We must dare to use the S-words

Words:
Julia Park

The hidden price of inadequately sized homes makes the case for space standards in housing compelling – and arguments about cost are rejected by many developers

Vaudeville Court by Levitt Bernstein.
Vaudeville Court by Levitt Bernstein. Credit: Tim Crocker

Love them or hate them, space standards seem to be the new Marmite. In fact they are roughly as old as each other. England’s first space standard dates back to the end of 1918, and Marmite to 1902. Rich in folic acid and Vitamin B, Marmite formed part of the soldiers’ ration packs as they set off to Germany in the First World War. Though it would not have been on their minds at the time, England’s first space standard greeted them on their return.

The analogy ends there. While Marmite was invented by mistake, the space standards drawn up by the Tudor Walters Committee were a very deliberate attempt to improve living conditions. The poor physical health of the English army’s young recruits had been noticed and was felt to be a direct result of poor living standards and severe overcrowding. Full-scale war is all-consuming; there had been little opportunity to address the growing housing problem but when the fighting finally ended, building thousands of decent homes became a political and social priority. A direct result of Lloyd George’s pledge to provide ‘Homes fit for Heroes’, the 1918 Tudor Walters Report will have had a profoundly positive effect on the lives of many of the returning soldiers and their families.

Almost exactly 100 years later we face another monumental housing crisis. This one is nothing to do with war; it’s simply a failure of politicians to intervene effectively in a housing market that has been broken for many years. Whereas a century ago the government believed that quantity and quality could be achieved together, recent political rhetoric has only been about numbers. 

Levitt Bernstein has always been associated with housing standards and policy. For those of us who find space standards particularly fascinating, it’s been a busy decade, culminating in a nationally described space standard, or NDSS. As the first fully national, cross-tenure space standard, the NDSS is an improbable outcome of the 2012-15 review of housing standards; a government led deregulatory exercise. The catch, of course, is that it’s optional. Those local authorities that didn’t have a space standard before 2015 can only adopt the NDSS if they can demonstrate need and viability. A year after coming into force, we have little idea how many have either tried or succeeded, but early signs are not good. As it’s still an intensely controversial topic, I decided to zip up my anorak and write a book about the S-words. 

Credit: One Hundred Years of Space Standards: What Now? by Julia Park

‘One Hundred Years of Housing Space Standards: What Now?’ is part history, part insight and part opinion. My personal space mission began in earnest about 10 years ago and was motivated more by frustration than evangelism. The only space standard that existed then was enshrined in the Housing Corporation’s funding standards. While we all understood the need for minimum standards for what were likely to be fully occupied homes, the figures set out in design and quality standards and the housing quality indicators (HQIs), were out of step with our practical experience. For most dwelling types, the minimum internal floor areas required to gain a grant tended to be on the small side. For some, particularly the family houses, they seemed substantially below the space needed to achieve the functional criteria required by other parts of the HQIs. They also lacked any obvious rationale.

We decided to look at living space in a different way. Based on a range of tried and tested house plans, we listed the floor areas of layouts that worked in practice, and analysed them to discover the underlying pattern that we were convinced must lie behind them. Our patience was rewarded and in 2009, and we took our proposals, and our evidence, to the policymakers.

The book picks up this story, but starts much further back. It begins with the first London Building Acts before summarising the various space standards and other significant space-related documents that have come and gone over the last 100 years. These include the overcrowding measures of the 1935 Housing Act (still going today) and the world-famous (if paternalistic) Parker Morris standards of 1961; abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1980.

The last decade is described in greater detail; due in part to the fact that I was fortunate enough to be seconded to the DCLG to help with the Housing Standards Review. This began in 2010, triggered by the need re-boot housebuilding in the wake of the 2007-8 crash. Grant Shapps (then newly appointed housing minister to the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government) asked the industry to come up with ways to streamline the plethora of ‘local housing standards’ that developers claimed were holding them back.

Chaired by the NHBC, the pan-industry group made good progress in some areas but space standards were put in the too-difficult pile and failed to resurface. The traditional housebuilders who dominated the discussion were simply unable to cope with the S-words. Things stalled completely when the group recommended that any necessary standards should be taken into the building regulations. This was unpalatable to a political regime committed to deregulation.

