Microhomes have been proposed as the future of affordable housing, so Citymetric editor Jonn Elledge sought some opinions on whether they really could be the next big thing.
Jonn Elledge, Editor, Citymetric
5 July 2018
Students are living in units of 130-150 ft2 (12-14 m2) – so why, after they graduate, is 400 ft2 (37 m2) the minimum that’s legally acceptable? That’s where planning policy is currently in the UK. People often don’t mind less space, as long as it’s good quality.
So we asked a group of architects to work out – with the way we live and work today, and all the precedents for communal living – could microhomes be a viable solution to current housing shortages?
We found that, if you offer less personal space, you have to provide more common amenity space. So we want to be in the heart of London, where people can walk or cycle, or pop around the corner for dinner. Are these a good idea in leafy suburbs? No. But in unaffordable central London? Absolutely, yes.
We can deliver these buildings without any subsidy, and work within the current market to provide flats that are more affordable than currently exist. There have got to be lots of solutions to this housing crisis, but it’s about offering more choice.
Presentations about microhomes generally allude to Japan or Hong Kong – places where people have always lived in smaller spaces out of necessity. But people are now living in different ways. The generation graduating from university now want to live in the city, but have limited possessions, so they can live in smaller spaces. This age group also like to have amenities such as bars and cafes close by, so they need less kitchen space, too.
Interesting research about “downsizers” shows that some of the 65-plus age group, currently in bigger houses, would be keen to live in these types of spaces, too, if there’s a community around them.
In Asia, some microflats come with fold-up beds and so forth, so you can change a space to suit the different stages of your day. But I think people in the West might see that as a hassle. You should be able to live the life you want without having to pack everything away.
Undoubtedly there are some fantastically designed microhomes out there – but most are really poor. Many were built to be offices and then converted quite awkwardly.
So, the areas with the greatest number of microhomes aren’t those with high density and expensive land. Often it’s where land values are relatively depressed – perhaps office values have plummeted, permitting more redevelopment as housing.
And it doesn’t work as a plan to solve the housing crisis because of how land markets work. There’s no reason to think that homes in the UK are too expensive because they’re too large. We have the smallest homes in western Europe.
The reason affordability is worse is because of the way that land markets work. Developers know they can plan for higher densities while bidding for land – and that pushes up land values.
So, it’s a bad deal. Microhomes are just a way of taking a really good thing like housing wealth, and giving people a smaller portion of it.
Microhomes are the wrong solution to the problem. Britain already has the smallest homes in Europe; we need to build homes with enough space for people to live in, not cram them into rabbit hutch houses. It’s an incredibly defeatist attitude that assumes we can’t possibly solve the housing crisis within the parameters we’ve got, so we’ll have to build lower-quality homes.
Also, building microhomes for sale pushes up land prices. Smaller homes are more expensive per square foot – you get more for your money in a bigger home.
The real solutions are compulsory purchase for city councils at close to existing use value, and putting a lot more money into affordable housing. There has to be a much bigger role for the state. The truth is you could have the most ambitious plan in the world but without government money backing that up, it won’t make any difference. If the market isn’t going to step up, the government has to.
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