Compact Living: small spaces, big ideas

An emphasis on creative use of space is increasing as the pressure is on to provide more and smaller homes, hotels and hostels. Toby Maxwell reports

Of all the EU countries the UK has the smallest homes by floor area, with an average in 2013 of 93.6 sq. m. This is compared to the Netherlands’ 115 sq. m and Denmark’s 137 sq. m. And with the UK’s housing shortage continuing to worsen, the average size of new homes has continued to shrink. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the housing shortage is one of the biggest crises facing this country, with an urgent need for solutions to tackle the severe lack of high-quality and affordable housing available, to city dwellers in particular. The inflated cost of land values and expense of renting in city centre locations is pricing out those who are fundamental to the vibrancy and vitality of the city – including young professionals and key workers.

Property developer the U+I Group, believes that part of the solution is the provision of micro-flats, with shared communal facilities, for rent in high-cost, high-density inner-city areas. Micro-living is a lifestyle choice for those who consider a central location more important than lots of space, and is already an important part of the mix in global cities like New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

To show how a well-designed compact flat can provide comfortable living space, U+I appointed The Manser Practice and Ab Rogers Design, to design a prototype ‘micro-flat’. A to-scale and fully functioning 24 sq. m unit has been built at U+I’s London headquarters, along with Rogers’ smaller 19 sq. m unit.

The apartments will be available on a rent only basis for a term of nine-12 months and will only be available to people whose salaries fall below a threshold, and any increases in rental prices will be capped. The properties are intelligently designed to a high specification and will be within secure, managed buildings that offer a range of communal spaces for work, entertainment and leisure. This type of accommodation already exists in London, for example, at The Collective, comprising a host of compact, private apartments with communal facilities.

Compact living spaces from The Manser Practice. Image Credit: Jim StephensonCompact living spaces from The Manser Practice. Image Credit: Jim Stephenson

Jonathan Manser, director of The Manser Practice, says: ‘Micro-living unites and makes use of sites that don’t lend themselves to larger-scale development – for example over railway or fire stations, on small infill sites, or replacing inner-city multistorey car parks. What this will create is city centres inhabited by a wider cross-section of society, something that local businesses will benefit from. Micro-living is not “solving” London’s housing problem, but it is seeking to offer a solution to a small part of it. It’s providing well-designed, affordable homes for people in city centres, near to where they work.’

For young professionals, particularly those moving to the capital for the first time, it can be an ideal solution. Current guidelines require new dwellings for single occupancy in central London to be a minimum of 37 sq. m. The Manser Practice has drawn on its experience within the hotel industry to ensure that a smaller space is used as strategically and ergonomically as possible to produce accommodation offering privacy, quality, comfort and flexibility. ‘There is no “optimum size” for the microliving apartments, although the transportation of a prefabricated unit on a lorry without a police escort is a cost consideration. It will vary depending on the location and the client,’ says Manser.

‘The main issue for now is that the Greater London Authority (GLA) and London boroughs currently set a minimum size which is economically unhelpful. The existing guidelines used by local authorities means that the micro-living concept would not be permitted, something which Manser believes is counter to the practical needs of potential residents. ‘Times have changed from 15-20 years ago when there was an averseness in the UK to living in flats, when they were seen as the last resort. Now, they can be a lifestyle choice. Compact living with communal facilities...offers a small solution to part of a bigger problem.’

Compact living spaces from The Manser Practice. Image Credit: Jim StephensonCompact living spaces from The Manser Practice. Image Credit: Jim Stephenson

For its response to the brief, Ab Rogers Design (ARD) recognised that for compactliving apartments to be viable they must be integrated within a greater ecosystem with communal and bookable spaces beyond the apartment. Having access to kitchens and dining rooms that can be booked as required, plus gyms, music spaces and drop-in communal areas creates a dynamic social hub that tenants can borrow and use, while the individual dwellings remain a private sanctuary.

ARD’s approach compartmentalises domestic activities to create an efficient, sustainable and harmonious living space. The in-built furniture incorporates the bathroom, kitchen, storage and bed – the latter is hidden away from view at high level. Keeping 50 per cent of the floor area free of fixed furniture, the resident has an opportunity to customise their space; by painting the walls and introducing their personal collections of furniture, books, paintings and objects. The space is adaptable to each user’s needs and priorities, making it suitable for a diverse range of tenants to live in the same building.

