FX Design Seminar: Compact Living

FX brought together experts from across architecture and design to consider the pros and cons of compact living

Report by Toby Maxwell
Photography by Gareth Gardner

A growing population, twinned with steadily increasing demand for city living, has seen house prices in certain areas skyrocket, squeezing many out of the market for both purchasing and renting homes. According to the National Housing Federation, an estimated 8.4 million people in England alone are living in unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable housing. It is a far-reaching topic that strikes right at the heart of politics and wider society, and yet it is likely to be developers and architects working in tandem who will come up with the ideas and practical solutions that will ultimately address the problems. Kindly hosted by flooring specialist Forbo at its London showroom in Clerkenwell, FX assembled a group of experts from across the architecture sector to consider some of the sizeable challenges that lie ahead.


Andrei Martin, partner, PLP ArchitectureAndrei Martin, partner, PLP Architecture


Justin Nicholls, principal, Fathom ArchitectsJustin Nicholls, principal, Fathom Architects

First of all, does a compromise on space inevitably mean a reduction in quality? And is luxury a question of space? Brendan Heath, director at SHH, said: ‘We do projects at both ends of the space spectrum and I think for many people luxury today is to do with size and whether you can afford a bigger space, but on the other hand, in hotels for example, it is as much to do with facilities. There may be a decrease in conventional “living space” but an expansion of ancillary space in order to deliver the other services that are increasingly required.’

Justin Nicholls, principal at Fathom Architects, added: ‘It is also important to define what we mean by “compact”. For example, in the city, are we talking about density and the number of homes located within a small area, or is it purely in terms of the space within an individual home? There are some really high-density developments around where homes are close together and with quite small dimensions, but then they have been built alongside open spaces such as parks and rivers, which help to give the sense of a greater space.’

Brendan Heath, DESIGN SEMINAR 039 director, SHHBrendan Heath, DESIGN SEMINAR 039 director, SHH

Harry Harris, director at SUSD, agreed that the definition of ‘compact’ is very important, adding that he believes things are changing quite a lot. ‘We’ve been working with The Collective, a scheme in Canary Wharf that features 705 studio apartments in a 20-storey tower. Individually, they are very small – typically 18-20 sq m – but they come with the shared features of a swimming pool on the roof, climbing wall, gym, cinema, disco, laundry, and shared kitchen. So the amenity space is probably better than you would find in a house in Soho, albeit with a very small space for private living. Many of the people who will live there are generally time-poor and, to a certain extent, cash-rich. They might be well-paid graduates who don’t want to live in a grubby house-share in poor-quality accommodation, and so this kind of development offers a real alternative.’

Tim Bowder-Ridger, senior partner at Conran + Partners, added: ‘I think the definition of luxury has changed quite a lot too. We all probably tend to measure it from the point of view of our parents’ generation. We’re typically all living in houses smaller than our parents’, but for those living in small homes that have facilities like hotels, that’s fine if that is your choice. In places like Hong Kong, however, people are being told “that’s all you can get”. Their two-person apartments are smaller than our one-person studio in the UK, so where we see the ongoing demonstrations in HK, it’s as much about the people being dissatisfied with their way of living and their immediate environment.

‘Where it is through choice,’ Bowder-Ridger continued, ‘it is very different. Contrast the situation in HK with a project we have worked on in Vienna, where space is very limited but there is a lot of appeal for many people. These studios may be just a pied-à-terre for someone who has a larger house outside of the city, or otherwise the resident may be a young person whose spending priorities lie not in having “stuff ” but on experiences, so they treat the whole city as their home. Compact living can be a very good thing – if it’s your choice.’

Simon Saint, principal at Woods Bagot, said: ‘Choice is key, and people are starting to choose different compromises. If you want to live in Shoreditch but can only afford a certain size or type of home, then the decision is whether living in that area is more important than a second bedroom or a larger living room. There is a lifestyle choice being made there.

