Why do Space and Stuff Matter in Housing Design?

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By Elena Marco

The UK housing sector has significant challenges, not least the shortage of homes available, the time it takes to build new homes, balancing affordability versus developers’ profit margins and other factors.  Basing housing statistics and estate-agent marketing on the number of bedrooms, rather than overall dimensions and floor areas, or the suitability of the physical configuration of space, does not help a focus on the quality of the provision, nor address the space needs of those inhabiting the homes we currently build.  As house sizes can vary significantly between those with the same number of rooms, this leads to a deceptive impression of homes being bigger than they actually are. The modern desire for en-suite bathrooms, study rooms and utility areas, means that more rooms are being squeezed into the same footprint. Living room, kitchen, corridor and bathroom sizes have all reduced as a consequence. At a time when we have more possessions than ever, space for storage has been eroded to minimum (for example, the under stairs cupboard is the utility room, the attic space is the master en-suite).

Do architects really understand the needs of the inhabitants they are designing for?

I don’t think so.

Let’s take my household for example. I wake up in the morning, get my special feeling good dressing gown, then I sit in my kitchen where I get my cup and spoon for my relaxation moment double espresso, a plate for my toast, and a glass of water from the fridge. Then, I make my toast, drink my water and start my day. My son wakes up, brushes his teeth with an electric toothbrush, throws his pyjamas on the floor, goes to the wardrobe and puts on his school uniform. He comes down to sit in his gaming chair and watches some YouTube videos on his phone whilst I tidy-up after him (Yes, I know, completely the wrong thing to do!) before I get ready (shower, teeth, make-up, clothes) myself. We pick up our rucksacks, of course checking that we have what we need for the day. Next to the door we have our shoes, keys, wallets, and coats at hand to leave the house (below). By this time my husband has not yet opened his eyes! Each of us within the same house has a  different daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routine and activities that require ‘stuff’ to carry them out. All this ‘stuff’ needs a place to be stored. The space where the activities take place and the storage associated with these activities are important parts of our lives and facilitate our interactions as a family unit. Storage needs to consider these cycles and the frequency at which this stuff needs to be accessed (short, medium and long-term). These cycles of activities have a rhythm and synchronisation that are important to us. At times, these cycles facilitate social activities (with others in the household or invited guests) and other times facilitate activities where our own personal and private space is important. At those times, the stuff we surround ourselves with (a special picture, a good book, a coffee cup) has an emotional dimension. It is stuff that helps us unwind, retreat, feel better or regroup.

Mum & son’s morning routine

There are times, when you arrive home and don’t want to do homework, cook or tidy but simply lay on the sofa and watch TV or play computer games. You leave your shoes in the living room instead of their proper place near the door, the junk mail is left in the dining area, the pen you had in your pocket gets dropped near the sofa, you get a takeaway and leave the containers and plates scattered in the kitchen and the pile of ironing keeps growing in the spare bedroom (below).

Accumulation of clutter

A good tidy-up, that places stuff in its proper place, brings a sense of relief, a mental and physical sense of well-being. To make it possible to tidy, sort and store, space for storage needs to exist and be valued. Each family member might have different routines and different ways of storing things.

Synchronisation in space and time, and the sequence of key activities by household members, must be considered when designing homes. Storage needs to be seen as a fundamental dimension of design, but there is currently a disconnect between what is designed and the number and type of possessions that a household has.

I advocate for architects to acknowledge the relationship between material possessions and housing design. By better understanding the nature of ‘stuff’ and ‘space’, houses can be better designed. Storage needs to be valued, and flexibility must be the default, so that new models of housing can emerge that address the well-being and health implications associated with the cluttering of space. These new models cannot ignore the viability and affordability of housing, but neither can they ignore the needs of us, the inhabitants.

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