The generous 3.2m height allows the apartment and its occupier space to breathe. It also offers the building flexibility beyond the life span of compact living – be it an apartment, office or typology not yet invented. The localised interior structure allows the units to be combined at will, giving the opportunity for future repurposing and multi-tenant use.

With a palette of sensitive but affordable materials that are light in colour – real wood floors, birch-ply units, D-tile bathroom and paintable plasterboard for personal customisation – a warm, comfortable, tactile ambience is created. The units also feature a giant window that fills the space with natural light, and a comfy windowsill as a place to sit and watch the world.

PriestmanGoode has designed an 8.5 sq m hotel room for the new ZIP hotelsWittering House by gpad London

Another focus point in addressing the lack of housing in cities is to re-examine existing locations. A couple of recent projects by architecture practice gpad demonstrate what can be achieved with a limited or repurposed space. Wittering House was built in a tiny 6m x 7m site on which a derelict garage previously stood. The key goal was maximising the internal space while creating a comfortable home that reflects the personalities of the users. The spaces needed to be flexible, with enough natural light and air entering the house for it not to feel cramped and enclosed. Rooms were layered so different zones seamlessly flow into each other.

Views inside Wittering House, by gpad LondonViews inside Wittering House, by gpad London

The materials had to reflect the small scale of the house but also those of the Victorian terraces around and not be overpowering. With such a small plot, gpad had to work hard to make each square foot work for the house and eliminate wasted space, and so the circulation space was made as small as possible.

By creating the staircase barrier out of oak slats, it could be used to give the living space depth and bring light in from the roof light above the stairs. Combined with the courtyard windows, the ground floor is flooded with natural light from a variety of directions, making it feel as if the room grows outwards.

Views inside Wittering House, by gpad LondonViews inside Wittering House, by gpad London

‘The theme of maximising light continues through the house; in the basement, we added a lightwell, and the master bedroom upstairs feels much larger as a window on each side brings light in along with views of trees outside,’ says Charles Bettes, MD of gpad London. ‘The layering of spaces by way of a walk-through wardrobe and an en-suite adds a sense of the plan and space unfolding. Large doors and well-proportioned rooms mean you can always see through to another space or a window.’

Compact living by gpad in this house in Northchurch RoadCompact living by gpad in this house in Northchurch Road

Northchurch Road is similarly a deceptively large infill house on a terraced street in Islington. The narrow, contemporary white frontage is only 3.2m wide, but behind it a bright and elegant home unfolds with three bedrooms arranged around a central internal courtyard that allows light into the heart of the house.

Compact living by gpad in this house in Northchurch RoadCompact living by gpad in this house in Northchurch Road

The courtyard is surrounded by glazed walls that, while adding light, also bring together the living and dining areas. Although the spaces are not adjacent and are connected through a hallway, you can see one from the other, making the space feel open. The unusual folded timber staircase is lit by windows scattered up the wall, which also from the outside contrast with the more traditional surrounding buildings. The staircase banister is glass, which also opens up the space.

Compact living by gpad in this house in Northchurch RoadCompact living by gpad in this house in Northchurch Road

Bettes says: ‘Although we’re moving towards smaller, more affordable housing in our packed city environment, having your own space is still important, and people will want their own apartments rather than move towards multi-generational living. The housing market is changing and we will see people looking to rent throughout their lives rather than buy. People are now used to moving around as their circumstances change. Adaptability will allow inhabitants to stay in the same place for longer. With space at a premium, people want their spaces tailor made to their situation. All of this depends largely on our existing building stock, which is where the main challenge lies. Many currently existing buildings are difficult to adapt and often new residential units are conversions of older larger units or office buildings.’

PriestmanGoode has designed an 8.5 sq m hotel room for the new ZIP hotelsPriestmanGoode has designed an 8.5 sq m hotel room for the new ZIP hotels

In creating concepts for limited-space living, there are plenty of interesting examples to be considered from beyond the residential sector. Whitbread is trialling a new hotel concept in the form of a ‘scaled down’ version of its Premier Inn brand, called ZIP by Premier Inn. The new no-frills hotel concept opens this year on a 138-room site in the Roath district of Cardiff.

Whitbread conducted extensive research that revealed guests were willing to forego traditional expectations – such as large rooms and super-central locations – in favour of a lower price. The hotels will be located on the outskirts of major towns and cities and will feature small, modern rooms with prices from £19 a night.

