Space standards and housing design: separate or inseparable?

Posted on 26 December 2011 0 comments

England and Wales have no national space standards for homes (in contrast to many contries in Western Europe). Better space standards are not a guarantee of better housing design, but they are an essential foundation for any newly built home and their importance should not be underestimated.

Earlier this year (September 2011), the RIBA launched a new campaign called Homewise to improve the design and space standards for new homes. Accompanying the launch was a report called The Case for Space (3.4 MB PDF). The report examined the internal floor area of homes from a sample built by the eight largest volume housebuilders in England. Not surprisingly, it found these homes fell short of the space standards recommended in the London Housing Design Guide (which the report considers the best available current benchmark for space standards).

The Case for Space report
The Case for Space report can be downloaded from the RIBA website (3.4 MB PDF).

The Homewise launch generated a lot of publicity and hopefully the momentum and interest in the campaign can be maintained. It’s quite incredible how a subject such as space standards and the design of new housing has been so neglected in the national press and on TV. Contrast that with the endless TV programmes and newspaper articles on profiting from property, property makeovers, and becoming a property investor or buy-to-let landlord.

An informed debate about space standards has long been overdue. But it’s equally important that such a debate doesn’t obscure a discussion about the design and layout of dwellings (the quality of the space); they are inseparable.

Some people, particularly the volume housebuilders, might think that space standards simply boil down to inadequate storage. Provide enough storage and the problem is solved. But it is much more than that. As the RIBA report states, inadequate space in the home constrains the activities that people can perform in their homes (like entertaining guests). It also contstrains their options for re-arranging furniture and room layouts.

But how do you decide what is an acceptable minimum size for a dwelling? When the Parker Morris report (“Homes for Today and Tomorrow“) was published in Britain in 1961 it recommended space standards based on the activities people carried out in their homes:

“…the right approach to the design of a room is, first to define what activities are likely to take place in it, then to assess the furniture and equipment necessary for these activities, and then to design around these needs…”

The Parker Morris report is 50 years old and the authors of the report believed it would be replaced by a new, updated standard in the future. That never happened, but the RIBA report recognises that:

“…more research is needed into what constitutes adequate space to suit contemporary living.”

Interestingly, the RIBA report does not fully endorse the London Housing Design Guide describing it as essentially an update on the old Parker Morris standards:

“The RIBA supports the London space standards. Although we would not consider them to be best practice, we believe homes that meet or exceed these minimums to be adequately sized to function as homes; in short, they are fit for living in.”

Size is relative

Our expectations about what we consider adequate or inadequate space are culturally determined to a certain extent. For example, a recent commenter on this blog wrote that a 46 square metre flat (for two people) was considered spacious in Poland. (By way of comparison, the 2010 London Housing Design guide recommends a one bed flat for two people to be a minimum of 50 square metres.)

Every year, the popular US website Apartment Therapy holds a contest for best small dwelling where readers submit a floor plan and pictures of their homes. The 2011 competition was divided into the following space categories:

CategoryMaximum size (sq feet)Maximum size (sq metres)
Teeny-tiny40037.16
Tiny60055.74
Small80074.32
Little100092.9
International100092.9

Size is clearly relative here. A 55 square metre flat for two people that Apartment Therapy classifies as tiny would actually be considered a generous size in the UK.

Are space standards too prescriptive?

One of the criticisms about space standards is that they can lead to a prescriptive or even reductionist mindset about housing design. If we focus merely on dimensions, are we in danger of losing sight of the design or quality of the space?

The Parker Morris report from 1961 was in fact quite forward-thinking for it’s time. It did not specify individual room sizes but specified the entire size of a dwelling and then left it up to architects and housebuilders to determine the most appropriate layout.

In their book, Flexible Housing, authors Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till discuss the idea of ‘soft spaces’. These are spaces that can take on a variety of functions and uses – a type of ‘blank canvas’ space. This is what makes them adaptable and flexible. In contrast, predefined rooms such as a dining room or study are less flexible because they are tied to a particular function. Often they lie idle when not in use because they can’t be used for much else. These arguments feel more convincing when space is limited in the home. But as space increases, so too does the opportunity for greater design and layout possibilities.

Are flexible spaces anything more than sliding partitions or ingenious ways to fold or tuck away furniture? In a 2008 RIBA symposium on space in the home, Jeremy Till, speaking about ‘soft spaces’ cited the example of Le Corbusier’s Maison Loucher house from 1928:

“Le Corbusier designed this wonderful house called the Maison Loucher where he says ‘I am giving you 78 square metres but only charging you for 48 square metres’. He worked it out that this 48 square metre area actually gave 78 metres of useable space because it was designed flexibly.”

Maison Loucher by le Corbusier

A problem with some flexible home designs is that you can only configure the ‘soft space’ for one function or purpose at a time. So, for example, if the study area during the day becomes the sleeping area during the night, it means you cannot have both a sleeping area and a study area at the same time. Which can be a problem if you share the house or flat with someone else and you both want to do different things at the same time. The design is both flexible and inflexible. This takes us right back to the question of adequate space: greater space opens up the scope for more functions in the home and is arguably the first requirement for flexibility.

A number of architects wrote to Building Design Magazine in September (2011) arguing that red tape was strangling creative thinking in housing design. They cited the Lifetime Homes Standard (designed to accommodate the needs of infirm or disabled occupants) as an example of an overly restrictive set of rules. But even this, it could be argued, is an issue of space. When the Lifetime Homes Standard recommends hallways be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, it’s essentially a space recommendation as are many of its other suggestions.

It’s certainly true that we need simpler housing design standards that unify the disparate standards that currently exist. This is something that CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) has already suggested and it may be one of the RIBA’s future recommendations.

The RIBA’s Homewise campaign is a welcome start in the debate about housing standards in Britain and the type of homes we should be building. I hope it will also encourage debate about the layout of dwellings. As I’ve noted many times on this blog, a great many architect-led schemes for flats use exactly the same floor plans as the volume housebuilders. Shouldn’t we expect something better?

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