Millennials don’t need living rooms? The appalling race to push “rabbit hutch” homes

A new report says the young would be fine in houses the size of hotel rooms.

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What do you need to do to be classed by a national newspaper as “a leading architect”? I suppose working on the London Aquatics Centre, built for the London 2012 Olympics, probably qualifies you. But claiming that millennials don’t need living space beyond “hotel room-sized [studio flats]” should then probably disqualify you. In my mind, at least, it disqualifies you from the badge of “reasonable and decent human being.”

Patrik Schumacher, the “leading architect” in question, has written a briefing paper for notoriously thoughtless think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), in which he essentially suggests that we smartphone-addicted, dopamine-fiend, millennial hamster creatures really can make do with a single room, a little wet room to do our dirty business in and, presumably, some kind of human-sized exercise wheel to replace green space, natural light and companionship.

“For many young professionals who are out and about networking 24/7, a small, clean, private hotel room-sized central patch serves their needs perfectly well,” he writes. Why stop there, Patrik? Why not supply all millennials with artificial snail shells that they can drop over themselves in the short periods when they’re not networking? Why not rebrand sleeping bags as “affordable and bijou cloth studio flats for the go-getting young exec”?

He also argues that homes in central city locations should be given to those “whose productive lives are most enhanced by being thus positioned, ie those who operate at the centre of our network society, attending early morning meetings, after work networking events, weekend conferences, and professional lectures.” Ah yes, none of those tricksy people with children, social lives or anything resembling what was once laughably called a work/life balance.

In his paper for the ASI, Schumacher argues that the already hutch-like minimum size of 38 square metres for new-build flats is “paternalistic”. Yes, because requiring even that paucity of space is government gone mad! If people want to live in misery hutches that’s their choice, man. Schumacher believes the rabbit hutch nightmare will be avoided because the market will fix everything. Anyone who has dealt with private landlords in the UK at any time in the last 30 years knows that’s bunkum. 

A 2014 Cambridge University study found that new homes in England were the smallest in Europe. The average size of a newly constructed property was 76 square metres compared to 137 square metres in Denmark and 115 square metres in the Netherlands, which is considerably more densely populated than England.

Attempts to set minimum sizes for homes in the UK stretch back as far as 1961 when the Parker Morris standards set guidelines for building in new towns, but they’ve never become industry best practice.

Schumacher argues that lifting the 38 square metre limit “would allow a whole new (lower) income group, which is now excluded, to enter the [housing] market. The move would both boost overall unit numbers and affordability.” That totally ignores the issues with mortgage affordability, millennial wage levels and general house prices in major cities. More ultra-small properties would simply be gobbled up by rapacious buy-to-let landlords.

Preemptively addressing criticisms like mine, Schumacher writes that discussing smaller homes “becomes quickly emotional and rhetorical with phrases like ‘rabbit hutches’ and ‘slums’ standing in for arguments.” Well, if as the old adage goes, home is where the heart is, why is it any surprise that the topic of affordable, decent and properly-sized housing is emotional?

People like Schumacher seem intent on further forcing us backwards. Consider his wider thinking on architecture and space: In 2016, in a talk to the World Architecture Festival in Berlin, he suggested that public spaces including streets and parks in London should be privatised and that social housing should be entirely abolished.

That world view takes us back before the Victorian-era, rolling away the notion of public spaces and areas for the common good, putting the built environment entirely in the hands of private owners. Go back even further and it finds common ground with the enclosures of common land in the 1540s. My ancestor, Robert Kett, led a rebellion against the crown to fight that creeping theft of public space. In the end, they hanged him for it.

I don’t have any fear of being strung up at Norwich Castle but I am increasingly angry about this line of thinking. It is an approach that says that the young and the poor should be happy to have any housing whatsoever and that all standards, all measures of what is decent and right, should be thrown out of the window.

Of course we need to build more houses and to ensure that those who want to eventually own their own home — though I’m not one of them, as I have written here previously — can eventually afford to do so. But the destruction of standards and a race towards a world of rabbit hutches and constant “hotel” living must be fought.

Build more housing but build housing that preserves human dignity, not “hotel rooms” for people you imagine never socialise with friends or need to relax outside of their bedrooms. Japanese pod hotels where people simply sleep and exist should not be our inspiration. Yes, this is an emotional topic, and only fools like Patrik Schumacher would suggest otherwise.

Mic Wright is a freelance journalist and CEO and partner at The Means Agency.