The incredible shrinking home

Fact: Average new-build property sizes in the UK are shrinking decade on decade, while we humans have been busy growing taller by 11cm (4in) over the last century. When it comes to new-builds, we now have one of the lowest average usable floor spaces in Europe at a rather cosy 76 sq m (818 sq ft).

Why is this happening? Is it just developers being greedy - condemning us all to end up like poor Alice in Wonderland, squashed inside the White Rabbit's tiny house with her head wedged against the ceiling?

Or are there other underlying reasons, such as the rise of the singleton and the fall of the large family? Has there been a move away from commuting to city centre living? Is biggest always best, or can small be perfectly formed? And is this purely a UK phenomenon, or is 'rabbit hutch syndrome' happening the world over?

These questions and others will all be hot topics for discussion at the World Architecture Day 2013 conference in New York this October during the 'Regional Influences in Housing' session. In the meantime, we took a whistle-stop tour round the globe to get an initial feel for emerging trends in the lead-up to WAD13.

United Kingdom - the shoebox

Let's use the UK as a yardstick in our explorations around the world. It says something that electrical appliances, such as the new super-slim Dyson DC59 cordless vacuum cleaner, are being made smaller to fit into the nation's bijou living spaces. Many blame the fact that England and Wales are the only places in Europe not governed by some form of legal minimum space standards.

In recent times there has been a big drive to re-introduce standards along the lines of the 'Parker Morris' standards once used in the UK. The Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA) is concerned about the size and quality of housing being built and its 'Case for Space' report states: "Based on our sample, the average new home in England is only 92% of the recommended minimum size. The average one bedroom home from our sample of 1,159 homes across 41 sites is 46 sq m (495 sq ft). It is 4 sqm short of the recommended minimum for a single storey, one bedroom home for two residents."

The report goes on to explain that in terms of lifestyle, the missing 4 sq m means: "The equivalent of a single bed, a bedside table and a dressing table with a stool. 4 sqm is the space that allows you to work at home at the computer in the day and also have an extra sofa when you've friends round in the evening."

In other words, our cramped quarters are cramping our style and denying us lifestyle choices. RIBA's research cites lack of space as the most common cause of dissatisfaction regarding their homes. Almost half the people surveyed (47%) said there wasn't enough space for furniture they owned, 57% said there was not enough storage space and 28% felt they couldn't get away from other people's noise.

Just last month, the UK government pledged to seek the views of those involved in the new homes sector, but stopped short of enforcing minimum sizes, stating: "The government does not have a preferred approach on space standards at this time."

This has caused dismay among many, but - predictably - the developers are happy. In an interview with BBC News Magazine, Jeff Fairburn, Chief Executive of Persimmon, which accounts for about 10% of the new homes market, claimed that: "The reduction in house seizes reflected modern preferences and lifestyles. We have house types to maximise efficiency. [Today] you have living and cooking spaces at the back of houses and less formal dining space. I don't recognise claims that houses are too small. That is not the feedback we are getting." He also warned that 'bigger houses take more land and would lead to higher costs to buyers'.

Denmark - let there be light

So much for the squeezed UK. The phrase 'and now for something completely different' takes on whole new life when we look at housing in design-conscious Denmark. Here, average floor space is almost twice as much as the UK at 137 sqm (1,475 sq ft).

We spoke to Julian Weyer, partner at architects C F Moller, who told us that although there were 'all sorts of opposing market-driven trends' relating to size, taking an overall view, new homes in Denmark are...getting bigger. Doubtless helped by the fact that the country has one of the lowest 'inhabitants per km sq' in the world at approximately 130 people.

Julian told us that typical new-build sizes were 76-80 sq m (818-840 sq ft) for a two-bedroom apartment and 90-100 sq m (969-1,076 sq ft) for a three-bed. He said there was no typical one-bed as they could range from anywhere between 50 and 80 sq m (538-840 sq ft). He also said that while there were national size guidelines and rules, they didn't define exact sizes.

We asked Julian if large was automatically better than small. "I would never make an equation between square metres and architecture. I'm quite sure there's no direct link between area and quality - unless you go to extremes.

"There's a physical level of comfort you need to achieve. You can certainly find large apartments that are terrible - that's very easy to find examples of - and brilliantly designed small ones. As a nation we are obsessed with daylight, so a small, very well-lit home is perceived as much better than a much larger, dark, unwelcoming one.

