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Size matters, but so does quality of homes

We all know that we don’t build enough houses in the UK, but did you know that the homes we do manage to eke into existence each year tend to be hopelessly small? You might have an inkling if you’d caught the publicity around the launch of the Royal Institute for British Architects’ Case for Space report a few weeks back.

In it, RIBA found that the average size of a new home was just 76 square metres and existing homes averaged a pathetic 85 square metres. Also, the typical home in Britain has just five rooms.

I wonder whether aspiring to build bigger homes purely for size’s sake is an old-fashioned idea

It doesn’t sound great, particularly when you compare it with our western European colleagues.

Even in the crowded Netherlands new homes average 115 square metres and in Denmark they enjoy cold beer and herring in homes almost twice the size of ours, at 137 square metres. Meanwhile in the US, typical new homes weigh in at 250 square metres.

Of course, all this data is meant to bring with it images of miserable Brits living in cramped little holes – or as RIBA calls them in its report, shameful shoebox homes.

On the face of it there is a lot to be said for bringing our homes up to a decent size, not least because around half the people surveyed said their existing home didn’t even provide enough space for the furniture they already owned.

A third of respondents said their current home didn’t give them enough space to have friends over for meals, discounting those who presumably feel entertaining involves nothing more than a television, a tray and a pizza.

As anyone who has lived in a home they view as too small can relate to, the issues of too little space can have a deleterious effect on one’s quality of life.

Everyone needs their own space at some point during the day and having too many people in too little space, particularly in growing families, can lead to squabbles and people being encouraged to go out on to the streets.

When key rooms such as kitchens are too small it can affect your life in terms of not being able to cook what you want because you don’t have the workspace, or not being able to eat together as a family. It’s not rocket science to say that people need space.

But as an argument, I’m beginning to wonder whether that, while there is a balance to be had, aspiring to build bigger homes purely for size’s sake is an old-fashioned idea and that RIBA’s report catches the ebb rather than the flow of this particular debate.

In the US, where homes are as supersized as their food portions, it’s not just the more thoughtful commentators but the wider housing mainstream who are beginning to latch on to the idea that their homes have got too big.

Architect Sarah Susanka has championed the movement for smaller, more sustainable houses in the US. This is perhaps not entirely coincidental as she is an English émigré, who has made a bit of a name for herself as the author of a series of books on house design – the best being Creating The Not So Big House.

The Not So Big brand explains that there is so much more to judging the quality of a house and its space than simple floor area and that more sophisticated house designers are looking at the way we interact with and how we feel in rooms.

In easily graspable terms, she’s saying what many people instinctively know – that for a house to feel like home, it has to feel like it provides a kind of cosy shelter. Rooms, and houses, can indeed be too big to meet that purpose.

In addition to the arguments in favour of smaller homes in terms of abstracts such as emotion and feel, there are also two hard facts that can’t be ignored. Put simply, smaller houses are almost always more sustainable and certainly cheaper to build than bigger houses of a similar specification. Anyone who’s told their family members to keep the doors closed on a cold winter’s night knows the benefits of keeping spaces small as heating our homes is a huge drain on energy usage, while smaller homes need less lighting, too.

In terms of build costs, the house building industry works on a cost per area basis – a typical home might cost £800 to 1,000 per square metre to build.

With the housing industry looking to react to lower asking prices for their end products, minimising scale might be a wise approach.
One thing the obsession with space ignores is the importance of quality. If a home is well built – both structurally and in terms of its finishing choices, such as flooring and joinery – it is most certainly better to live in.

We instinctively know a good house when we enter one. For a start, it’s the low acoustic transmissivity around the house – in layman’s terms, the ability or otherwise to hear someone pee in a distant bathroom – that is a classic pointer.

So why do we persist in this sham? Why do estate agents still predominantly price a house on its square footage? They’ve not even moved on to metric, for the most part.

In some parts of the country, top-end estate agents seem to price at around £2,200 per square metre or £204 per square foot. In posh parts of London it’s five or six times that. It all reflects local demand but this kind of pricing structure only encourages developers to build bigger.

And as they build bigger, they need bigger plots, which swallows up more land, which is another story entirely.

It’s clear to me that the way we value homes has to change and yet again it is a case of the mainstream housing industry lagging behind the times.




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