‘Despite what is sometimes suggested, people do generally want to own their own home, but, increasingly, the compromises that are having to be made to achieve that are not what people want to do, so they consider the other more palatable compromises that work for them. It’s a question of economic pressures, which I’m not sure you can really unpick without unpicking the entire housing market. The important thing is to understand the choices being made and delivering the right kind of housing to enable those choices to be made, as opposed to just seeing the size of houses get steadily smaller as a matter of course, to the point where if you’re wanting to live anywhere in or near London then it will have to be somewhere tiny.’

Bowder-Ridger added: ‘Because that is when you end up in a HK-style situation where, because developers were allowed to build these large-scale super-compact schemes, it inflated the land prices, which in effect meant that the next developer to come along can only really afford to develop it along the same principles. Typically, HK homes are being built at around 35 sq m for a two-person apartment – and quite often, even after a couple might have had children, they continue living in these spaces.’

‘When I first came to the UK from Australia, I noticed a huge difference in multires schemes that I had grown up with and experienced back home, compared to what existed here,’ said Bronte Turner, principal at HLW. ‘In Australia it was about luxurious, high-rise living, whereas coming here, multires still had a social housing stigma attached to it. Over the past 15 years though, things have shifted in the UK. There is still an element of social housing, but it is now a lot more about luxury and transport connections.

Bronte Turner, principal, HLWBronte Turner, principal, HLW

‘The difference back then was really stark. I remember one of my first meetings with the marketing team for a developer of one scheme and was shocked how, instead of the emphasis on luxury and cutting-edge design that such projects focused on in other countries, they were talking about not fitting skirting boards in order to maintain the largest possible square feet measurement in the apartments. The discussion wasn’t about quality at all, purely the space.’

She added that many London projects are now demand-led and aspirational, although there are still many that fall well short of standards in other countries: ‘There are some terrible developments in London though, based solely on the measurements and with little attention paid to clever design. What’s exciting now though is that people are increasingly realising that you can have compact living with really good, thoughtful design and that this can create something of far higher value.’

Social value

Creating developments in which the emphasis is on smaller apartments but with greater space given to shared facilities is only part of the equation, though. Andrei Martin, a partner at PLP Architecture, warned that designing these into a scheme is not necessarily enough to make them a success – it needs to be backed up through effective marketing and ensuring that the facilities are being fully utilised in the way in which they were intended.

SUSD’s Harris added that there is an additional benefit of this kind of living in that, where done well, it can help to create a real sense of community that may not exist elsewhere in properties where residents keep themselves to themselves. ‘Particularly for someone coming to live here from abroad, London can be an incredibly difficult place to integrate and meet people, or to find a community straight away,’ he said. ‘That can bring with it a certain appeal, although with the danger that it most appeals to those that do not necessarily have this in their lives up to now and who may, despite all the social events going on, still hide behind their laptop rather than fully embrace it.’

Emily Cassel, associate at LOM Architecture, added: ‘It also depends on the facilities that are on offer too. A creche, for example, brings a development within the focus of a whole different potential tenant.’

Nicholls of Fathom Architects points to the example of The Collective at Canary Wharf as a way of coming at things from a slightly different angle: ‘They’ve approached it almost as a piece of hospitality. It is as close to a hotel as it is to a residential development, and they’ve worked really hard to develop that. Like co-working, it’s a really good and interesting place to be. It’s not for everybody, and there’s probably only a certain amount of that type of housing that you can build.’

Bowder-Ridger believes we are seeing some significant changes within the housing market: ‘We talk about improvements in design for residential, but what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is massive investment from developers in what they see as high-end. They’re having to compete with other developments, which leads to them throwing more and more different initiatives into their projects.

‘At the lower end of the market, thankfully we do have standards that ensure that we’re making decent homes. It’s in the middle market where things get difficult, where they start applying these “space-saving” devices purely to enable them to maximise volume.

Emily Cassel, associate, LOM ArchitectureEmily Cassel, associate, LOM Architecture

‘One thing that space does give you is democracy of living in that you can choose what you do and how you live your life on a day-to-day basis, rather than being constrained to only being able to do things a certain way because most of the space is in shared areas.’