Why is this happening? Is it just developers being greedy - condemning us all to end up like poor Alice in Wonderland, squashed inside the White Rabbit's tiny house with her head wedged against the ceiling?

"For example, we're in the middle of designing for a student residence. We've looked at similar projects over the last five years, analysed their space standards and tried to come to what we call 'the sweet point'.

"We found that if they are too small, they really are too small - where you can't fit in what you need to live. In my view that's pure speculation - it's not fit for living in - so there's a limit to how small you can go. On the other hand, if you look at some of the largest apartments they are not necessarily offering better living quality. Some that were 15-20% smaller than the large ones were very much tailored in terms of dimensions and proportions to make them work - to give you options."

Julian explained that Denmark's housing was very different to the UK's. "Levels of quality that are OK in most other countries simply wouldn't be acceptable to the market here. For example, a central corridor with single aspect dwellings is very common in the UK but it would just never work here because we want maximum light. Although it seems counter-intuitive, the further north you go here, the larger the window openings and balconies become for that reason.

"Danes, apart from daylight, are obsessed with area and space, so the general trend is getting larger and flexible open-plan is the norm. However, you can counteract that increasing the quality of the space. You may then not have to build as much volume, but you certainly have to show an increase in quality. You couldn't just have the same layout but smaller - the market just wouldn't have it. If you go smaller, it has to be innovative and have other qualities that make it appealing."

Brazil - big cities, small units

From the cool shores of Scandinavia, we headed next to vibrant and rapidly developing Brazil where we spoke with Lourenço Gimenes of WAN AWARD-winning firm Forte, Gimenes & Marcondes Ferraz (FGMF).

He told us: "In Săo Paulo, the size of new units has dropped considerably. Apartments ranging from 25 to 35 sq m (269-377 sq ft), which were quite rare a couple of years ago, are being launched in considerable amounts. Architects here are legally bound to minimum sizes according to local regulations that may differ from city to city.

"I think governments must regulate minimum spaces. If it were to depend on the developers, things are not going to turn out right around here. Architects are normally submissive to developers, and there will always be bad professionals who will not argue nor design in a way to prevent bad quality spaces."

Interestingly, Lourenço sees plenty that's positive about smaller homes in an urban context. "Living in a smaller private area will force people to value public spaces, demanding and taking care of things that are normally not part of our concerns - from a nice sidewalk, to a public plaza or a community centre.

"The market has been substituting private space by community space within the new apartment buildings with facilities such as fitness areas, laundries, and 'gourmet lounges' provided by developers. Regarding the units, architects are facing a real challenge where each centimetre matters - something unusual in a country where people are historically fond of excessive space, and the average family house or apartment has always been much bigger than those in Europe or Asia, for example."

We asked what set Brazil's new-build housing aside from the UK and other countries, to which he responded: "We are still in a cultural transition from spacious dwellings to more compact ones. The amount of bathrooms is still much higher than in Europe, for example, and sometimes there are absurd spaces in new apartments - such as a maid's room or service bathroom in not-so-big units.

"Even in new 60 to 70 sq m (646-753 sq ft) apartments you may still find such spaces, which are programs obviously inherited from much bigger homes built a couple of decades ago. Also, because our climate is normally nice, terraces are always welcome."

Lourenço also pointed out the density of Brazil's cities made different to Europe in terms of architecture. "Our cities are much less dense and car-dependent. Space has never been a problem, and thus our housing has always been bigger. I suppose that isn't all that different from other American countries, but still is quite different from Europe, where cities tend to be more compact, and dwellings smaller."

And his predictions for future trends? "I believe compact units are going to boom in the next years, since prices are still scaling and families are decreasing in size. We still have very few youngsters quitting home early, as opposed to Europe, but we're watching this number grow. People are also getting married much later, having fewer kids, divorcing or living alone."

USA - big, but is it green?

Moving from South to North America, we interviewed Sharon McHugh, a New York based architect and US correspondent for World Architecture News. She reported: "In America, with regards new housing stock, building big is big again. The average new-build single-family home in 2012 was 232 sq m (2,500 sq ft) - just shy of the all time high. The larger share of those homes had a fourth bedroom and only two occupants.

"Whilst once it was thought that the housing crash would curb America's appetite for larger homes, recent data from the U.S Census Bureau suggests that big houses are on the rise again. Statistics released from the U.S Census Bureau in June 2013 provide a snapshot of the average single family new built home in America along with its features.

