Architects beginning to think big

Britain's homes have long had the smallest rooms in Europe, now a new generation of town planners and architects is urging us to rethink the way we use our shrinking urban space. Oliver Bennett reports

In most things we welcome miniaturisation: computers, phones, cars. But not for our homes. Sadly, however, this is the situation that the British house-buying public faces. Homes in Britain have the smallest rooms in western Europe. The average floor space is almost a quarter smaller than in Denmark – western Europe's most spacious country – and we are becoming accustomed to living cheek by jowl in cramped, poky quarters.

It's not an impressive achievement, thinks Rebecca Roberts-Hughes, policy officer for the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), She believes it's time for British volume builders to start thinking big. "There have been new lifestyle advantages in many other ways, but new homes have failed to keep up," she says.

Residents of many flats and houses across the country don't have enough room for ironing boards, storage or even socialising, according to research last year from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) – which is now under threat from the Coalition Government's bonfire of the quangos announced yesterday.

And as demographic shifts mean smaller individual households proliferate, the pressure on land and house prices is becoming worse. Take, for example, a much publicised house on Goldhawk Road in Shepherd's Bush, west London (pictured). Set over five levels, it was offered for £549,950 last year – despite only covering 1,000sq ft of space, measuring just 5ft 6in in width, and being hailed as the country's thinnest house. Meanwhile less salubrious areas of the capital, and swathes of the north of England, are still dominated by tiny flats and acre upon acre of miniscule terrace homes.

It's time to return to the Parker Morris standards, repealed 30 years ago, says Roberts-Hughes. Formulated in 1961, this diktat laid down new minimum standards for public housing in terms of space, heating and other factors – reflecting the white-hot optimism of the times.

"Thirty years since the Parker Morris standards were removed, there has been one major change to homes," says Roberts-Hughes. "They have shrunk." And we have grown out of them, with children staying at home for longer, smaller spaces accommodating more people, and a bizarre service industry of ring-road sheds to store possessions.

The reasons for the shrinking of the British home are manifold, according to a report from the Policy Exchange think tank.

"The rise in land prices, and the consequent high cost of housing, choke off the demand for larger houses, at all income levels, which would otherwise occur as incomes increase," it says. In short, "Because housing has become more expensive, people are forced to buy less."

Not a happy scenario, then. But this autumn, attention has turned back to space standards, and how they may be enhanced. The London Development Agency has published the new London Housing Design Guide, setting out Mayor of London Boris Johnson's aspirations. The new guidelines, dubbed the "Parker Boris" standards, in reference to their historic antecedents, have kicked off with the Olympic housing masterplan being cut from 10,000 homes to 8,000, with a greater preponderance of larger family houses. "Parker Morris plus 10 per cent" is the new mantra: a corrective to "Rabbit hutch Britain" – as last year's Cabe report dubbed our small dwellings. That report attached special "name and shame" stigma to Barratt Homes's "Manhattan pods" in Harlow, Essex. They boast 365 sq ft of space, with living rooms measuring 3.6m by 3m. And now the new Parker Boris standards, which have been adopted by the Homes and Communities Agency, set the minimum size for a one-bed flat in affordable housing at 550 sq ft. Two bedroom flats must be no smaller than 770 sq ft.

The House Building Federation, representing private housebuilders, though argues that private housing should be treated differently.

"We don't think [space standards] are suitable or applicable to private housing," says a spokesman. "The end user and the market define the size of the home. Housebuilders provide dwellings that people can afford." And Grant Shapps, Minister for Housing and Local Government, said in a speech this week that he wants to reduce the "burden of regulation" to drive down unnecessary costs house builders.

The Lifetime Homes Standard, devised in 1991 and updated this year, was supposed to pick up where Parker Morris left off, and includes recommendations on space. But the perfect property storm of expensive land and a booming buy-to-let investment market appears to have left smallness the industry standard across the country – a situation that appears unlikely to change.

There is a similar trend in the US, but interestingly – and in line with the American spirit of turning a problem into an opportunity – small houses have become something of a cult for the Toyota Prius-owning classes.

A survey by the American Institute of Architects reveals that 57 per cent of architecture firms reported a decrease in the square footage of their residential projects in 2010, up from 13 per cent back in 2005. The architectural bookshelves pullulate with books about the wonders of diminutive houses, and there's a raft of architect-designed small houses bearing cool names: the itHouse, the Roho, the weeHouse and the Tumbleweed Tiny House – whose designer and builder, Jay Shafer, gained a publicity coup by tethering it to his car.

These small houses – they are American small, that is, less than 750 sq ft – pitch into the post-recessionary, eco-coolness of "small".

In a slightly different fashion, architects in Britain have been working hard to find solutions for the space deficit. Richard Horden, of Horden Cherry Lee Architects, in London, developed the micro-compact home, known as m-ch, in 2005.

A 2.65m aluminium cube, it is a lightweight transportable living space. "Since 2005 we've built 15," says Horden. "There's a village of seven near Munich, part of an O2 campus, and none as yet in Britain."

Horden and his colleagues have now bought the unit cost down to €18,000-€26,000, and he emphasises that his bothy is ahead of the times: "It couldn't have happened until recently, because it fits with flat-screen televisions, laptops and other technologies." We shouldn't think of such innovations as small spaces, he counsels, more as smart spaces. The public, he says, should think of a m-ch home more as they would a first-class airline seat or a Smart car – an ergonomic response to a wider problem, and one that will help decondition us from the desire for size.

Architects have become adept at building in tight sites. Take architect Graham Bizley's north-east London home (pictured), designed to fit into an awkward infill space. With a change in planning policy in 1999, notes Bizley, of Prewett Bizley Architects, "people became able to build on small sites: garages, ends of gardens, infill sites". Bizley bought his rhomboidal plot for £30,000 in 1999, when such places were still relatively plentiful in London. They are now far harder to find, and considerably more expensive.

The idea that architecture will become smaller, industrialised and modular has long antecedents. "It's a conversation that has roots in the 1930s, and architects have long said that they want to make housing more like the car industry," says Bizley. "The trouble is that people like to express individuality." Like Horden, he urges the house-hunting public to look at quality rather than quantity: "If you've got a good architect, a small space isn't such an issue."

Space standards or not, it seems that we all have to address the possibility of living smaller and smarter.

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