The company describes the rooms as ‘basics done brilliantly’ and at 8.5 sq. m are around less than half the size of a standard Premier Inn room. The compact rooms have been designed by PriestmanGoode and each space has been packed with useful features such as lightboxes, flexible bed formats and en-suite shower rooms.

ZIP’s smaller room format will give Whitbread access to a broader range of buildings in towns and cities across the UK and it has already secured a second site, set to open in Southampton, with 140 rooms, and is actively seeking further acquisitions in out-of-centre locations that suit the smaller room format.

PriestmanGoode has designed an 8.5 sq m hotel room for the new ZIP hotelsPriestmanGoode has designed an 8.5 sq m hotel room for the new ZIP hotels

Premier Inn managing director Simon Jones says: ‘In developing the concept, we have undertaken considerable research, including having had six ZIP rooms on sale to customers for many months. It’s clear through the research that people want the basics done brilliantly, such as a comfy bed and a power shower but they are happy to compromise on location or some extras if they are paying a fantastic price for their room. We will continue to learn from our customers as they experience the product and will evolve and innovate the concept as we open more ZIP hotels.’

A focus on smaller spaces and repurposing otherwise ‘challenging’ properties is also the basis for some new thinking for hostels too.

The Crown Hostel, by MorenoMaseyThe Crown Hostel, by MorenoMasey

Architecture practice MorenoMasey elevates the concept of hostel accommodation by converting underused space above a number of London pubs into functional yet desirable design-led spaces. By utilising innovative solutions to maximise space, MorenoMasey has enhanced the hostels’ operational, as well as visual, appeal, creating high-quality architectural design that improves the overall user experience. Inspired by the character of the pub it is connected to, the accommodation spaces are infused with modern industrialism; creating a fresh contrast to the traditional perception of a hostel model.

PubLove launched in 2007 with a mission to safeguard the Great British pub by diversifying and modernising the traditional public house without losing its unique character. MorenoMasey was brought in to fulfil this goal and was instrumental in transforming the look and feel of a number of the chain’s pubs, followed by the connected hostel accommodation. The hostel at The Crown pub in Battersea was the first to be unveiled, earlier this year. MorenoMasey used creative planning to unlock the space and create eight rooms with 72 beds, where guests can stay in style and comfort. The overall feel of the rooms is functional with an industrial look, providing visitors with prices starting from £13.50 a night.

Practice founder Rodrigo Moreno Masey, says: ‘A strong client brief informed our architectural approach to both the pub and the hostel rooms above. The result is a stripped-back aesthetic that peels away years of ad-hoc change to reveal an honest, contemporary space.’ The main focus was to modernise the appeal and experience of hostel accommodation.

This was achieved with features such as walls of exposed brick and three-tier bunks made from industrial plywood and black steel, which have been enhanced by coordinating USB sockets with dedicated holders for phones, glasses and water bottles, plus the addition of screens and graphic numerical branding to help identify each bed and provide an element of privacy. The numerical branding corresponds to cuboid lockers in the room, and has been used on the doors of each room. Hidden low-level night lighting provides an automatic glow across the floors, aiding movement without disturbing other guests.

‘Upstairs exhibits simple, functional, hostel rooms that are equipped with the space and needs of the modern traveller,’ adds Moreno Masey. ‘The result is confident and industrial, with plywood and steel furniture pieces housing triple-height beds in large, bright rooms.’

The Crown Hostel, by MorenoMaseyThe Crown Hostel, by MorenoMasey

The pub design preceded the hostel design, involving the full refurbishment of the pub downstairs to create a consistently design-led space throughout, while ensuring the modern design did not compromise its original character. The pub’s space too displays exposed brickwork and is adorned with industrial style lighting and banquette booth seating, creating a social, open-plan space for guests. Extending aspects of the pub design into the hostel space produces a unified entity, maintaining and reinforcing the pub’s role at the heart of the local community while creating a social hub for the hostel. Moreno Masey says: ‘Placed somewhere between urban cool and historic pub, the use of simple materials assembled playfully with beautiful details, looks to redefine the hostel for the urban tourist.’

