Compact Living: are small spaces set to make big impact on UK housing crisis?

8 Jan 2018

Policy area: Residential

What is compact living, and can it make an impact on the housing crisis? Policy Officer Raja Hanna explains and shares his views. 

The UK’s housing demand-supply imbalance continues to undermine efforts to help more people onto the housing ladder. With demand growing and supply failing to keep up, the debate on how to solve the issue undoubtedly remains at the top of the national agenda. While government aims big to tackle the issue, do we in fact need to think small? What they lack in size, Compact Living flats may make up for in appeal – among a generation who prize location over square footage.

Compact Living is ultimately smart living, where build space is small, yet quality of facilities and design remain high. It tends to be more commonplace in countries where space is at a premium, the Netherlands for example. In a city like London, where a day rarely goes by without the Mayor of London addressing the capital’s housing shortage, can Compact Living become a part of our solution?

Given the choice, most would probably avoid living in a space that is so compact that it is only ‘a few centimetres bigger than the average prison cell’, according to a particular member of the press. However, how much of London’s population would prefer having the option available to them?

Britain already has some of the smallest homes in Europe, the average floor space of 76sq m compares to 137sq m in Denmark. Over the past few years there has been a sizeable increase in properties of less than 37 square metres being built in the UK – about the size of a Tube carriage – a measurement which the government stipulates should be the minimum for a studio flat. In fact, since 2014 there's been an increase of 172 per cent in ‘micro homes’ and last year a record 8,000 were built. This was up from 5,605 in 2015, and has been severely helped by legislation introduced in 2013, allowing developers to convert city centre office blocks into flats, many of them relatively ‘compact’.

The market seems to suggest that as property prices increase, and rents become less affordable, homes become even tinier. Critics have been scathing, calling these homes ‘dog kennels’, however the state of the housing market surely means that it is about time we think outside the box for a resolution. Alternative forms of living are attaining traction, so who could Compact Living benefit?

Place over space

Arguably, Compact Living’s biggest asset is that it satiates people who revere ‘place more than space’. Housing research charity BRE has noted Oxford Street as the prime target for compact homes, one of many London hotspots. Liverpool, Leicester, Birmingham and Bristol have also emerged as hotspots outside of London in the UK. It benefits the young, flexible and adaptable; graduates, students and the occasional city worker. Compact Living offers a living compromise where one can sacrifice on space, yet still enjoy the merits of living in a prime city location, with a quality design at an affordable price.

Socially-active living

Compact Living could be a beacon of connection, providing more opportunities for social experiences at home with non-family members, breaking away from traditional models of living. Research by the Mental Health Foundation found that 60% of 18 to 34-year-olds report regular feelings of loneliness in big cities. Compact Living could pioneer a new ideology of living that helps to diminish this, incorporating a combined communal space, as done in Amsterdam’s compact living concept, which encourages more social interaction between residents. This is likely to entice people who are single, have moved to a city for work and do not already have a ready-made social network. This may perhaps be Compact living’s most esteemed benefit as currently, traditional sharing apart, there is little available to satisfy this demand.  

The critics

Ultimately, compact living could add real value to people’s lives, however it is early days for the concept here in the UK and certainly not without opposition.

A 2010 report from University College London outlined that a larger living space has positive implications such as a decrease in health concerns, an increase in family wellbeing and an improvement in neighbourhood balance.

There is also currently prolific political debate around affordability and its definition. Can something that is charged at the market rate for a living space of its size truly be considered an ‘affordable’ alternative? ‘Studio compact flats’ are on the market for about £399,000, however there has been no change in the dynamics of the housing market. This is simply the ‘going rate’ for a property of this size in this current housing climate. In this context, Compact Living has provided no obvious remedy to the housing market’s increasing unaffordability. The big question to ask here is whether Compact Living is just satiating the current state of the housing market by providing an alternative but not posing a real solution?

At present, Compact Living poses an interesting alternative for many people currently priced out of the housing market – if they are willing to sacrifice space – and it fuels a much-needed, solutions-focused debate for many in the housing sector. There are unquestionably many  reservations which need to be addressed before Compact Living can be categorised as part of the answer to the housing crisis. The BPF is about to embark on research to get the ball rolling – to discover to what extent Compact Living can indeed be considered as such. We will seek to better understand the concept’s benefits, categorise an industry standard definition and recognise key product ranges.