There’s a yawning chasm between the type of homes developers are building, and the homes people want to live in. So how do we bridge the gap – and provide that all-important storage space?
When working on a residential scheme, as I am right now, one often becomes embroiled in a never-ending game of chasing your own tail. It’s a spiralling design exercise that attempts to respond to varying influences, all pulling in different directions. Trying to satisfy all of them is as perilous as negotiating a peace treaty.
While the GIA (gross internal area) and NIA (net internal area) are rounding on each other, the unit mix is getting all stirred up because the studios are taking over the one-beds. The market forces change their allegiance day to day, and the peace talks between the cost/ft2 (market value) and cost/ft2 (construction cost), have almost broken down completely.
With relationships as sensitive as these, it’s no wonder that architects and developers find it difficult to stay on the road map for peace in the design team meeting.
How do we give the property market what it wants, create invigorating architecture and still allow room for the developer to have his day? Who is really defining what reaches the market? Are consumers, with their buying power, dictating what to build to the developer, or is it the developer that is dictating choice, enforcing lower space standards and lowering expectations?
The Parker Morris standards are still the most commonly cited benchmark for space, often with the misguided view that so long as you kind of satisfy them, you’ve done your bit. And if you dip a few square feet below those levels, it can’t matter that much, can it?
But those standards were created in 1961, when there was a massive boom in social housing, and something had to be done to represent the minimum requirements. The fact is, today most public and private sector housing fails to meet the Parker Morris standards for both floor and storage space.
One obvious indicator of the lack of sufficient storage is the expansion of the self-storage industry over the past 10 years. Recently, we have been asked by one of the big self-storage brands to work up proposals for new-build residential towers with self-storage facilities built in underneath.
In What Home Buyers Want, Cabe’s 2005 report on customer expectations, new homes were perceived as having smaller rooms, very small bedrooms and no storage space when compared with older houses.
Are consumers dictating what to build to the developer, or is it the developer that is enforcing lower space standards?
Research by the website propertyfinder.com highlights the mismatch between buyers’ aspirations and existing stock. The website analysed the mix of housing in the UK and then asked people looking to move how many bedrooms they hoped to have in their new home. The results show a startling disparity between the homes that exist and the homes that people actually want to live in.
The Housing Space Standards report of August 2006, commissioned by the Greater London Authority, also illustrates an emerging trend towards the over-provision of smaller apartments against buyers’ preference for larger, more flexible spaces.
Perhaps most disconcerting is the research that describes the relationship between space and well-being. It shows evidence of a link between overcrowding at home and increased aggression, stress and even physical illness. Furthermore, there is also a clear need for adults and children to have a safe external space that can be defined as within their ownership.
What happens when there’s no room left for your teenage son or daughter to grow up in, no safe external space for neighbours to share? It’s obvious that this situation forces young people to appropriate their own territories in the local area. The danger, of course, is that a correlation can then be made between a decline in space in the home and increased street activity and the potential that has for an increase in gangs and street crime.
The UK has some of the lowest space standards in Europe, something we should be ashamed of. So how do we turn this around? No one seems to want to do it with actual legislation. The mandatory nature of the Parker Morris standards ended in 1980 and although the National House Building Council has a checking role, its power is limited.
The planning process seems to be in the best position to act as the arbiter of space standards, but this has all the associated problems of enforcement and the inevitable loopholes that will be found. Besides, who wants to give planners even more control?
But in the absence of controls, developers (both public and private sector) will tend to reduce the size of dwellings while trying to maximize value. I suggest the way forward is to talk to developers in the only language they understand. Instead of trying to impose limits, let’s reward high space standards with financial incentives from the government.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at SMC Alsop