Opinion Piece by Julia Park,
Head of Housing Research, Levitt Bernstein
Finding the right balance
These are, without doubt, extraordinary times. We will need a period of reflection before making long-lasting changes to our way of life, but it is already clear that a re-evaluation of how we live, work and interact with those around us will be one of COVID-19s lasting legacies.
Home has never felt more important; many of us have spent more time at home this year than at any time since starting school. During lockdown home became our ‘safe haven’ in a scarily literal way. Five months later, how are we, and our homes, coping with the diverse activities that now fill our days – including those which, until 2020, have taken place elsewhere, and what does that imply for future design?
While our instinct is for life to revert to normal, we need to remember that ‘normal’ hasn’t been good enough for a very long time when it comes to housing. Certainly not good enough for the thousands of older and disabled people who were already spending up to 90% of their time at home before COVID gave us all a taste of how that feels. Not good enough either for the sharers in shoddy HMOs or the overcrowded families in dense, high-rise blocks of flats – and desperately difficult for single parents trapped in single-room, temporary accommodation.
The premise that household members need spaces to come together and spaces to be apart was one of the founding principles of the London Housing Design Guide. It led to a new internal space standard with reasonably generous room areas and more storage than had typically been provided before. Those who resented the rules that demanded all double and twin bedrooms were to be at least 11.5m2, that every bedroom should accommodate a desk and that homes with three or more bedrooms need two social spaces, are less critical now.
These requirements weren’t conceived with a life-limiting pandemic in mind, nor did they imply that every bedroom would be furnished in the same way; it was simply an attempt to ensure that all new homes would be fit for purpose when fully occupied and that rooms could be used flexibly – for work, rest and play. The guide also required the glazing to each habitable room to be at least 20% of its floor area, and sunlight to enter at least one habitable room for part of the day. Dual aspect became more or less mandatory – for cross-ventilation, to provide a choice of outlook and to mitigate overheating. And every home was required to have some private open space; at least a balcony of 5m2.
These standards felt sensible at the time and feel even more sensible now. Most are still in place, but a number have been watered down over the last decade. Some were formally banned under the housing standards review of 2015; others waived by planners in pursuit of numbers. Single aspect apartments have returned in the form of huge, institutional, Build to Rent developments in which long double-banked corridors are designed for easy cleaning, not for meeting neighbours, and balconies are rare. Larger families can no longer expect two social spaces, studios are endemic, and daylight, ventilation and air quality frequently compromised. London’s standards won’t prevent another pandemic, but they remain a sensible, humane baseline that offers reliable sanctity, the flexibility to accommodate change and some resilience against the unexpected.
My practice vacated the office a week before lockdown. In April, I emailed my colleagues to see how home-working was working for them and how they were feeling. I sent 10 short questions and received about 75 replies. These revealed that they were working everywhere from the kitchen, sitting room or a bedroom, to under the stairs and (occasionally) in the garden. Finding a comfortable chair was difficult, slow broadband frustrating and child care a logistical nightmare – but they were generally coping well.
Everyone agreed that there are pros and cons to working from home. Avoiding the long, tiring and expensive commute, more flexible working hours, better lunches and more family time were the most frequently mentioned benefits. But they were missing the day-to-day interaction – social and professional. I assured them that It would be strange if they weren’t. Homeworking requires a particular kind of self-discipline and some sacrifices; I’m still really impressed by the way my colleagues have adapted to working alone, but it isn’t the same.
Across the country and across the world, many people are thinking about their work/life balance. My guess in April was that working from home for a couple of days a week would soon become the norm for many office workers. It’s still my guess now. I think/hope we’ll become more attuned to our mental and physical health, when and how we interact with others, and what really matters to us. While Zoom will never be as good as proper chat, most of the meetings we have could be managed virtually and save a huge amount of travel time and fossil fuel.
Back to what this probable halfway house implies for the design of future homes. Earlier in the year, The Sunday Times revealed that 63% of the homes built since 2003 have open plan living/dining spaces and that many families are now regretting their choice. Architects offered some expedient tips: moving furniture to creating zones with distinct characters and uses was the main one – useful to a point but a bit subtle for children and hopeless for simultaneous conversations. Sliding walls are more effective, but not cheap.
I’ve always explored a range of different layouts for the homes I design. Mindful that family life evolves, and that open plan is great until it isn’t (soundproof doors are sometimes the only way to survive family life…), I recommend starting with a workable, cellular layout before you start to take walls away. It forces you to provide more windows and it’s much more futureproof; doing it the other way – converting an open plan space into separate rooms – is invariably harder.
When my colleagues revealed what they now value most in a locked-down home, windows came second only to outdoor space. In addition to the obvious benefits of daylight and sunlight, windows connect us to the wider world and remind us we’re not alone. Further evidence, in case we need it, to take wellbeing, mental health in particular, much more seriously, and remember that rather than require anything new or complicated, it often means doing simple things better.
I’d start by banishing trussed rafters (every roof full of timber is a missed opportunity for a home office or hobbies room) and studio flats (no one wants to look at their bed or their workspace all day). I’d insist on at least two habitable rooms and make private open space mandatory (no one’s going to force you to use it…) and I’d increase storage capacity, bring back utility rooms, and improve soundproofing between rooms as well as between dwellings. And I’d urge all designers and developers to think harder about how it would feel to live in each home they design and build, and to incorporate the special touches that bring everyday pleasure and lift our spirits when, as now, the world falters.