Compact spaces are a dilemma that most retailers, designers and other specifiers have to face. But rather than shy away from them, it seems many are taking on the challenge with creative interior solutions. Bill Garvey, MD of Devon-based furniture maker William Garvey, says that selecting what meets the clients’ needs is more important than fulfilling stereotypical ideas of what has to be included: ‘As the professional, we know what will and won’t work. Sadly, one of the most common mistakes when designing for a small bathroom, for instance, is simply not taking the space on face value. The room will never grow in size to accommodate the latest corner bath or twin basin set, so look at the best-fit of products for the space; the clients’ wants are not always the most appropriate – a plunge bath could be all they really need.’

He adds that if the want for bespoke, hand-made, quality products remains as prevalent in two years’ time as it does now then the market is set to develop in areas currently relatively unknown to manufacturers.

Creative interior solutions – the Short Wave basin in teak, and matching bath, from William GarveyCreative interior solutions – the Short Wave basin in teak, and matching bath, from William Garvey

Whether that comes from progressive concepts and designs, or from the sourcing of new and original materials, the retailer, designer and end-user are all going to be looking at smaller manufacturers to continue to grow the market and as such, products available for every type of space. ‘When compact, we are seeing unified spaces incorporating similar tones and textures throughout that create the feeling of more space. As such, I believe future trends will see us using more unexpected materials like wood, copper and stone to offer both design impact and maximum usability.’

Ultimately, how the interior is designed is only making the best of the space that has been given. Fundamental questions remain over the scope of new buildings themselves. In October 2015, the Government introduced a housing standard called the Nationally Described Space Standard (NDSS). This was supposed to improve the quality of new-build housing by ensuring they are of an adequate size.

In her hugely insightful publication One Hundred Years of Housing Space Standards: What Now?, architect Julia Park, head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein, points out: ‘Developers across all sectors generally accept that for bedrooms in regular use, 7.5 sq. m is a reasonable minimum for any single bedroom, and 11.5 sq. m, for any double or twin. Why then, does the private sector build so many bedrooms that are smaller? A typical response is that, because a large proportion of second, third and fourth bedrooms are unlikely to be in regular use, they don’t need to be bigger. While factually correct, it makes under-occupancy a self?fulfilling prophecy. As other rooms are often not generous either, and storage is lacking, couples and families find they need spare bedrooms just to be comfortable.

This is a hugely inefficient way to live.’ RIBA has stated that the NDSS fails to solve the problem of inadequate housing because it is voluntary and too complicated for local authorities to introduce. Its research around this topic found that outside of London the average new three-bedroom home is missing 4 sq. m – the size of a family bathroom – based on the needs of its users. New three-bedroom homes in London are 25 sq. m bigger than in Yorkshire – the size of a double bedroom and family living room.

It concluded in its 2017 report, Space Standards for Homes, that: ‘The best solution would be to embed the national minimum space standard within the Building Regulations. This would mean that all new homes across the country would be covered. ...Across all housing sectors, there is a desire for simplicity and consistency.’

Space Issues for Older People

Richard Morton, director at RM Architects, explains some of the recent discussions on delivering the right spaces for older people…

Currently there are about 11.6 million people over 65 in the UK and the number is growing fast. The HAPPI (Housing our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation) report and others have stressed the benefits of ‘downsizer housing’, meeting the specific needs of older people and releasing larger, under-occupied houses for family use.

In the early days of sheltered housing many very small units with just one bedroom were put up by councils and housing associations but these are often now very hard to let, and two-bedroom flats or houses somewhat larger than the minimum sizes set down for such units are much preferred. Such dwellings meet two very important needs of older residents: providing for future access needs and allowing space for much-loved possessions. So far so good, but recently a dispute about space requirements has hit the headlines. For the past few years Building Regulations have included space standards for ‘accessible and adaptable dwellings’ – roughly what I have described above – classed as M4(2), and for ‘wheelchair user dwellings’ classed as M4(3), but neither standard has been made mandatory.

Recently New Forest and other local authorities, following the lead of the GLA, have put forward draft planning policies making the M4(2) standard mandatory for all new housing in its areas and M4(3) standard mandatory for all retirement and Extra Care housing. The Home Builders Federation (HBF), representing many leading developers, has put in objections on the grounds that these enhanced space standards will threaten the viability of its proposals. Estimates vary but a home built to M4(3) may be 10 per cent larger than a standard dwelling with increased costs that cannot easily be recouped through increased sale prices. This, it says, will make its developments less viable so that fewer homes are built.

