Imagine a group of dedicated architects banding together to march up to Capitol Hill and lobby for our government to create new mandates to increase the average home size in the country. It is hard to wonder what the argument would be. ‘Two car garages just are not enough.’ ‘That second guest bedroom really comes in handy once or twice a year.’ ‘The survival of the American Dream depends on more space!’ At this point, consumers are supporting purchases along those lines by themselves without the help of architects.
However, across the Atlantic the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is in the process of promoting their “Homewise” campaign that is striving to enact mandatory standards for increasing the minimum size of homes in England along with their access to natural light. At first this can come across as strange, especially to those of us in the United States. Here stateside we have cities like Seattle and New York trying to regulate down to smaller “micro units” in an attempt to improve local densities and open up the housing market to a larger portion of the population. Across the ocean, we find a modern day push for regulating larger homes—endorsed by architects, no less.
At first glance, RIBA’s effort could raise some red flags for sustainability by potentially lowering the development density across the country. In the U.S., a mandate for homes bigger than our current average would almost certainly exacerbate sprawling development. However, a closer look at Britain quickly shows that when it comes to density we are operating on completely different orders of magnitude. With an area of 50,346 square miles, the island country is just slightly smaller than the State of New York, but within the coastline there are 53 million people, achieving a density of roughly 1,054 people per square mile. Comparing that to the density of the U.S. is almost comical, which slides in at a comfy 89 people per square mile.
A more direct comparison might be to the similarly sized State of New York. Not only is the third most populous state in the country, but it is home to the densest city in America (New York City clocks in at 27,550 people per square mile). Even then, the comparison is not even close to English standards with the state’s net population density at 412 people per square mile. The point is that England has probably earned itself some breathing room given that in terms of development density it is probably one of the more sustainable places on the planet.
In the late 19th century, the housing stock of New York City had densified to dangerous levels. Inside tenement housing blocks it was common to find bedrooms without windows, exterior shared bathrooms and no means of dedicated egress in the event of a fire. It took three pieces of state level tenement legislation and then finally a progressive update to the New York City building code to ensure that even small apartments did not compromise on what were determined to be societal essentials.
Proponents of the plan say that England’s goal of compact living may have wandered a bit too far into the realm of unrealistically small spaces that could have adverse effects on quality of life. According to RIBA, current code compliance could allow a single window in a room as small as 45cm x 45cm, or 2.18 square feet. Here in New York City, any habitable room requires a window equal to 10% of its total floor area with an opening for fresh air ventilation equal to 5% of floor area. Even in a 350 square foot micro unit that is essentially one room plus a bathroom, the smallest window would be much larger. RIBA also points to the fact that the Netherlands is actually even denser than Britain, but its new homes are 50% larger on average.
Despite how far away the United States is from “overdoing it” on spatial efficiency, the example points out that there is a possibility for even good intentions to go too far, crossing the line of promoting global health and well being. The essence of sustainability revolves around balance, not minimalism, and it may only be because of how far away from balance we are throughout the biosphere that the two can get confused. We also can’t help but reference the double-edged sword that density can play: dramatic increases in efficiency while also prompting increases in land value. New York has responded differently, rewarding high land values with larger, more expensive units to wealthy buyers effectively pricing an growing portion of society out of the market (to be fair, on the city scale London’s cost per square foot tops that of the Big Apple).
This call-to-arms for British architects sheds light on an issue that is becoming increasingly familiar: whether or not all “green” buildings are healthy buildings. Intercon has hosted conversations before about the ability to design a building with characteristics that would lead most people to categorize it as green when compared to the status quo while still lacking crucial components that contribute to a healthier living environment. Access to light and air unquestionably fall into the same realm of attributes that are essential to a healthy home. The image of sustainability must continue to be honed to be recognized as a balanced goal that incorporates numerous qualities and solutions underneath what is ultimately a very broad term.