawn. It’s also important that people understand that although the new single standard works for Category 1 and Category 2 of Accessibility, it is nowhere near enough for Category 3, wheelchair housing.

‘By definition, a space standard deals with size not quality, but having enough space and using it wisely, is a great starting point for raising quality. It goes without saying that homes also need to perform well in a number of other respects and there is a long way to go with external design - but that’s a planning issue, not a standards or regulations issue.

‘A key part of this exercise has been sorting out assessment regimes - trying to ensure that planners concentrate on external design and Building Control concentrates on technical performance. Bringing them together into one document could be a step back - standards and regulations don’t have the same status and there is little point in duplicating domestic building regulations within a housing standard - it’s potentially confusing and both would have to be updated simultaneously.  Added to which, most design considerations have a contextual element which makes generic, national design standards quite difficult to define.

‘Having said that, we’d like to see housing regulations put into a separate volume and written in a more user friendly style (as standards tend to be) and we’d like to have a national list of the topics that design standards should cover through the planning system. We should also agree on a single way to measure things such as density (this varies significantly now) and we should define national categories of accessibility for use in all Accessible Housing Registers (again, they are all different at the moment).  We’d also like to see design and technical facets of the same topic much more closely dovetailed - this was promised in the review but hasn’t yet been delivered, and we’d like to see planning ‘use classes’ aligned with Building Regulations ‘purpose groups’ so that the same categorisation follows through the whole development control process. It should be possible, through the planning portal, to click on ‘Housing Standards and Regulation’ for any given Local Authority and view their local planning policy housing design standards alongside the technical Housing Regulations, including the ‘optional requirements’ they have selected for water and accessibility.’

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