Space standards for new homes

Posted on 4 January 2009 9 comments

Note: This post was written in January 2009 (when Labour were in power in the UK). The change to a Conservative/Liberal coalition government has seen a change in direction regarding national space standards for publicly-funded housing. See the end of this post for an update.

Additionally, in August 2010 the “interim edition” of the London Housing Design Guide was published by the Mayor of London’s Office which sets out recommended minimum space standards for housing in the capital. From April 2011 onwards, all London housing developed with public funding must comply with the standards set out in the London Housing Design guide.

In Britain, new build homes are amongst the smallest in Europe. In April 2007, the RIBA published a housing policy paper called Better Homes and Neighbourhoods (500k PDF). The paper states:

“The average home built today is significantly smaller than the equivalent built in 1920. While that is partly explained by smaller household sizes, England and Wales are the only countries in the EU which have no minimum space standards for housing.”

In 1961, a government report called Homes for Today & Tomorrow specified minimum space standards for new homes. These came to be known as the Parker Morris standards (Parker Morris was the chairman of the Central Housing Advisory Committee which produced the report). The report was addressed to both the private and public sector and by the end of the 1960s the space standards were mandatory for all council housing but not for private housing. The standards were an attempt to raise the quality of public housing, but their adoption did not always lead to well-designed or popular housing.

The table below shows some of the space recommendations from the Parker Morris report.

Dwelling typeNo. of personsMinimum size (sq metres)
Flat1 person29.7
Flat2 persons44.6
Flat3 persons56.7
Flat4 persons69.7
House, 2 storey, centre terrace4 persons74.3
House, 2 storey, centre terrace5 persons84.5

The Parker Morris standards defined the minimum space requirements for a new dwelling, but not surprisingly, many developers treated them as the maximum size of a dwelling. In 1980 the standard was scrapped as mandatory by the Conservative government in power at the time. (December 2010 update: a separate post has more information about the Parker Morris standards.)

More recently in 2007, the government’s housing and regeneration agency, English Partnerships (now part of the Homes and Communities Agency), has adopted the Parker Morris standards + an additional 10% of space as mandatory for all its developments.

The RIBA policy paper gives a striking comparison of floor space in England and Wales with other countries:

“The average floor space of a new dwelling in England and Wales is 76m2. Compare this with an average 92m2 in Japan or 115m2 in Holland – both countries with just as much pressure on land.”

The policy paper also recognises the value of good design:

“Good design contributes to a sense of wellbeing – statistics have shown that over £2 billion per year is spent treating illness arising from poor housing stock – more than is spent by local authorities on the building stock itself.”

The paper goes on to say:

“It should be noted that much new housing in the UK and in particular greenfield housing is built with little input from architects…it is important to recognise that while architect involvement per se is not necessarily a guarantee of design quality, involving good designers with a wide range of skills and considerations is a key component of creating well-designed, sustainable, and successful communities.”
“The domestic environment is appreciated most in the successful delivery of ‘detail’ whether in the architecture of the home or the design of public realm and new neighbourhood spaces.”

Details do indeed matter: storage space for the vacuum cleaner or the ironing board. A place to hang up clothes (after washing) and so on. Will the noise from a washing machine in an open plan apartment be annoying? (I imagine it would be.) How can service charges be kept to a minimum for apartment blocks? Conversely, what kind of economies of scale allow the provision of collective services at affordable cost? Do home builders think about these details?

Residential housing received some high-profile attention in the media in 2008 when the Accordia housing development in Cambridge was awarded the 2008 Stirling prize for Architecture.

The 2008 Housing Design Awards also showcases some architect-designed homes. One of these is Adelaide Wharf in Hackney.

Adelaide Warf in Hackney

There are many good details about the Adelaide Wharf development. The appearance of the building is generally pleasant. It includes a spacious courtyard the size of six tennis courts (I wonder though if the upkeep of the internal courtyard forms part of the service charge for residents and if so, by how much?). The building also has an ‘Eco Homes’ rating of excellent. The ratings are carried out by the Government’s Building Research Establishment (BRE) but have now been replaced by the Code for Sustainable Homes.