HLW’s Turner pointed out: ‘Too much of one type of product locks people in a little too much. When we’re in our 20s, a more communal living approach is more likely to appeal, but as we get older, partner off , and have children, this type of housing is just not a viable option for family life from a humanistic point of view.’

Location, location, location

Andrei Martin of PLP Architecture believes that delivering the right kind of housing to meet evolving demands will become an everincreasing challenge, especially since work patterns moving towards a more flexible, home-based or out-of-town system appears to have been a passing phase: ‘The population is growing and young people will continue to move to global cities that attract talent – and London happens to be one of them. There was a great moment of promise a few years ago where remote working looked to be the way forward, with the realisation that you don’t have to be in the centre of town. That was seen for a brief time as a way to alleviate the housing crisis as it would allow a better distribution of the workforce.

Simon Saint, principal, Woods BagotSimon Saint, principal, Woods Bagot

‘It proved to be entirely wrong because in the work environment we still want to be together and see each other. But one thing that does offer a degree of hope is the question over what counts as an urban centre. So in London’s case, it is mainly all concentrated in zones 1 and 2, but outside of that, there is scope for the sort of togetherness to be created through density to give the sense that you are in a hub of energy.’

On the subject of ensuring that a development ends up being home to a social mix of people, HLW’s Turner said: ‘I read recently of a trial where a kindergarten was located in the same building as a nursing home, examining the benefits of co-existence within a community.’

Brendan Heath of SHH said: ‘In a sense, when we look at the co-living developments, it’s almost like a care home in principle. There is a case for these buildings having a real mix of families, with young children as well as older residents all in close proximity.’

Conran + Partner’s Bowder-Ridger gave the example of Japan, where an ageing population is an important issue and many people suffer from loneliness: ‘There is a serious proposition there to look at ways in which you can re-engage the older population. In the context of a society that has extremely long working hours, the proposition is to consider ways of getting the generations to mix.’

Rob Owen, head of interior design at The Manser Practice, said: ‘We’re involved with a development in Wembley that will comprise thousands of PRS [private rented sector] homes, and one particular project we’re working on at the moment is aimed at adults with children. We are doing all the amenity areas, which, once completed, will be full of lots of children, and it’ll work well for everyone because everyone else also has children. But because it is such a large estate there, they are able to aim different blocks at different people, which means that the amenities can be tailored to suit. It is next level in terms of scale, not just 200 or 300 units in one building, but 5,000 or 6,000 homes.’

Growing communities SUSD’s Harris considered planning and space standards to be absolutely key. ‘In terms of space, social housing standards are much higher than private developers’, more generous, and with storage and circulation factored in, as well as extended care for when people get older. But what the free market is doing to an extent is ghettoising young people in one block, families in another, whereas years ago it used to be more mixed.’

Saint of Woods Bagot said: ‘It’s worth bearing in mind that the really tiny homes only really work on a rental basis. I don’t think they work on a for-sale basis, so you have to have an operator who is invested in maintaining the property throughout the duration of its entire life. That often leads them towards a higherquality approach because it works better for them in the long run.’

He added: ‘In terms of mixing the types of properties up within a development, the problem with putting in a number of threebed properties is that there is almost no-one who is able to afford them, especially in the “for-sale” market. When you start applying the square foot rate to a property like that, you then find yourself asking how many families have £3m for a three-bed apartment? So that’s one of the reasons there is a tendency to create developments that meet specific needs rather than a building full of “half gestures” that tries to please everyone but which works for some and not others. It’s a case of finding a way of mixing it in some way without diluting it to the point that it doesn’t really work for anyone. It’s a real challenge.’

Rob Owen, head of interior design, The Manser PracticeRob Owen, head of interior design, The Manser Practice

‘Local authorities can sometimes be more enthusiastic about three-bedroom homes on the theory that it’s a better way to grow a community,’ responded Fathom Architects’ Justin Nicholls. ‘The thinking is that families tend to stay longer. It gives an interesting twist to the statistics – if you look in London at zones 1,2 and 3 there are lots of terraced houses quite often broken down into flats. Perhaps we should be building more one- and two-bedroomed homes and converting this older housing stock – which often have gardens and are ideal for families – back into houses.’

