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Building the Future: Are modern homes making us miserable?

Picture of a t with a blue dot next to it, in front of a purple background.

Mental health. It's a topic under the media spotlight at the moment, and there are all sorts of reasons being proposed for the apparent surge in demand for mental health support – including smartphones, the current political climate, and simply greater awareness of the issue.

One possible cause that has rarely been explored is our homes. So here, we're doing just that – and the possible reasons today's new-builds are getting us down.


We're building small homes

Denmark is frequently held up on a pedestal as one of the happiest countries – if not the happiest country – on earth. And that could, possibly, be down to spacious homes.

A study revealed that newly built Danish homes are the largest in Europe, with on average 137 square metres of floor space. New British homes, by contrast, are the smallest: just 76 square metres. Academics at the University of Cambridge, who conducted the study, attributed this to the high value of land, a lack of building by public authorities, and the absence of legally enforceable minimum space standards. In fact – our impending EU departure notwithstanding – we're the only EU member country (at the time of writing) not to have minimum space standards.


Why would small spaces make us miserable?

Because many of us have lots of stuff – more than we need. Analysis of various studies by Huffington Post revealed that living in a cluttered home:

  • Increases our levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
  • Overwhelms your brain, leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms like comfort eating.
  • Is more like to be dusty, triggering asthma and other allergies.
  • Makes you less likely to spend time with friends at home.

You may be one of the many Brits who decluttered their home with the help of Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo earlier in 2019. Fans of her show insist that having a clean and organised home makes them feel calm.


So why are we building smaller homes?

There are several reasons.

Firstly, there's been a significant social change over the last 40 years in the number of people who live in the average property. As of 2017, the average size of a household is 2.3 people; in 1961, it was 3.

This change is for several reasons: we're having fewer children, more likely to get divorced, and our children get married later – so typically expect to move out of the family home before settling down with a partner of their own. There is lots of demand, therefore, for smaller homes.

On top of this is our arcane planning system. Planning permission is top-down, and led by local development frameworks. If a developer has a building plot in a given area, the local council may stipulate the mix of properties that are required, in order to meet their own housing objectives.
In parts of the country with housing shortfalls, councils may attempt to maximise the number of new properties – all while minimising the amount of greenfield land turned over to construction.

Consequently the demand – and local council guidance – is, in many cases, for a large number of small properties.


What's the evidence that our homes are too small?

There's research from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). In December 2015, it showed that more than 50% of new homes under construction were too small to meet the needs of the people who buy them.

Previous research from RIBA revealed that a lack of general storage space for items most of us would consider essentials – like vacuum cleaners and Christmas decorations – is especially a problem.

Don't believe them? Let's consider the explosion in self-storage facilities. The latest industry report estimates that there are 1,505 self-storage facilities in the UK – compared to just 800 in 2012.

Not only are there many more facilities, but occupancy is on the increase too: 76% in 2019, up from 73% just twelve months earlier. And almost three in four customers are in the 40-69 age bracket: exactly the age range where you'd expect to find parents of growing children, and parents of university leavers forced back into the parental home after graduation.


Well-intentioned regulations with unintended consequences

The importance of natural light for our mental wellbeing is well-documented. So regulations were introduced to ensure modern developers consider the 'Right to Light' when building. Whether they're building near existing homes or calculating the layout of a new estate, new homes must be placed in such a way as not to leave other homeowners in the dark.

All well and good – but this, indirectly, means lower ceilings heights that can contribute to a sense of enclosure. Considering the low angle of the sun, particularly in winter, high-ceilinged (i.e. taller) properties would have to be placed further apart to ensure sufficient light reaches houses on the other side of the street.

So to fit in as many properties as possible (and to ensure the project is profitable), ceilings are lowered, roof pitches are made shallower, and streets are made narrower.


Some new homes are huge – why would they make us miserable?

Lack of space isn't the only problem with some new builds. Ed West in the The Spectator points out research that suggests beautiful architecture, such as Georgian and Victorian terraces and mansion blocks, contributes to our wellbeing too.

Ingrid Fetell, writing for Psychology Today, has some insights. She explains that modern design was born out of a desire to abandon the ornate excess of 19th century European design. Contemporary design – with its stripped back, pared-down style – favours clean lines, neutral colours, and bare materials that give a general sense of minimalism. 

The problem, she points out, is that this is contrasts fundamentally with the idea of delight: an emotion we instinctively associate with a sense of wellness, abundance and richness. In nature, abundance is "lush, plump, vibrant, and bountiful". Early humans learned to recognise areas with these as indicators as opportune places to settle, providing adequate water, food, and shelter to live comfortably.

She concludes that "the matte, bare surfaces beloved of modernists signal something else entirely."


So why don't we build new homes in classical styles?

West points out that British planning law is the problem: it's a system "under which Georgian architecture is impossible to build […]; some of the most beautiful and sought-after houses in London break up to 12 different rules."

Not that it's stopping Create Streets. Founded in 2014, it's a pressure group that lobbies for the creation of new streets of traditional terraces. It argues that existing residents – another hurdle to be cleared in the process of securing planning permission – are far less likely to object to new housing near them, if it's built in a traditional style.

It's clear that, freed from the shackles of current planning regulations, building more traditional-feeling new builds with larger rooms and more storage – not necessarily more bedrooms – could be one way to reignite buyers' love for new build homes.