Monday, 5 December 2016

Are micro homes an answer to the housing crisis?

The statement ‘the UK is in the middle of a housing crisis' has become a truism and something that is seemingly insurmountable. 19% of households are renting privately, and the number is increasing steadily year on year. The number of private landlords is also increasing (though may fall again due to stamp duty changes), reaching 1.75 million in 2013-14. Private landlords banked £14.2 billion in revenue in the same year. 

House prices have risen beyond reason, now (and these are only average figures) costing six times the average wage and widening. These figures do not account for regional disparities in London and pockets of local inflation, where prices are much higher. For example, in the small town where I live, the cheapest house is £250k, while average wages locally are about £16k. No wonder it's mostly us former Londoners who can take advantage (admittedly, having suffered expensive and substandard housing for many years).

Of course, everyone knows that building more housing for low-cost rental would help. But we have a major ideological stumbling block in the form of our current government, who believe (and I kid you not, and nor does Nick Clegg, who revealed this in his recent book) council housing just created Labour voters. It was every thus. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that a decent living space for low-cost rent, on long-term tenancies, is just necessary, as opposed to being a socialist plot.

And so we continue, dumping huge amounts of public cash and land on private developers, who then, with a few exceptions, build that kind of bog-standard housing (I don’t need to post pictures, do I?), with few truly affordable options.

In the course of all these crises and ideological tampering, though, I would argue that we've all got confused about needs on the one hand and sustainability on the other. I want to put forward the argument that we do not need the size of houses that people seem conditioned to want, and that new estates combining large detached executive homes and a few ‘affordable' options aren't sustainable.  

I know this is controversial. Privately built houses are getting smaller in the UK. In 2015 the average size for a new build was only 92% of the recommended size and half the size of homes that had been built in the 1920s. Looking at one of those fantasy micro-flats in an IKEA showroom is a depressing experience, though I'd like to try to live in one as an ethnographic study of spatial depression.

Meanwhile, well-paid but undereducated blowhards like Patrik Schumacher (the new Director of Zaha Hadid Architects) and his ‘various fronts for Spiked Online’ mates, advocate the complete privatisation of the whole world. What this means practically is building hipster dormitories – like Pocket Living and the Collective in London - for our doomed urban millennials. Welcome to your life of worker slavery, and don’t ever try having a family.

None of these is a good advertisement for a small home. Why? Because when you live in a small home (as I did for all my time in London, which was two decades), you need outside amenities. Space around you, things to do, places to go. Plus they are badly designed. Small homes don't necessarily have to mean small, poky rooms that can't fit most furniture (bar the ever-opportunistic IKEA, once more). They don’t even have to be high-rise or multi-development flats, with windswept greenery around them that no-one sits in, on the Le Corbusier model.

In the small town that is now my home, the housing crisis as turned into a social crisis. It was a village that attracted, since the 1960s, artists and makers. These people made it a place on the countercultural map, also aided by the radical reputation of the nearby university. But no-one with those credentials (unless you are migrating from London) can afford to live there, so the population of artists, makers and countercultural activists are getting older, not to be replaced.

It seems obvious that small, innovative housing might help in this situation. But how might we envisage it?

I’ve come across lots of models for micro-living – pods, huts, sheds and so on. Some of them are innovative, but most simply too small. But here are three examples - one new and two recycled - that might hold a solution:

The new option

The Tiny House in Austin.  It’s two huts spliced together, with a veranda, steps, and plenty of greenery. I like its colour, its rationalised space, and the fact that the sleeping quarters and living/kitchen area are separate. It has a courtyard effect, which gives it a feeling of enclosure.

 The recycled option

How about a couple of converted railway carriages, or a home made from shipping containers? They need a fair bit of insulating, but are low-cost and can always be added to if the family expands.

This one caught my eye.

All these designs are innovative and infinitely variable, offering an interesting and engaging landscape. They are low-cost, ‘temporary structures’ (thus offering the potential to negotiate with planning) but have longevity (remember how much people liked the post-WW2 prefabs, erected to deal with housing shortages after the war). Arranged properly as courtyards of a few homes in natural and landscaped surroundings, and with proper services, communal areas and playgrounds, they would offer the small inner space and large external space needed to cope with small home living.

Think we can’t do it? Most people have an experience of putting their accumulated stuff in storage, only to forget what they had. We don’t need stuff, and the kids don’t mind so long as they have some freedom and things to do. We do need a place to call our own, at a rent we can afford.

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