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Space standards are pricing many out of home ownership

Felicie krikler sketch

Regulations that support an arbitrary urge for larger houses are preventing many from joining the housing ladder, argues Ben Channon

Ben channon bw

Space standards are yet to receive the attention that they deserve. This lack of attention has given way to an inflexibility when applying them, which may cause more harm than good. 

In the West, we are raised to think that bigger is always better. We yearn after bigger cars, bigger smartphones and bigger houses. Likewise, it has become ingrained into our psyche that there is something shameful, or negative, about living in a small house. 

This stigma seems arbitrary when compared to the attitudes of many other cultures, such as the Dutch or Japanese, where smaller houses are an accepted and even celebrated part of culture. In Britain, we have relatively large dwellings compared to other countries: an average of 76m2, compared to 57m2 in Russia, and just 45m2 in Hong Kong. 

The Swedes, often praised for their ingenuity in urban planning, live by a philosophy called ‘lagom’, which translates to ‘just the right size’. This philosophy is based around the idea that bigger isn’t always better, whether that’s the food you eat or the home you own. 

When it comes to happiness and mental wellbeing, size really isn’t everything. A bigger house is shown to have little effect on people’s happiness when compared to other factors such as daylight, proximity to nature, and tidiness. 

As a practising architect, I spend my days designing homes at the required standards, knowing they are too big for me to afford

Recently, regulations surrounding minimum flat sizes have proliferated throughout the UK. The London Housing Design Guide, introduced by Boris Johnson during his time as mayor, and the new national technical standards, set minimum floor areas for bedrooms, living rooms and entire homes. While maintaining good accommodation standards is crucial, they can also prevent millennials from getting on to the housing ladder. 

Rather than ensuring that generously sized homes are available to all, these standards do the exact opposite. Most flats are unaffordable to people in their 20s and 30s because costs are calculated by floor area. For example, a one-bedroom, two-person flat is set at a minimum of 50m2, meaning that even the smallest flats in London’s Zone 2 are frequently on the market for more than £500,000. As a result, younger and poorer people are forced to rent older housing stock, which – ironically – rarely meets the ‘minimum’ housing standards set out in this legislation. 

My personal experience is indicative of this. The minimum dimensions prescribed for living rooms and bedrooms are much larger than the rooms in the terraced house I currently rent. As a practising architect, I spend my days designing new homes at the required standards, knowing they are too big for me to afford. 

In the UK, less than 35 per cent of 24-34 year-olds own their home. This is clearly a problem the government must address. One of the ways in which it could do this is by relaxing the space standards of private housing, allowing one-bed, two-person units to be reduced in size below 50m². The popularity of Marc Vlessing and Paul Harbard’s cleverly designed Pocket Living flats shows that there is a strong desire in the market for smaller, yet still compliant, units. For one-bed, one-person flats, these are able to be built at 38m² while still complying with the London Plan and are incredibly popular, selling out well before project completion time after time.

Architects must work a little harder and be slightly more creative in their approach to smaller spaces

All this means that architects must work a little harder and be slightly more creative in their approach to smaller spaces. A combination of clever design and bigger windows mean that small apartments don’t have to feel like living in the infamous ‘shoebox’. 

Many of our clients at Assael tell us that they are finding it much easier to sell studios and one-bedroom apartments now – a marked change from a few years ago where two-bedroom units were more popular. Not only does this show that there’s a huge swathe of young buyers desperate to get on the ladder, but that young buyers would also be content with a smaller home if they can call it their own. 

Surely, the onus we place on large homes should be mocked for what it is: a product of the past that is not applicable to the way we currently live and the way in which we quantify happiness. Space standards need to reflect that.

Ben Channon is a senior architect at Assael

  • This article was edited on 23 August to clarify the minimum space standards set out by the London Plan

Readers' comments (6)

  • I'm sorry, but even as a mid 20 year old working in the Architectural sector, I wholeheartedly disagree. Rather than mocking larger homes, we should mock the exponential increase of house prices and the stagnation of wages (not only within our industry).

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  • I agree with Tom Young. A lack of space standards just encourages a race to the bottom. (I would also question your data)

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  • I think highlighting the unintended consequences of space standards is an important debate and it goes beyond just buy in. Houses built in recent years should have much lower heating and energy costs than smaller older properties, financially penalising those who can’t afford properties at the top end of the local market.

    More research into the size, type, location, and which qualities of housing that promote "happiness and mental wellbeing" should influence housing policy. I am sure a "one size fits all” policy isn’t ideal, but we as a species should be more than capable of improving on what we currently do and at a greater rate than we currently are.

    Finally there is still the question about how healthy our obsession with home ownership is? Would we be better off in terms of happiness and mental wellbeing by moving away from property as a tradable commodity? More research in this area could be really insightful.

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  • Interesting article, and I wonder whether the price of land, a product of the shortage of supply when compared with demand, is actually what is pricing people out of housing. It appears that the private development model requires the price of land to rise in order to generate the profit to deliver new housing, so supplementing this with a public sector delivery model might be the answer to the historic shortfall since the early 1980s, when the public sector stopped delivering housing in any significant numbers.

    There is surely the opportunity to produce well planned communities without compromising on well planned spaces. A steady well planned supply of sites provided by enlightened public sector landlords, might encourage more prefabrication and raise standards. As more land is required, garden towns and villages could hold some of the answer about how the public and private sector can work together to raise the value of the land while capturing it for the good of these new communities.

    I do not believe the pressure on housing should mean a reduction in design quality, whether contextually, in terms of health, daylight, construction detailing, external amenity, or, importantly, internal space.

    Whether they are Parker Morris or Nationally Described, space standards are a useful part of the design toolbox.

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  • Industry Professional

    Wind back to before space standards and we were in a desperate race to the bottom as developers sought our ingenuity to create smaller and smaller apartments to maximize the profit NOT to bring the price down!
    Allow apartments to get smaller and they will remain the same price. Rather like chocolate bars.

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  • A quick Google suggests, -
    That the Swedish approach of just enough space still averages out as bigger houses than the UK and more area per person on average. The Dutch and Japanese celebration of smaller houses still renders bigger average houses.
    Admittedly I haven't gone out of my way to do a thorough in depth analysis of where the figures I very quickly researched come from e.t.c. but has the AJ checked any of this before publishing?

    Perhaps the AJ should provide some figures with a reasonably reliable source to clarify if the suggestions/hints made in this piece are actually remotely true.

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