Do small homes get the design consideration they deserve?

Posted on 3 June 2013 3 comments

I sometimes wonder if there is an unspoken hierarchy in the design of housing. At the bottom of the hierarchy you have the smallest type of dwelling: the studio flat (in the UK, at least); then the one, two, three or four bedroom flat. You also have the terraced house, the semi-detached house and the detached house. Most housing in the UK falls into one of these types.

You can probably guess which housing type occupies the most prominent position in architectural history (see an earlier post for the answer).

The more you move up this ‘dwelling hierarchy’, the greater the space and the greater the design possibilities. But housing shouldn’t be thought of in this hierarchical way when it’s being designed. Every type of dwelling, no matter what the size, is a place where someone lives. This means even the smallest dwelling deserves just as much design consideration as larger spaces.

Do architects or home builders design small spaces (such as studio or one bed flats) with as much care and attention as larger properties with more space? It certainly doesn’t seem that way. You only have to look at the floor plans of studios and one bedroom flats to realise that both architects and volume house builders use the same unimaginative design.

floor plan comparison of one bed flats
A collection of one bed flat designs. Click for a larger view. This graphic is from a previous post on the dismal state of housing design in the UK.

It’s no surprise that the volume house builders give us uninspiring flat designs, but what excuse do architects have?

As always, it’s instructive to study housing examples from the past. Below are some scans from a book called Continental interiors for small flats published in 1969. It has some very dated images of interior decoration that look pretty awful today. However, the floor plans illustrate the variety of layouts possible in the design of small spaces. All the plans are for studio flats.

Example 1

Studio flat floor plan

This is a nicely proportioned dual-aspect studio flat. The bathroom has its own window (which is rare in most new-build flats today), and the living room has a good amount of uninterrupted wall space for furniture. The only thing missing is some dedicated storage space.

Example 2

Studio flat floor plan

A single-aspect design (i.e. windows only along one side of the flat). This feels much more compact than the previous example. However, the wide frontage gives both the kitchen and bathroom their own window and there is some slim storage space in the hallway.

Example 3

Studio flat floor plan

Another single aspect design. Here, the kitchen is positioned away from any windows which is less than ideal (but completely the norm in most new-build flats today). Would it be better to swap the position of the kitchen with the bathroom? (This would mean a windowless bathroom with mechanical ventilation.) A frosted glass window above the bathroom door (or even in the door itself) would allow some light in.

Example 4

Studio flat floor plan

This is my favourite example. The bed is snugly tucked away in its own alcove so it feels separate from the living area. Both the kitchen and bathroom have their own windows and there’s some dedicated storage/utility space.

Example 5

new build studio flat floor plan

Finally, for comparison, here is a typical layout for a new-build studio flat. In my view, this is the least appealing of all the examples posted here. If you compare example 2 above with example 5, you can see that both flats have roughly the same shape. The big difference is that example 2 has the windows placed across the wide length of the flat. In example 5, the windows are at the narrow end allowing more flats to be crammed into a parcel of land. Developers or architects may say these are the constraints that they must work under. That doesn’t change the fact that this is still a mediocre design at best.

I think it’s clear from the examples above that a dual-aspect layout and the right proportions (the ratio of length to width in a room) makes a big difference to the quality of the space.

If you had to pick one of the example flats above to live in, which one would you choose and why? (Can anyone honestly say they’d pick example 5 over the others?!)


3 June 2013 20:45 GMT

It is supposed that such a hierarchy is non-existent since the first third of the XX century, when pioneer architects within several avant gardes took care over social issues. That was directly linked with the extremely poor conditions of the low classes’ housing during the XIX century.

However, you may be right. The nowadays consumerism has driven us to status distinctions which ultimately forget the common housing.

Travis Caulfield

3 June 2013 20:51 GMT

Reblogged this on Travis Caulfield's Favorite Architecture and commented: Great thoughts on small homes!

A. Hussein blog author

3 June 2013 23:07 GMT

@Whatafoolishness – thanks for your comment. It does seem to me that newly built flats (in the UK) hardly have any variation in the floor plans of studios or one bedroom flats. For me, the disappointment is that the layouts are not that great. I wonder if that is because there is an assumption that these spaces don’t lend themselves to much variation (which isn’t true in my opinion).

@Travis Caulfield – thanks very much!

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