Prominent charities representing the elderly and disabled have in turn issued an open letter severely critical of the HBF, stressing the importance of future proofing the housing stock and implying that viability arguments are not really valid. The press of course take the opportunity to demonise housing developers, citing the very high levels of profit that some of them undoubtedly make. But the fact that a few firms abuse the system does not entirely invalidate the HBF arguments, and requiring that all retirement housing should comply with the highest space standards – when less than 10 per cent of over 65s are regular wheelchair users may be inappropriate.

Shipping containers have been used to create a hub of food vendors and bars at Stack Newcastle. Could they be also used for housing?Shipping containers have been used to create a hub of food vendors and bars at Stack Newcastle. Could they be also used for housing?

Living in a Box

Desperate times often call for radical solutions. One thing the world is not lacking is shipping containers: estimates suggest there could be up to 40 million shipping containers in the world right now, and experts believe that only six million are currently in use.

Millions of people need homes. Millions of shipping containers are going unused. Could this be an answer to the UK’s housing crisis? Shipping container expert Cleveland Containers is exploring further.

Johnathan Bulmer, managing director at UK shipping container sales and hire business Cleveland Containers, believes that repurposing these strong and sturdy structures could help solve some aspects of the housing crisis.

‘The idea of living in a shipping container might strike some as odd – unfeasible, impractical, and maybe even a little unappealing,’ he admits.

‘But it’s important to think of shipping containers not as finished products, but as raw materials – as exoskeletons for future homes.’

He points out that they can easily be insulated and fitted with windows, doors, indoor partitions, electricity and running water – and if more space is needed, multiple containers can be stacked on top of each other.

‘Using shipping containers for accommodation is a form of modular construction. Most of the work can be done offsite, and then it’s simply a case of transporting the containers to location for installation. Because of this, it’s possible to completely transform areas in a very short timeframe.’

There are numerous examples of shipping container ‘villages’ that have been rapidly constructed on brownfield sites to create hip new urban developments for work, rest and play. Though most of these sites have been built with shopping, dining or entertainment in mind, Bulmer sees no reason future locations could not be created just for accommodation.

Size Matters

Housing: The table below shows the Government’s technical housing standards (or Nationally Described Space Standard), detailing minimum space requirements for residential dwellings. While the Code for Sustainable Homes no longer exists, this is the guide followed by Lifetime Homes and generally adopted by all councils. These standards have been in place for a number of years and do not take into account factors such as affordability, modern living and key-worker requirements in respect of space standards, all of which The Manser Practice’s Micro-Living concept is challenging.

The Lifetime Homes concept was developed in the early Nineties by a group of housing experts. Lifetime Homes are ordinary homes incorporating 16 design criteria that can be universally applied to new homes at minimal cost. Many local planning policies already require the Lifetime Homes standard in new developments, for example the London Plan. It is also an existing requirement in Wales and Northern Ireland for new publicly funded homes to comply with the Lifetime Homes Standard.

Hotels: There are no space standard guides for hotels. Typical room spaces can vary from 6 sq. m-12 sq. m for Yotel and Easy Hotels to 18 sq. m for Cube and Citizen M. The bigger brands tend to have larger rooms: Hilton for example has 28 sq. m minimum in the UK with 32 sq. m minimum in Europe and bigger still in the USA and Far East. Suites can be infinitely larger, from two-bedroom units to whole floors.

Barry Mullin, hotel and office expert at The Manser Practice, said: ‘All the major brands are introducing different sub-brands to accommodate the varying market. Intercontinental Hotels has recently introduced the Moxy brand, which provides smaller rooms than that of its older, more established brands. Long-let/apartment hotels such as Residence Inn also have bigger rooms, as people can stay for up to 90 days. These typically have a kitchenette and can have additional bedrooms and work space.’

Student accommodation: Likewise, this category has no set standards. Rooms are typically between 10 sq. m-14 sq. m. But an increasing number of providers are increasing the size, introducing kitchenettes and working space, with added facilities in the building such as swimming pools, cinemas, and gyms. Other providers offer bed space only, with greater shared spaces. This is all to compete in the ever-growing marketplace and varies with location.

Offices: There are no set standards, although there are limits set by the Health and Safety at Work Act. To command the best rents there is an optional guide set by the British Council for Offices (BCO). This dictates space per person and ancillary office space, including WC and welfare provision. Typically, to be BCO compliant an office needs to provide between 8 sq. m-13 sq. m per person in working areas.

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