Last Wednesday, WG+P were kindly invited by Beadmans to attend the U+I event in their Victoria headquarters titled Thinking Outside the Box: A Debate on the Role of Microhousing in Tackling London’s Housing Crisis. The evening consisted of mingling, debate between 5 panellists and then an opportunity to view two pilot Microhousing schemes, one by Ab Rogers the other by the Manser Practice.
Microhousing in this context is essentially the provision of sub-30sq metre homes in inner London to bring affordability to those priced out of their neighbourhood by soaring land values and an overheated property market. Associations between house size and the age of the target market were drawn, in particularly what Microhousing ought to offer today’s Millennials. The answer was inconclusive with one panellist suggesting that security of tenure trumped quality of space/location however in the same breath this was related back to the needs of family. This is where some arguments felt confused as ‘Millennial’ was being used to refer principally to someone’s age. But age alone is misleading and perhaps irrelevant to a discussion on suitable housing tenure, space, quality and location. Arguably the deciding factor is dependency; a single person with no dependant is not going to need the same reassurances as someone who goes about their life knowing that if they should fail there are people – children particularly – whose way of life will be affected, possibly jeopardised, as a result. More so in modern times, this status is not directly related to age. I’m biased, having recently become a father but you don’t need to be the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe etc to get that children change things. When they arrive space becomes incredibly significant; they need it and you need it, you cannot mute a new born in your 24sq m microhome as you would the flat screen tv…operated via your smart phone…from lying in your bed (which is now arm’s length from the tv set). I digress; my one observation is that microhousing seems biased to single occupancy, which inevitably leads to an already familiar minimising of space that we have seen in different forms from capsule hotels to student studios and collective living experiences. It would interesting to consider more fully how a Microhouse for a family of four could be implemented and whether it would bring about the same debate. It would seem relevant to consider this if only to avoid creating vast ghettos of singleton Millennials. Heaven help us.
One thing was clear: the housing crisis in London is a huge, complex subject and no one knows what effect resolving one element will have on others or indeed what the measurable outcomes of a successfully implemented resolution ought to be. Even the term ‘crisis’ is questionable. It gives the impression of an immediate or new concern when really it’s just the latest chapter in an evolving story of housing need that goes back a few hundred years that we’re yet to solve (NB, it’s being termed a ‘crisis’ by the thinking classes probably because they’re the ones now being priced out of the market – panic!). Your average London terrace house would’ve met housing demand 170 years ago by accommodating a family in each of its four rooms, without proper sanitation and the most rudimentary heating. Social media didn’t exist back then (that’s right Millennials, we’ve come a long way) and almost certainly out of sight, out of mind was a helpful way for societies’ Decision Makers to deal with the issues of the ‘have-nots’. News, media and government now give us all the means to consider far wider issues effecting a great spread of demographics, housing needs, markets etc and coming up with a solution is proving to be a tough nut to crack. It suggests this isn’t a problem we’re going to be able to design our way out of albeit the two sample flats were terrific: one with incredibly well resolved kitchen area and living space, the other with an amazing bathroom straight out of the Barbican centre.
The biggest unresolved question of the night’s debate seemed to be who is going to pay to build it and where does the value generated by building it go to. The right answers don’t feel like they sit comfortably with the private sector. Asking a developer, answerable to investors and shareholders, to solve the housing crisis is like asking Coca Cola to solve the type II diabetes epidemic gripping the nation: in both cases these businesses can assist but their mandate limits the full extent of viable contribution as to eliminate the problem is to all but extinguish the conditions on which they thrive. Perhaps that’s why the most we’ve done in the UK to date can best be described as dabbling, much to the frustration of one architect who got hold of the microphone during questions.
Someone with refreshing views to add was the futurist and author James Wallman. Stupidly, as an architect, I saw the title futurist and wrongly presumed we had an apologist for mid-century futurist architecture on the panel. Hence I was expecting someone with a fetish for mechanisation and violence, not a gentle fellow in sweater and slacks being eloquent. My ineptitude aside, his comments shed an interesting light on how our behaviour is changing and how this could influence housing need. I’m yet to read Wallman’s book, Stuffocation so cannot comment on details but I do believe that somehow our evolving behaviour and values will be manifest in the physical development of the spaces we live in soon enough. Just look at the massive swing towards open plan kitchen-living-dining areas in family homes; if ever there was proof that a change in our attitudes, working hours, equality and how to maintain family interaction has effected the configuration of your typical house then that’s it. Wallman also entered into the margins of a debate on our seemingly effortless adaptation to living in confined spaces at remarkable densities – amazing when you consider our bodies haven’t evolved a great deal since hunter-gatherer times when an area equivalent to the size of Manhattan Island would’ve supported a population of 6 humans (Manhattan is now home to approximately 1.7million). Perhaps Microhousing is all we’ve ever needed.
Debates such as these can be a little dry, even the good ones, and perhaps because this left so much unanswered is why it was so thought provoking. That and the fact that two mock-up homes were available to view afterwards seriously raised the bar. All ensuing debates will have to try very hard to better this. An excellent evening.
Words by James Potter