Erikka Askeland: Problems with new houses

Erikka Askeland
Erikka Askeland
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You know what really gets my goat? New houses.

Particularly teeny, tiny flats that their builders smilingly refer to as having balconies, but which are not much bigger than a postage stamp. Or nothing at all, the “home” just being a puny, darkened box with rooms of insufficient size to hold anything larger than a double bed and no place to have a dinner table.

Unless they are really, sudden-gut-blow breathlessly expensive, newly-built homes mostly remind me of that song by Malvina Reynolds which became a hit in the early Sixties. It goes something like: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes all the same.”

Last time I was looking for a flat I viewed a two-bedroom property that made me want to choke that smarmy estate agent. Actually, it was despair I first felt as I took in the cheap vinyl flooring, the cramped kitchen with shoddy counter tops and some space meant to be a “lounge”, but which might also have been for storage. That and someone had the audacity to charge nigh on £700 a month for the dubious benefit of being able to live like a battery hen.

Arguably, property developers’ complete disdain for humanity is worse in London. Last week, it emerged that a “studio” in Highgate was being advertised for sale at £250,000. It was actually a garage with a loo installed in the corner. Just imagine spending a cool quarter of a mill for a poky brick outhouse in the car park.

The flames of my indignation were fanned by a report by the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), which found I’m not just suffering from grand expectations. Turns out typical new homes in Britain are the smallest in western Europe.

Riba has calculated that the average house size has shrunk by half in the past 80 years. In 1920, the average four-bed semi was over 1,600sq ft, but the modern equivalent has only three bedrooms and measures around 925sq ft. In the same time terraced houses have shrunk from 1,000sq ft to a teensy 645sq ft. And heaven forefend if you fancy downsizing into a flat, many of which are now the size of a London Underground carriage. And that includes the “balcony”. Not to mention the extra added feature of being able to hear your neighbours chew their breakfast through the flimsy walls.

The problem has been made worse since the Thatcher government abolished minimum space standards for house-builders in 1980, although Tory Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, sensing another bat being swung at the Iron Lady’s legacy, pointed to rules introduced by New Labour, which insisted that homes should be built to a density of 30 per hectare. And while I would like to resist blatant jokes at the expense of Mr Pickles’ girth, he might struggle to rest comfortably in the British homes he himself referred to as “rabbit hutches”.

But I doubt high density is the issue. Without it you get the opposite problem of urban sprawl and housing estates eating into the green belt.

What we do often get are housing developments that are both dense and bereft of any imagination. Instead, design of homes or flats is a numbers game, a calculation of how much money can be made from the largest number of units that planners will let you get away with. And if you can cynically rebrand what in kinder days would have been an airing cupboard and call it a bedroom, you are quids in.

Mainly, house-builders shrug and say that’s just business. And sadly most of the firms I was aware of that tried to do something a little bit different went into administration. The economics of housebuilding means only the biggest firms using the fewest house designs to construct the most units won.

Nor do we have to purchase these rabbit hutches, the marketeers say, and to a certain extent they are right. Four-fifths of potential buyers would turn their noses up at a cramped new house and buy something made of brick more than half a century ago.

But the demand for houses will continue to grow, which means some poor sucker won’t have much of a choice in the matter. And the cramped, low-ceilinged space will be a slap in the face that some poor sap has to call home.