However, as far as I can tell, most or all of the apartments are single aspect (i.e. the flats have windows only along one side) which means all the north-facing flats will never get any direct sunlight during the summer months. Given the number of awards that Adelaide Wharf has received, one can only assume the judges of these awards do not consider north-facing, single aspect flats to be a serious shortcoming.

What about the actual apartments? Here’s the layout of a one bedroom flat:

One bed flat floor plan for Adelaid Wharf
Image from the Adelaide Wharf website

It’s worth noting that the Parker Morris standards specify a one bedroom flat for two people to be at least 44.6 square metres in size; the flat above comes in at a sliver less than that (excluding the balcony). The space standard adopted by English Partnerships for a one bed flat (for two people) is 51 square metres.

Unfortunately, the layout of the flat above isn’t very different from the countless uninspiring new build properties from the major volume house builders. There doesn’t appear to be much storage space and, as is the norm in new builds, there is a windowless kitchen and bathroom. Am I being too harsh? Are windowless kitchens and bathrooms a turn-off for people purchasing their own homes? (They are for me.)

According to a November 2008 article in Building Design Magazine, the architects of Adelaid Wharf had a wide range of housing references from which they drew inspiration. These ranged from Bevin Court in London (1954) by Berthold Lubetkin to the concept flats for minimal living (1930) by Czech architect Josef Havlicek & French-born architect Karel Honzik. And yet despite the wide-ranging inspiration, the development features the same bog-standard flat layouts used by the volume housebuilders.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of 3 two-bedroom flats each with an en-suite bathroom. They are all from different developments and by different architects and home builders. Click the image for a larger view.

Comparison of 3 two-bedroom flats

The first flat is from a Fairview development in Bracknell, the second is from an architect-designed development called 661 London Road in Hounslow and the final one is from the architect-designed Adelaide Wharf development.

It’s a bit disappointing that the layouts from the architect-designed apartment blocks are no different from the Fairview development. When you come across a housing development that’s promoted as architect-designed, you half-expect something different (hopefully something better) than the layouts from the volume house builders.

The size of each flat above is different, but the similarity of the layouts just emphasizes the uninspiring “cookie-cutter” approach of so much housing design. I should add that there’s nothing wrong with a “cookie cutter” approach to apartment layouts if the designs are of a high quality, but I can’t say the layouts above appeal to me. Do they appeal to you?

Update December 2010: History has a strange way of repeating itself. The last Conservative government scrapped mandatory standards for publicly-funded housing. Now, the Conservatives are doing the same again. Housing minister Grant Shapps recently announced that national standards being drawn up by the Homes and Communities Agency would be ditched. These standards would have applied to homes built with government cash. The following articles from Building Design magazine and the Architect’s Journal have more details:


Kathleen Wyatt

4 March 2010 22:32 GMT

My registered social landlord and the local rent assessment panel have repeatedly stated that a ‘room’ measuring aprox 46 square feet is totally acceptable as a bedroom . As a mum I know this to be utter rubbish. The problem seems to be a lack of defined criteria within the Housing Act empowering financially motivated groups to ignore 50 years of research on the effects of such poor space provision. Poor access to justice means they cn carry on regardless it seems.

A. Hussein blog author

5 March 2010 20:34 GMT

Hi Kathleen

It’s amazing that even newly built homes fall short of the recommendations in the Parker Morris Standards – and those standards are over 40 years old. What’s more, most people today have more possessions than people 30 or 40 years ago (necessitating more space).

The lack of mandatory space standards is a real blight on housing in the UK. Until a standard is adopted, landlords/property investors/home builders will build or convert properties with the smallest rooms they can get away with. The evidence is depressingly all around us!

Kathleen Wyatt

6 March 2010 0:41 GMT

And it gets even worse, the Rent Officer handbook used for determining many rent levels (especially for vunerable groups) also has no decent standards ; as long as a ‘room’ can fit a bed in it and has a window , its classed as a bedroom for rent purposes.

No minimum size means the state is seriously supporting (and paying for via Housing Benefit) standards that were considered terrible for childrens futures 50 years ago.

