A capital crisis of space

A rethink of space standards in London is essential, says Nicolas Khalili, managing director at HWO Architects

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A capital crisis of space

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At a dinner party not long ago, I was asked by fellow diners about our practice’s views of London’s housing crisis. The crisis had, I replied, its roots in outdated planning policies. Take the London Plan’s dwelling space standards for example - a family of six would get more space living across two one-bedroom units than in a newly built six-person unit.

Our industry needs to focus on the pressing issue of the capital’s housing crisis. Just like my fellow diners, London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan identifies housing as his “single biggest priority”. But unlike Boris Johnson, when Sadiq means housing, he really means affordable housing. Quite typically of the great national housing debate, when the mayor unveiled plans to demand 50% affordable housing on new developments, house builders responded by urging the mayor to release underused public land. But have the mayor and house builders missed a trick?‎

Part of the issue is not just how many homes we deliver each year but what we build. Far too much of the industry’s annual output is still unaffordable or compact, as opposed to homes in which Londoners can settle in for the long-term. Dwelling space standards are minimums treated as maximums and our industry has lost the appetite to innovate and address the changing needs of Londoners.

Affordability is critical to most one-bed occupants, while two-bed households are craving for flexibility. A dearth of spacious units drives families out of London while singletons in private renting spend far too much on undersized spaces.

Therefore, now is the time to shake up London’s dwelling space standards. Here are some thought-provoking suggestions for each type (b = bedroom, p = person):

  • Studios (37 sqm) - this type has become synonymous with lack of flexibility and mortgage availability. Verdict: abolish studio flats outside Zone 1 except for flexible co-living.
  • 1b2p (50 sqm) - some providers show that it is possible to build more affordable units that are 10% smaller than standards (think Pocket). Should we open the door to more innovations? Could Starter Homes be an opportunity to innovate? Verdict: lower the target area for one-bed units.
  • 2b3p (61 sqm) - neither a one-bed nor a two-bed. This diabolical unit type is primarily used to deceive local authorities. Verdict: remove 2b3p from dwelling space standards.
  • 2b4p (70 sqm) - the proportion of sharers is increasing among two bed households who want smaller bedrooms but larger living areas. In addition to a family bathroom, there should at least be one en-suite or a flexi-space which allows working from home or a play space for young  children. Verdict: introduce more scope for user flexibility in the standards.
  • b5p (86 sqm) - although this is the first of the ‘family’ unit types, the area available to children is proportionally less than other unit types. Open-plan living/kitchen/dining areas are inflexible and undersized considering the number of occupants. Verdict: make 3b5p larger and increase space available to children.
  • 4b6p (99 sqm) and over - larger family units should only come over two or more storeys. Verdict: ensure all units are multi-storey with direct access to external space.

Londoners are craving light, space, flexibility and community, so we need planning incentives for housing stakeholders to innovate and deliver improved unit sizes.