PLP’s Martin said: ‘If we can somehow identify both poles of adult life, and somehow offer a compelling alternative to people who, in later life, find themselves in many cases “stuck’” in large houses, it might be one way to ease some of the pressure on demand for family homes.’

Striving for balance

Achieving ‘community balance’ is something the architects around the table seemed acutely aware of as an important issue. Bowder-Ridger said: ‘My big fear is the segmented approach to much of the new housing. Lots of homes are being built but too much is of the same type and style. The danger is that this will perpetuate some of the problems, leading to higher land values and allowing only certain people the option of living in certain areas. That is not about deliberate choice-making, it is having no choice at all, which is exactly what happens in Hong Kong.’

‘I think the larger-scale mixed-use developments are thinking more about lives and lifestyles to an extent,’ said HLW’s Turner. ‘It’s the singular ones that perhaps pay a little less attention to “community” in favour of more of a “rack ‘em and stack ‘em” approach.’

Brendan Heath of SHH pointed out: ‘To be fair, everything is just left to the developer to make these decisions and that’s always going to be based mainly on self-interest. Is there a role for government to take a bigger role in the process to ensure wider issues are factored in?’

‘It’s very fundamental,’ replied Bowder- Ridger. ‘You can trace right back to the 1980s “right to buy” scheme, which in many ways took the anchor out of the market. Access to council homes gave people choices and forced developers to deliver to the market in different ways. Without that anchor it has all floated off .’

FX editorial director Theresa Dowling asked if the rules requiring developers to add ‘affordable housing’ elements to their luxury schemes were helping to address some of these issues. Some on the panel suggested that developers often found ways to skirt around these requirements. Bowder-Ridger added: ‘The flaw is that in some ways this is a way of getting developers to provide the sort of social housing that local authorities should be delivering. Ultimately for the end user, the cost is higher than it could be.’

Theresa Dowling, editorial director, FX MagazineTheresa Dowling, editorial director, FX Magazine

The Manser Practice’s Owen said: ‘My problem with “affordable” is that 80% of a lot of money is not affordable for many people. There might be 40% of a development that is classed as affordable, but who is it affordable to? It’s still beyond the reach of a huge number of people.’

Bold not bland

Another issue for any large-scale scheme is creating spaces of distinction in a market where varying personal taste often leads developers to ‘play it safe’. Nicholls said: ‘With the high-turnover/ short-stay approach of some of these smaller properties, there is sometimes a blandness to the design. Because the developer doesn’t know exactly who is going to be coming to live there, there is a tendency to go for the typical white walls and simple styling.’

Saint agreed: ‘The whole market is homogenous to an extent. Most developers offer the brief that they just want everyone to “not hate it”.’

Heath had experienced clients prepared to take a little bit more of a risk however, knowing that a bolder design may not appeal to everyone, but going for something out of the ordinary so as to differentiate their development from the extensive competition already out there. ‘It does often come down to how brave the client is prepared to be in differentiating themselves and creating their own market,’ he said.

Nicholls replied: ‘I think in the last 10 years multi-res has become more sectorised, with student, co-living, build-to-rent, build-tosell, and retirement living. That’s all potentially really good for architects and designers because we can add creative value to all of that, and make them better places to live. It’s a real opportunity.’

Presenting one possible vision for the future of compact urban living was a recent collaboration between developer U+I, architecture firm The Manser Practice, and designer Ab Rogers, in which small homes were imagined with very tight dimensions for the living areas but with shared resources. FX’s Dowling said: ‘I was surprised the developers had created this showspace in Westminster to demonstrate a concept that they knew would not get planning permission on the basis of the space being too small.’

‘It was 24 sq m with the bedroom in the living room essentially,’ said The Manser Practice’s Owen. ‘In terms of a studio, a welldesigned one of that size is arguably much better than a poorly-designed bigger space. We utilised as much space as possible with fold-out chairs and dining areas. It felt really big because the bed was out of the way.

