Bigger ideas for better housing

The housing debate is a lot about numbers. In fact, a recent forum discussion as part of the London Festival of Architecture was titled Housing Londoners: Is it Just a Numbers Game?And there are some big numbers to contend with. It is estimated that by 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities. There will be ten million people living in London by 2031, 78 million in the UK by 2050.

Statistics may vary, but there is general agreement the overall urban population will continue to grow, and that there will be a greater need for cities to provide housing and amenities for those people. London Mayor Boris Johnson has announced in his 2020 Vision that the capital will need to add 400,000 new homes in the next decade, a million by the mid-2030s.

As the think-tank New London Architecture has discovered, there are more than 200 towers approved or in planning for the UK capital. The answer to the increased urban population, according to most people who would preserve green-belt land, is density.

But density alone is not a solution and vertical living is not the only way to achieve density. Even if we did all agree to be housed in tower blocks, what should they look like?

This isn’t a polemic about the proliferation of high-rise buildings in London, but an argument for re-thinking space. As the author of several books on small buildings, I feel it’s more important now than ever to appreciate the kind of innovation and ingenuity that goes on at the small scale, in order to help us address issues such as housing.

In London most of us do not suffer housing “obesity”, as in the United States, where the average house size continues to rise, and I am not advocating small size for its own sake, but to focus on better design.

It’s not building less that gives us more, but building better

In my local area, a particular landlord has been in the news for building flats under the pavement and one consisting of “a bed in a kitchen”. These are all very compact and they are also degrading to live in.

Down the road from me, a student accommodation scheme earned the uncoveted Carbuncle Award for the worst new building in the country. Its designers didn’t think that students would need much natural light and so included windows that looked on to a blank wall. These are just a few examples of small, suffocating rooms that most people think of when they hear words like “density”, and which point up the difference between building small and designing well.

But here I want to say that I have seen, quite literally, the light. In numerous award-winning schemes for individual small houses and new social housing projects, architects are finding ways to create smaller-size living environments that are enhanced by natural light and humane proportions.

In the Netherlands, a mixed-use development in Borneo Sporenburg was one of the first to integrate subsidised and market-value properties – “mixed tenure”, as they’re called – with houses of a modest size, but quality several notches above minimum requirements.

Natural light and good proportions are key, as they are in a new block of flats, commissioned by the Peabody Trust and designed by architects Pitman Tozer, which faces on to a railway line in Bethnal Green. It’s certainly not the most salubrious site and a real challenge to develop successfully. But even the 54 square metres of a one-bedroom flat feel much more expansive and liveable than in any other local-authority developments I have ever visited.

In other projects too numerous to name, I have seen architects use light and materials to make entire houses of 75sq m feel like glamorous retreats. Anyone who is sceptical of this claim need only have a look at the entries for Solar Decathlon Europe 2014 or last year’s event in the US, which was won by the team from Austria who created a house that would put most developer-built models of twice the size to shame. Building small is also more energy-efficient. Like its competitors, Team Austria’s LISI (Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation) generates more energy than it uses.

Of course, some of the success of the small housing I’m citing is down to a high-design specification, but in a lot of cases it’s just down to high-quality design, thoughtful use of limited resources, including physical space.

As the Belgian architect Edith Wouters once put it, it’s about building houses that “are healthy to live in and full of delight”. I’ve seen a house made of shipping containers that has been so cleverly cut through with windows and ventilation that it looks and feels like a luxury hotel suite, rather than a £30,000 self-build in Costa Rica.

You only have to look at some of the great projects being developed for emergency shelters, such as Shigeru Ban’s famous cardboard-tube structures – his first church lasted beyond its ten-year prediction and is still in use, several years later after having been moved to a new site – to see that using modern technology and some spatial and material creativity, we can do a lot with a little.

Many architects, such as Richard Horden, who created the 2.65-m cube, super-flexible energy-efficient Micro-Compact Home, have drawn on marine and aeronautic design to derive inspiration for ways to achieve comfort in small spaces. I don’t think anyone would call his home “a bed in a kitchen”, though its design includes those elements and a whole lot more besides.

So when people ask me, as they often do, whether I agree with the concept that “less is more”, I say it’s not building less that gives us more, but building better. This is what the best designers working with small spaces tend to do. Even if we are driven by numbers, having to work with a little less space is no excuse for poor design.