Spaces standards for homes

A new nationwide minimum space guideline for new-build homes has been brought in by the Government, which might mitigate some of the worst abuses. Ten architects, housebuilders and developers give their views on the new move...


The UK's continuing housing crisis, spiralling rents and too few homes has meant smaller and smaller parcels of space coming on to the market, from studio flats that require the occupant to sleep on a shelf to shoe-box bedrooms under stairs. According to the RIBA, more than half of new homes being built today are not big enough to meet the purchaser's needs. RIBA research found that the average three-bedroom home in London is now 25 sq m bigger than in Yorkshire, meaning that some Yorkshire families are missing out on the equivalent of a double bedroom and a family living room.

Last October the Government brought in a long-awaited, Nationally Described Space Standard, guiding housebuilders and architects on the minimum internal area for new homes, bringing the rest of the country in line with London, which since 2011 has had its own standard. Previously, there had only been the Parker Morris, brought in for new social-housing projects after the 1961 report Homes for Today and Tomorrow, and dropped in the Eighties.

Based on the number of bedrooms and occupants, the new rules apply to every new home, from affordable mass housing to one-off projects. Under the standard, a one-bedroom flat should be a minimum of 39 sq m, while a three-bed, five-person home has to be 93 sq m. In two-bedroom homes one must be a double, with a minimum floor area of 11.5 sq m, plus a single a minimum of 7.5 sq m.

Yet the new space standard is optional and any knock-on effects might not be seen immediately. To adopt minimum standards, local authorities must first carry out an impact assessment to demonstrate local need and viability. They also need to carry out a full local plan review, including public consultation. In its recent HomeWise campaign, the RIBA suggests that the best solution would be to embed the new standard within Building Regulations, calling for every new home across the country to be covered.

But what has been the response from the architecture community to the new standard? Has the Government gone far enough, and will it really have any impact? We asked architects, housebuilders and developers for their thoughts and opinions...

Hari Phillips

Transforming quality of life by delivering outstanding homes is at the heart of Bell Phillips' ethos, and so we welcome measures that seek to raise the quality of housing. But size isn't everything, however, and space standards reduce the concept of quality to a very limited metric.

My concern is that this focus dominates discussions on housing quality at the expense of other important factors: views, light, volume, usability, flexibility, lifestyle, innovation, creativity. Increasingly, meetings with planning officers resemble a meeting with one's accountant - people pour over detailed spreadsheets to assess 'compliance'. This draconian, design-by-numbers' approach means that in certain situations architects are forced to make poor design decisions or are restricted in their aspirations in order to make the numbers work.

Hari Phillips

In my view, the quality of housing should be considered in a holistic way that considers size among other issues, and this assessment should be embedded within the planning process. In an ideal world, planning officers would have the education, intelligence and experience to make proper value judgments about what constitutes good-quality housing. Perhaps it is this lack of faith in the system that pushes us towards the blunt instrument of minimum space standards.

Hari Phillips, Director, Bell Phillips Architects

Russell Curtis

The Government's attempts to streamline housing standards are welcome and long overdue. The principle of making compliance with technical standards the responsibility of building control is sensible, but its conflation with planning policy is a bewildering move. A clearer separation of duties would have been more sensible, particularly with regards to requirements for wheelchair-user housing under the new Part M that, confusingly, is implemented at the request of local planning policy.

Only time will tell how this gets enforced on more complex schemes, and it will be interesting to see how the industry works to find an efficient way through the statutory approvals process.

Russell Curtis
Image: David Vintiner

Concerns remain regarding some of the more prescriptive requirements that limit a creative approach to challenging sites, but more fundamentally it's difficult to see why minimum space standards shouldn't be mandatory within the Building Regulations rather than an 'optional extra' determined at the local planning level. People don't vary in size according to their whereabouts in the country, so there's no reason why space standards should either. I just don't buy the suggestion that a small increase in area suddenly tips previously viable schemes into financial oblivion. Efficiencies in design, procurement and delivery can more than offset the cost of a few additional square metres, so arguments against mandatory minimum areas therefore appear spurious and miserly.

Russell Curtis, Director, RCKa

Alex Ely

Good architecture must be generated by ideas beyond the practical and the technical, but at Mæ we nonetheless recognise that there is a role for legislation when speculation and the liberty of the market work against the interests of the common good.

Writing the Mayor of London's Housing Design Guide was an absorbing commission for Mæ and became the subject of much debate. It introduced mandatory requirements for all housing developments in Greater London and became the benchmark for the Nationally Described Space Standard.

Alex Ely

There is much resistance to legislating space standards on the basis that it will impact on viability. But viability is what we chose it to be and regulation is collectively made in the interests of creating a civilised society. Well-planned, generously lit and spacious homes are as important in delivering sustainability as urban design and building performance.

In a dysfunctional market space standards help protect against the worst, they are simple and unequivocal unlike so much legislation, and they give certainty to the home buyer, the authority as well as the developer and their architects. It is a pity that the Government has left the decision to adopt the Nationally Described Space Standard to individual local authorities.

Alex Ely, Principal, Mæ

Meredith Bowles

It's about time there was a requirement for new houses to be built to given space standards. We all know that the size of properties has fallen over the years, which is one reason that older properties remain valued. Despite progress, new houses are often smaller, pokier, with smaller windows. So what's the problem with the Nationally Described Space Standard?

Well, it's not mandatory for one. It has loopholes that allow certain developments off the hook. And while Nationally Described, the guidelines are locally implemented. I get why there is agitation from the industry at the RIBA's sabre-rattling, with soundbites that pit industry against the profession when we would do better to work together. And I get why it's hard to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach, but this could be overcome with some thought.

Meredith Bowles

We have taken the needs of people with disabilities seriously. Space to accommodate wheelchairs has, bit by bit, found its way into legislation, and has transformed the lives of many people - not just those with disabilities but those with children or shopping bags too. Isn't it time to think about the rest of the population?

Meredith Bowles, Director, Mole Architects

Andrew Matthews

While housing quality is in part related to adequate space standards, the application of a one-size-fits-all policy, applied through the Building Regulations, fails to recognise the very difficult challenges that face housing providers in different parts of the UK. It's understandable for policy makers to wish to protect future residents from unscrupulous developers that might see relaxed standards as an opportunity to build sub-standard accommodation and maximise profit, but it's quite another if the same policy makes it unviable for housing associations to deliver much-needed, affordable housing in the poorer parts of the country. It seems to me that such a policy can in some cases be counterproductive.

Andrew Matthews

We are currently helping housing associations deliver family housing in the North to space standards that are below the national space standards' target.

But through creative design and innovative site layouts we believe we can help unlock much needed, affordable housing in a socially responsible way on otherwise unviable sites. Good residential design is not just about space standards.

Andrew Matthews, Founding Director, Proctor and Matthews

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