‘The focus for U+I was in showing the concept to the mayor and town planners to demonstrate that there are different ways of doing a smaller apartment. And it wasn’t a case of going down to ridiculous measurements like 13 sq m – with something like 24 sq m it is still compact, but not so compact as to be uncomfortable. Compact means different things to different people, but it’s about finding that balance.

‘We looked at a few sites for U+I – which haven’t gone ahead because it can’t get planning – but it would enable the creation of a lot of homes on a site where developers wouldn’t be able to get regular apartments onto. There are spaces where it will work, close to tube or transport links (so that car parking space isn’t required), and striking a balance for residents – mainly young professionals – who probably wouldn’t be spending a great deal of time in the properties on a day-to-day basis.’ Although, Owen added, there could be appeal in lots of other age groups too in what is a far from black and white housing sector. ‘It’s such a young market in the UK. Developers might be coming up with PRS housing and have a target market in mind, but they don’t really know who is actually going to take them up.’

Tim Bowder-Ridger, senior partner, Conran + PartnersTim Bowder-Ridger, senior partner, Conran + Partners

Bowder-Ridger said: ‘It’s actually downsizers who have got the money. They want to live in London and go to the theatre or restaurants regularly. So in a lot of developments, buyers are those who have sold their townhouses perhaps, but are not going so far as to swap that for a studio apartment because they want their kids to be able to come and visit them.’


‘Back in the 1990s,’ Nicholls from Fathom Architects recalled, ‘there was a study from Oxford Brookes University called the “40% House” in which they said that if five people lived in every home, we would solve our housing crisis for 2050. We have lots of situations where we have younger people living alone, and also an ageing population at the other end of the scale – in many ways we have enough homes, but overall they are massively underoccupied. Added to that is the fact that in the UK we tend to treat our homes as an investment – which is less of a factor elsewhere in Europe – plus the emotional attachment we tend to place on the “family home” that often precludes us from moving on even when it would be more practical in many ways.’

Harris suggested: ‘I think local authorities could allow micro-apartments, but with the stipulation the developer would have to also provide certain space for amenities such as a gym, cinema etc. Where you have a fairly high density of apartments, you get economies of scale, so it becomes feasible to be able to provide these services. It means for those living there, they get all the best functions of the private rental sector but with the acceptance that the actual living space is smaller.’

PLP’s Martin added: ‘Another thing that happens alongside those economies of scale is that the tenants, to an extent, start to “self-manage”. We have seen examples where tenants start to organise their own events, and that in a sense reduces the risk of institutional oversight and the level of input requirement from a management point of view.’

Harry Harris, director, SUSDHarry Harris, director, SUSD

Harris offered an alternative slant: ‘It would be interesting as a model if a local authority was to build 300 units and state that it had to be, say, 20% single parents, 20% over 65s etc., to stack it up with a mix of tenants, with subsidised rent but enforcing this kind of balance of different types and ages of people living there. It would be interesting to see if that would work as a community.’

‘I think these things work best where it has developed organically,’ said Bowder-Ridger. ‘My fear is that we make the same mistake as we made two generations ago where we try to make new communities by dismantling the old community. It happened all of a sudden, and everyone was very excited to be moving into those new homes while it was well-maintained and the novelty of electric lights and proper plumbing was a factor. But it pretty quickly deteriorated, and that’s what I fear about large-scale developments. Maybe the answer is to do it on a much smaller scale, but then, of course, the question is whether that remains affordable.’ 

Taking part were:

Tim Bowder-Ridger,
senior partner, Conran + Partners

Emily Cassel
associate, LOM Architecture

Theresa Dowling
(chair), editorial director, FX Magazine

Harry Harris
director, SUSD

Brendan Heath
director, SHH

Andrei Martin
partner, PLP Architecture

Justin Nicholls
principal, Fathom Architects

Rob Owen
head of interior design,
The Manser Practice

Simon Saint
principal, Woods Bagot

Bronte Turner
principal and managing director of London, HLW 

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