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 type||No. of persons||Minimum size (sq metres)|
|House, 2 storey, centre terrace||4 persons||74.3|
|House, 2 storey, centre terrace||5 persons||84.5|
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.
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:
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.
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:
- RIBA attacks government over housing standards u-turn
- RIBA condemns government for scrapping Core Housing Standards (requires registration to read article)