The effect on childrens lives is well documented to be truly awful ;ironically the Social Services would class such a ‘room’ as non-existant therefore again causing huge problems when assessing families needs.

Thanks for commenting Hussein, hope others do too.

Paul Dutton

11 June 2011 12:17 GMT

I live in a 2 bed 60s high rise council flat and find that one good size bathroom is enough. I consider that the en-suite development follows on from distorted housing prices and need to take on a lodger for young people who feel compelled to buy for reasons of culture and fashion.

Private dwelling should not be constructed with maximizing income in mind but in maximising living. 2 beds centred adjacent to one bathroom are effectively en-suite. en-suites are more understandable in larger 4+ accommodation spread over 2 or more floors. Use of the en-suite space to accommodate a bicycle (if not accounted for in wider building) if so then a landry/ utility room.

A. Hussein blog author

11 June 2011 18:37 GMT

Thanks for your comment. I completely agree about the often unnecessary inclusion of en-suite bathrooms, particularly in 2-bed properties. It takes up valuable space and often results in cramped layouts. Housing developers may say it’s what the public want, but I’m a bit dubious about that claim. I suspect it’s more a reason to bump up the property price.

Karina Chmielnicka

19 September 2011 7:22 GMT

Well, as someone who lives in Poland where a 46 sq m flat is considered high living, I find your worries about both size of accommodation and windowless bathrooms rather puzzling. If you’re building a big block of flats with the accommodation around a central stairwell or off corridors, one side of the flat will be without windows. In which case, it makes sense to put the bathroom on that side, since you wouldn’t want to sit in a windowless living room, would you? It’s never bothered me, nor does it estate agents here. The only thing people will take note of is whether the kitchen has a window (yes! There are windowless kitchens, even!).

Personally, what I find strange in the UK is the obsession with owning a house, which results in developers building ‘detached’ shoe boxes instead of a decent apartment block where you can fit more people in and give them more horizontal space, which in my book always makes the accommodation feel more spacious. Plus, less chance of the dreadful urban sprawl that blights cities.

I currently live in a rather ‘luxurious’ property of 100 sq m, but my favourite place was a 1-bed flat with kitchen, (windowless) toilet and bathroom and a living room with balcony, measuring 45 sq m. I lived there with my partner and we still wax lyrical about it. It was perfect for our needs as young people. BTW, it was previously occupied by a family of three (parents slept in the living room), which is more the standard here, but that’s another story.

PS As someone used to living in an apartment, those designs look fine to me. In fact, they’d be snapped up here. An extra bathroom? Who’d have thought!!

A. Hussein blog author

19 September 2011 13:38 GMT

Thanks for your comment. I agree that when you build a single aspect flat with windows along only one side, the bathroom is likely to be placed along the windowless side. Most of the kitchens in these types of flat are also situated away from any windows. The question is more about whether we should be encouraging developers to build these types of single-aspect flats or to encourage them to build dual-aspect flats with windows at both ends of the dwelling.

I realise there are lots of cost constraints involved in the design of homes and in many instances the “double-loaded corridor” design of apartment blocks is often the more cost-efficient solution for developers (but not necessarily the best in terms of design). Personally, I think developers should aspire to something much better than the floorplans shown in this post.

You make a good point about the 45 square metre flat that you really liked. It’s not just the size of a flat but the quality of the space that’s important too.

maruja de lujo

28 October 2012 9:00 GMT

The UK obsession with owning a house may be related to the very insecure situation that you are in if you rent. Even in countries where tenants have more legal protection, an owner who decides that they want the property for something else can put a lot of pressure on a tenant. In the UK they can simply, legally, evict the tenant because — say — they want the flat for their nephew.

A. Hussein blog author

28 October 2012 18:00 GMT

Thanks for your comment. You’re quite right that tenacy regulations are weighted in favour of landlords in Britain. This is in contrast to other European countries, such as Germany, where rental rules favour tenants much more. Rental laws in Britain encourage the worst type of landlord: the buy-to-let investor who treats housing as a commodity and a pure profit-making exercise. (I wrote a separate post about the damaging effects of buy-to-let.)

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