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Living in shoeboxes

publication date: Dec 8, 2011
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Some new houses are so small that RIBA has accused developers of building and selling ‘shoeboxes’ for families to live in.

Business leader Sir John Banham, a former director-general of the CBI and former chair of the Tarmac group, is to lead major new inquiry into British homes as the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) launches its HomeWise campaign.

The average new three bedroom home currently being built by the UK’s top house builders is around eight per cent smaller than the basic recommended minimum size, leaving thousands of people across the country short-changed. This squeeze on size is depriving thousands of families the space needed for children to do homework, adults to work from home, guests to stay and for members of the household to relax together. The findings feature in Case for Space, new research by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

The RIBA’s Case for Space report, based on 80 sites across England, reveals that: 

  • The floor area of the average new three bedroom home is only 92 per cent of the recommended minimum size, therefore missing the space equivalent to a single bedroom which could comfortably accommodate a single bed, bedside table, wardrobe, desk and chair. With a floor area of 88m², the average house is 8m² short of the recommended size (the benchmark for comparison is the London Plan space standards for a two-storey, three-bedroom home big enough for five people).
  • The most common new three bedroom home is smaller still at 74m². At only 77 per cent of the recommended size it is missing 22m² and therefore the space equivalent to two double bedrooms and all their contents.
  • The average single storey one bedroom home is 46m², which is 93 per cent (4m² short) of the recommended minimum size – missing out on space equivalent to a single bed, a bedside table and a dressing table with a stool.
Sir John Banham, chair of The Future Homes CommissionESTATE AGENTS SHARE THE "BLAME" 
The RIBA Case for Space report exposes the lack of transparency existing around the size of UK homes – details are simply not recorded or publicly available. Homebuyers repeatedly fail to get detailed information about properties for sale or rent, and are rarely given the overall floor area; consumers can therefore be left confused about the actual amount of space they are purchasing.

The figures exposing the lack of choice and information available to home buyers, were released at the launch of a new national housing campaign and inquiry led by the RIBA.

The Future Homes Commission, a national inquiry chaired by business leader Sir John Banham (left) will engage with people in their front rooms, town centres and online, to build a comprehensive picture about what people want and need from their homes.

The RIBA’s HomeWise campaign calls for: 

  • consumers to be home-wise and demand better information from estate agents and house builders so they can choose the most ideal layout, size and design of their new home. 
  • housebuilders, providers and estate agents to include the floor area of properties in their marketing material and indicative floor plans with furniture as well as the number of bedrooms. 
  • energy performance certificates – including floor area – to be provided up-front rather than only after contracts have been signed, which is too frequently the case. 
  • the government to work with the house building industry to produce an industry-wide voluntary agreement to ensure house builders publish data about the size and quality of new homes.
The HomeWise website was also launched, features a series of online resources to help people to ask the right questions when choosing a home.

The resources include The Nest Test – an easy-to-use online calculator that helps home seekers to find out what the floor area of their home should be according to the recommended standards.

Harry Rich CEO of RIBAHarry Rich (right), RIBA Chief Executive said, “Our homes should be places that enhance our lives and well-being. However, as our new research confirms, thousands of cramped houses - shameful shoe box homes – are being churned out all over the country, depriving households
of the space they need to live comfortably
and cohesively.

“At a time when the Government, house building industry, economists and house buyers and renters are concerned about whether we are building enough new homes in the UK, it might seem odd to suggest that the focus should move to thinking about the quality of those homes. And yet this is the very time to do so. In a rush to build quickly and cheaply we risk storing up unnecessary problems for the future. There does not need to be any contradiction between building or refurbishing enough homes and making sure that they are of the highest quality.

“It seems clear that people have too little influence on the design, quality and size of homes available to them. The RIBA’s Homewise Campaign will engage households, architects, builders and policy-makers in a conversation about how to deliver homes to meet or exceed the real needs of our population in the 21st Century.
This report is the beginning of the conversation. We hope to ask the right questions and we look forward to working in partnership with consumers, housebuilders, government and many others as we seek the answers.”

Sir John Banham, Chair of the Future Homes Commission said, “We want to find out from people what they think about their homes and communities where new homes are being built as well as garner intelligence and research from
industry about the housing market before making some recommendations about what might happen next.

“It seems clear to me from my recent work in Cornwall, from industry and when looking at local government that there are some fundamental issues that need to be addressed to ensure we have more of the right kind of affordable homes in villages, towns and cities right across Britain. I am convinced that there is no necessary conflict between addressing
the current housing crisis effectively and protecting the countryside. But new thinking and financing approaches will be needed, which I hope and expect the Future Homes Commission will be able to provide.”

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said, “In London we want to see new developments that enrich the capital’s architectural vernacular and that will be admired and cherished for decades to come. This is why, despite challenging economic times, we have successfully introduced clear guidance to improve the design standards of new developments to ensure that homes have the space people need to lead happy, fulfilling lives. It is vital that we build more homes to boost the economy, but as RIBA’s campaign rightly points out, we must not compromise on quality and design to do so.”

Inevitably, the housebuilders aren’t so delighted with the report, the HBF said the report was over-simplistic by failing to address issues such as land supply, economic viability, regional variations and – crucially – the planning system.

HBF Executive Chairman, Stewart Baseley said, “This report is a disappointing missed opportunity. We’ll happily work with RIBA and others but if they are serious about the future of housing in this country they must support the proposed National Planning Policy Framework and ensure that they fully understand the pressures on land and viability that home builders face every day.

“Even with these constraints developers are building the homes that people can afford, that this country desperately needs and providing billions of pounds of investment in infrastructure and the environment.”

And CLG were rather on the defensive too, a spokesman for Communities and Local Government said, “Developers must deliver the homes that communities need and buyers want – and that includes ensuring the homes they build meet families’ needs. That’s why ministers scrapped the minimum density targets that they argue contributed to a lack of family-sized homes and flats that are so in demand.

“But key to this is putting local communities themselves in control, which is why, under our planning reforms, neighbourhoods will be able to design and vote on their own plans for the future of their areas, giving them the chance to exercise meaningful choice over the type and size of homes that are built, and giving developers the chance to benefit from a smoother process for getting planning permission by working with local people from the start.”

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