Space Standards for Housing

The subject of space standards for housing design is highly contentious and consequently, it has been greatly debated over the years.

Among designers, there is widespread agreement that reasonable space standards are fundamental to the provision of good quality housing. 

People’s views and feelings towards space standards usually vary depending on their position as a stakeholder in the housing ecosystem. For example, those looking to occupy housing as tenants or owners generally tend to prefer more space rather than less space, albeit this preference is usually tempered by the reality of the budget.

Whereas commercial developers are motivated to decrease space standards so they can increase the density of their developments, which results in more units for sale and greater profits.

But this is a very simplistic view of space standards and neglects to consider the full range of influencing factors at play in housing design such as land value, density, planning restrictions, permitted development rights and politics which all weave into the design process to a greater or lesser extent. 

The Origins of Space Standards for Housing

The origins of space standards in UK housing design can be traced back to the Tudor Walters report of 1918 that intended to address general living conditions as part of a national house-building programme following WWI. This was followed by The Housing Act of 1935 that sought to define minimum bedroom sizes in order to control overcrowding.

Then in 1961 The Parker Morris Committee published ‘Homes for Today and Tomorrow‘ which was the first comprehensive report on public housing space standards. 

‘Parker Morris’ fundamentally changed the basis for housing standards from something previously intended to avoid overcrowding through managing occupancy levels, to something that was directly linked to improved living standards.

These new space standards were based on evidence-based research that analysed how space intrinsically influences the functional utility of living in housing. For example, how much space was required for a kitchen, for a dining room, for a living room, for a WC and bathroom, for a bedroom?

The research included basic functions such as the space needed to cook and prepare food, the space to wash and dry clothes, the space for sanitary activities like washing, bathing and shaving.

These new standards were developed partly to ensure public sector housing was future-proofed to increase the lifespan of local authority housing, and also motivated by an aspiration that good quality housing benefits society through better standards of living, increased life expectancy and therefore increased economic productivity.

These standards were then prescribed in England’s public housing in 1967 and they played an instrumental part in a boom in high-quality public-sector housing in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  

The Impact of Thatcher & The Mayor of London

Then in 1980, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government abolished the Parker Morris standards as a result of lobbying from the private sector. Commercial developers argued public sector housing was too spacious and made it difficult for them to be competitive, thereby creating a barrier to market. 

This change in attitude to housing policy was part of wider Government philosophies that lead to the Right-to-Buy scheme being introduced in The Housing Act of 1980.

In 2010 the Mayor of London published The Interim London Housing Design Guide which set out the Mayor’s aspirations for good quality housing. Although this document was primarily focused on the Greater London area, in particular any developments on the London Development Agency land or with funding from the London Homes and Community Agency, this document was referred to by housing designers throughout the UK.

The central focus of the design guide was the setting of minimum space standards for the first time in 30 years.

National Development Space Standards

In 2015, the Government published the National Development Space Standards. If you haven’t seen the space standards, the table below breaks down just how much gross internal floor area you need to provide for each dwelling type. For example, a 1 bedroom 2 person property set over one story i.e. a typical flat, would need a minimum of 50 sqm to meet the standard. A 1 bed 1 person property would require 39 sqm.

Table: Minimum gross internal floor areas and storage (m2)

Number of bedrooms (b)Number of bed spaces (persons)1 storey dwellings2 storey dwellings3 storey dwellingsBuilt-in storage
1b1p39 (37) *  1.0
1b2p5058 1.5
2b3p6170 2.0
2b4p7079 2.0

Permitted Development Rights

Permitted Development Rights, or PDR, has demolished space standards and resulted in a glut of small, low-quality housing stock flooding the market. The intention of the policy was to respond to the shortfall in housing supply that was, and still is, driving the housing crisis.

However, the policy has resulted in the acceptance that housing can be delivered to smaller space standards but predominantly to the benefit of developers rather than the housing occupants. You can guess which end of the market is most affected by small room sizes.

Why Adhere to the Space Standards?

There are many reasons that space standards are necessary. Fundamentally it’s about ensuring that both the public and private sectors have a minimum level of provision in order to be able to create the high-quality housing the country needs.

However, fundamentally, to be successful in navigating the planning system, any development will need to meet the space standards as a minimum. It is not therefore an option for most development.

Find out More

If you would like to find out more about space standards for housing please get in touch. We are always delighted to hear from housing developers, both for-profit and not-for-profit, interested in exploring how to deliver good quality housing.