"In demand are fireplaces (43% of new homes), fourth bedrooms (41%) and three car garages (19%), things generally considered to be luxury features. So whilst it appeared that the recent housing crash would curb America's appetite for giant houses the data suggests this is not the case."

But is that a bad thing? Isn't having plenty of space good? Sharon didn't necessarily think so, commenting: "This is indeed problematic, suggesting that what is really required to effect change is a dramatic shift in social and cultural norms on the part of inhabitants in terms of how much housing they really need versus what they desire.

"I think the hardest nut to crack with regards housing in America, is getting people to think of housing less as a commodity and status symbol and more as basic shelter. In this way, we might have smaller housing sizes in the future and less McMansions with two people living in a 371+ sq m (4000+ sq ft) house and both driving to work at distances of 45-plus miles one way. Imagine the energy savings if just these two practices were implemented."

There are signs of hope. In a recent article in The New York Times, entrepreneur Graham Hill spoke enthusiastically about the benefits he has felt moving from a huge 334 sq m (3,600 sq ft) house in Seattle to a 39 sq m (420 sq ft) apartment in NY.

He told the paper: "I had a giant house crammed with stuff - electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets. Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. We live in a world of surfeit stuff...[but]...there isn't any indication that any of these things makes anyone any happier; in fact it seems the reverse may be true." Hill concludes that he now lives a "bigger, better, richer life with less."

Australia - suburban meets urban

Our journey ended down-under, where average new-build floor space comes in at an enormous 214 sq m (2,303 ft sq). We spoke with Mike Rendell, Principal in Charge of Residential Design at HASSELL.

According to Mike, Australia has had a 40% increase in dwelling size in the last 20 years, although reduced land availability (in Australian capital cities) has led to a 30% reduction in housing lot sizes in the last 10 years. The average dwelling size is 214 sq m (2,304 sq ft) (including apartments) and 243 sq m (2,616 sq ft) for a freestanding house. Sizes are primarily driven by market-demand - including bank finance constraints - rather than government.

We asked where trends were headed at the moment. "Australia has a strong suburban ethos which has driven traditional land development since the early 20th century. As a reaction to urban sprawl - the more recent trend has been towards greater urban densification around public transport corridors - with an increasing acceptance of apartment living options near localised amenity.

Mike puts this new acceptance down to the fact that 'architects are designing more considered developments which provide a qualitative focus (less is more) with a primary focus on high amenity and refined, more efficient use of space'.

He concedes that space can be beneficial for families, but says: "The real issue is possibly one of the appropriateness of the space provided - and its inherent qualities." Would he welcome more state legal requirements in terms of minimum space standards? "Not necessarily - unless it relates to amenity and qualitative environmental impact on the living conditions of the residents and neighbouring developments. Government intervention may impact on affordability and create knock on issues of significant concern."

In response to our question about what a typical Australian dwelling is like, Mike explains: "Australian single house sizes are some of the largest in the world - supported by the relative availability of land and a well established single residential focused building industry. The climate generally allows for indoor-outdoor living as a key design driver. These houses are typically well appointed, entertaining and amenity focused dwellings."

He goes on to describe that a typical dwelling will likely include three to four bedrooms, separate bathrooms and ensuites, a powder room, walk-in wardrobes, living/dining/kitchen spaces and a separate lounge area - with new builds aspiring to include additional amenities such as home theatres and alfresco entertainment areas.

But where might housing trends be headed in the future? Mike concluded: "The size of the dwellings may well have peaked and there appears to be a Y Gen change - focussing less on home ownership. Affordability issues generated by high labour costs (effecting construction costs) has led to smaller apartments - with a change of mix to more studios and single bedroom apartments and smaller apartment sizes generally.

"There are now more smaller households and single person households. The trend is towards inner urban development (requiring less travel time) which is more lifestyle focused as opposed to a suburban home-ownership driven paradigm. Increasing apartment ownership allowing for a 'lock and leave' lifestyle is now more tuned to travel and flexibility."

Back to the beginning

From our interviews, it does seem that - within reason - size isn't necessarily the deciding factor in what makes good quality, liveable new housing. Changing demographics, evolving lifestyle demands, moves towards being more eco-friendly and less consumerist, and proximity to good infrastructure and public realm all play a crucial part too.

But perhaps most of all, it's about finding that 'sweet point' Julian Weyer described - where clever, adaptable and innovative design can balance out diminutive dimensions. There are certainly some fine examples out there that perhaps the UK can learn from. Who knows - we may yet come to love our 'rabbit hutches'...

Gail Taylor