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Best Practice: How big is a house?

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Minimum space standards would kill innovative micro-homes, writes Paul McGrath

In 1926, when architects were just starting to take an interest in mass housing and space standards, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s ‘Frankfurt’ kitchen was a supreme example of practical, creative thinking about space use in the home.

Her ground-breaking design was based on rigorous time and motion studies, and this bottom-up approach would become ubiquitous. Yet in the 21st century, it is proposed we go no further than asking people how big they want their homes to be, on the assumption that the house-building machine will provide it through blunt regulation, regardless of the cost to occupiers or producers.

This appears to be the rationale behind mandatory minimum space standards now being enthusiastically endorsed by politicians and recently adopted by the Greater London Authority in their London Housing Design Guide. And last month, the RIBA published new research into Britain’s ‘shameful shoe boxes’, to be followed next year by an inquiry into housing needs, which will feed into government proposals to change planning rules.

However, isn’t the architectural profession uniquely placed to orchestrate this debate, rather than to simply follow it? Shouldn’t it lead with original research, as Schütte-Lihotzky did?

Tokyo, where the ‘micro-homes’ movement has really taken off, is not Birmingham, but lessons can still be learned from cultures that successfully build homes on tiny, urban plots. OK, these houses may not all have a ‘Frankfurt’ kitchen, but they are a superb land-use solution. Look at Takamitsu Azuma’s own family house in Tokyo. Built in 1966 at only 20m2, the whole site is no larger than a car-parking space plus a staircase. So what happens to sites which would be too small to develop if mandatory space standards were applied to the private sector? If they are not to become blighted, the profession must ensure creative solutions for brownfield land are not stifled by crudely applied regulation.

Rather than confronting mass housebuilders, architects can lead by example and start developing plots themselves, like Liddicoat & Goldhill’s Shadow House in AJ 22.09.11. At Ceetoo Architecture, we see the numerous abandoned sites in which commercial housebuilders have no interest as a growth market for entrepreneurial-minded architects. We bought an abandoned, cramped site between two houses which the planners said was undevelopable, and applied our skills to find solutions to problems that must have seemed insurmountable to others. At appeal, we won planning permission for a two-storey house. Yes, we struggled to meet all the Lifetime Homes standards (we didn’t meet the Mayor of London’s space standards for bedrooms either), but at least it will be a wheelchair-accessible home.

And what do mandatory space standards tell us about how space is actually used? In his Break Down installation, artist Michael Landy shredded every possession he owned. In so doing, he asked a fundamental question of us all. What things do we really need to lead fulfilling lives? That is a question architects can answer comprehensively, authoritatively and in a unique way. I’m no gourmet, so why do I need four rings in my hob if I’ve never used three of them? The answers to these questions – and there are many of them – underpin how space is used, and therefore tell us how much space should be provided in increasingly diverse housing environments.

To give you an example, we have just designed some student accommodation where the average area of a self-contained one-person unit is 18m2. Creating a separate bed platform within a space that would otherwise be wasted (you don’t sleep standing up after all) makes a small room appear larger. The planners asked us to justify not applying their residential space standards, so we conveyed an understanding of the space and items that are needed in these particular circumstances.

If this subtlety of design is replaced by a dumb table of mandatory space standards applied to the limited categories defined by the use classes, then architects will have no alternative but to churn out identikit shoe boxes with stuck-on facades. Is this what we really want for our built environment?

Paul McGrath is sole director of Ceetoo Architecture and founding member of the Association of Part Two Architects

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