In 2012, government reluctantly took over the reins. To the civil servants’ credit, space was put back on the agenda because those that wanted to talk about it outnumbered those that did not. As the book explains, the ensuing debate was rigorous, democratic, wide-ranging and, at times, difficult. To achieve a valid consensus it needed to be.

In the end, the arguments in favour of space standards proved much stronger than those against. Tested through open consultation, 80% of respondents felt that a space standard was necessary, and 83% agreed that given a decent lead-in, any cost would come out of land value. With a mandate that politicians can only dream of, the NDSS became a reality despite the most unpromising start.

Reflecting on what history tells us, the thing that struck me most was the inability of our policy makers to make up their minds. Space standards have generally been by-products of national events and crises; vulnerable to the state of the economy and the predilections of the government of the day. It becomes evident that these triggers, and our reactions to them, are cyclical. While standards can be, and often are, abolished overnight, it takes much longer to re-instate them and claw back lost progress before beginning to embark on the gradual improvement we might expect. Space standards are most obvious victims of these cyclical downturns, but history also tells us that we gain little from short-term, reactive strategies. More often than not, standards were never the problem and there is little evidence that stripping them away improves supply or affordability for any length of time, if at all.

Having enough overall floor space, sensibly-sized bedrooms and adequate storage supports mental and physical wellbeing and incentivises right-sizing

Another striking factor is that the general trend has not always been upwards. The Tudor Walters standards of 1918 were very generous. The quaint descriptions of a ‘non-parlour house’ and a ‘parlour-house’ make a strict comparison with our contemporary typologies rather difficult, but there seem to be some remarkable parallels. Tudor Walters’ 79.4m2 for a ‘non-parlour house’ corresponds almost exactly with the 79m2 required for a two storey two bed, four person house under the NDSS. 98m2 for a ‘parlour house’ sits neatly between the NDSS 93m2 for a two storey three-bed five person and 99m2 for a three storey. A century later we seem to be back to where we started.

Subsequent sections of the book discuss the pros and cons of a space standard, and what a good standard looks like and what it might achieve. The discussion is set in the context of the current housing situation and draws on wide-ranging evidence. Overcrowding and under-occupancy (both rising, paradoxically), density, mix, tenure, viability, affordability and demographic change are all relevant to a proper debate about the ‘right amount’ of living space.

Any ideas I may have had about remaining neutral soon faded. The title asks a question and it proved impossible not to offer an answer. We’ve come a long way in the last 10 years; it hasn’t been easy and it certainly hasn’t been by accident. Two years on from the review, the need for space standards feels even more compelling.

While it is important to explore the wider housing issues and rehearse the arguments, ‘space’ is really quite simple. It makes no sense to ignore our ageing population, to pretend that people don’t have hoovers ironing boards, sports equipment, coats and bags, or to build homes that can only be comfortable when under-occupied.

The recent spate of office to residential conversions provides fresh evidence of what can happen without standards. Under permitted development (PD) rights, these homes bypass planning altogether. Introduced in 2012 for a four-year trial period, the scheme is regarded by the government as a great success and it has made this form of PD permanent.  Some of the converted flats are as small as 13.5m2 – the size of a typical double bedroom. In areas of high demand and high prices, it is already clear that without minimum space standards, there is no limit to how small our homes might become. Hong Kong now offers ‘living capsules’ of 2.2m2.

Providing protection against unacceptable outcomes is the main purpose of most standards. But they can also encourage positive change. Based on the premise that a home should be fit for purpose when fully occupied, a space standard promotes choice and flexibility – two of the most valuable assets for a housing stock which we now expect to last 100 years. Having enough overall floor space, sensibly-sized bedrooms and adequate storage supports mental and physical wellbeing and incentivises right-sizing; almost certainly leading to a more efficient use of land.

By the end of the Housing Standards Review, the idea of a national space standard was acceptable to most of the developers involved, and openly welcomed by many. There was general agreement that the minimum floor areas and the secondary standards were reasonable and many questioned why regulation wasn’t being offered. Even when adopted, the NDSS can still be challenged in pre-planning negotiation and beyond – through appeal. That means it isn’t providing the certainty that developers want, stabilising land value in the way that it could, or protecting vulnerable households as it should. It would be simpler, better and fairer to take space standards into regulation and sensible to trust the 83% of consultees who believe it wouldn’t even cost us anything. 

Julia Park works at Levitt Bernstein

Download One Hundred Years of Housing Space Standards free


 

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