Is small and sustainable housing really possible? In conversation with Anitra Nelson

With a cost-of-living crisis impacting the UK, we ask Small is Necessary author Anitra Nelson what shared space needs to looks like in a city.

By Liam Murphy

Build small. Build sustainable. What may seem like sound advice for the UK housing industry seems to be much easier said than done. The UK is in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, the government’s Levelling Up agenda is being called into question and Brexit is causing miles-long queues at Dover. With all this front-of-mind for a nation, is now the time to be re-evaluating our living arrangements? Property prices continue to rise, yet many now work from home and desire more room and essential access to green space.

Author of Small Is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet, a look at eco-collaborative housing, and activist-scholar affiliated with the Informal Urbanism Research Hub at the University of Melbourne, Australia, Anitra Nelson sits down with City Monitor to examine what lessons the UK’s housing industry stakeholders need to learn.

Bild 4, Wohn und Gewerbebau Kalkbreite, courtyard, Zurich – a model of housing Nelson has praise for. (Photo courtesy of Genossenschaft Kalkbreite/Volker Schopp)

What has happened in UK cities in terms of house price increases?

Statistics report that the average house price in the UK has increased 13% over the year up to the middle of 2022. As you would expect, London is the worst. Rental prices have also gone up, with the largest annual growth rate since the Index of Private Housing Rental Prices began in 2014.

House prices can actually rise as a function of a lot of different things. High construction costs draw buyers away from new housing, which puts pressure on the second-hand market, which is always greater. In the UK, supply and demand have been out of sync so supply has been constricted, which causes greater pressure as well.

You also have people who are not from the UK constantly moving into the market in cities; there is a growing international bourgeoisie that has caused a split in the market between global buyers and local/national buyers.

The UK ranks low on living space. Why is this and are developers working to counter it?

I’m honestly not sure whether the developers are or not. The newer housing in the UK tends to be detached houses rather than apartments. Housing experts at the moment are saying that it is in developers’ interest to keep apartments small because of density [so] they can sell more apartments. 

There are also various councils that prioritise dense developments. I think that small living spaces in the UK is cultural. The UK has more historic small dwellings than North America or Australia. In a simple sense, it is not good for living spaces to be too small. However, as I outline in Small is Necessary, there has still been this pressure, causing households to reduce in size over the past few years. 

“A good house or flat can never be made out of premises which are too small”, does this statement in the Parker Morris report still ring true?

I would reiterate that families have shrunk in terms of size since the Parker Morris report. They are probably around half the size now, so in that sense, it could be half the problem. The other aspect of this is also that smaller spaces – when well designed – can achieve a lot. However, with Covid-19 changing our living and working situations, there is more pressure on the home to have extra functions. Co-working spaces have also grown in neighbourhoods, so that will take up some of that slack. 

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Anitra Nelon. (Photo courtesy of the author)

What must be remembered about the Parker Morris report is that it came from a post-war atmosphere, where there was a benevolent approach to housing. There was more social housing. And then into the late-’70s and ’80s, a more neo-liberal perspective completely turned that attitude around. A lot of the benevolence disappeared around this time and things went in a direction led by the US. There was a feeling that people wanted to be free to purchase property when and where they wanted to. 

Do you think new developers in UK cities are prioritising sustainability?

I think there is a big focus on sustainability at the moment, as well as trying to keep up with supply. And, to reference the last question, these two factors are probably going to reduce the chances of living spaces getting any bigger.

The important point is that developers are being forced to focus on sustainability now. In the past few years and even the past decade – especially among the new entrants in the construction and development market – younger entrants have recognised that sustainability is a way of profiling themselves. They are truly concerned about these issues.

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As this understanding grows – helped along by global agreements on carbon reduction – you get older firms taking note. It is also not just new construction, there has been a movement towards retrofitting. Initially, everyone thought it was so much easier to build something new with solar panels and eco-aware appliances and things like that. But really, these sorts of developments only account for a fraction of the housing stock even when construction is going well, and at the moment it is not really powering along at all. This is where retrofitting can be effective.

What are your thoughts on what the UK has to celebrate when it comes to its approach to city housing?

I think that one of the things that I always notice when I’m in the UK is that there are distinct neighbourhoods and communities, and there is a lot of character as well. I think that for a future where we are looking at more localised economies: community caring, solidarity and sustainability among people, there is a lot that the UK is doing well. 

For instance, when you walk along pathways next to canals and you see all the barge communities, you get a sense that people are ‘greening’ those areas. People are contributing a lot to the character of the city. That’s what I think is probably the primary thing about London and the UK in general. And, of course, the historic buildings that have been preserved and have been repurposed and are going through wonderful renovations and reuse. 

Is there a need for tighter regulation on housing in the UK?

I definitely think that overcrowding and people being forced to pay a large amount of money for a very tiny space is basically unconscionable. I think there is certainly a case for minimum standards. In the degrowth movement that I am part of, we push for maximum standards as well. 

Degrowth is about trying to reduce inequality, and reduce living extravagantly at the same time as reducing the number of people living in a way that doesn’t fulfil their basic needs. In Australia, there is excess, though we do not have quite the same problem that the UK has. 

In your opinion, what can shift developers away from sustainable practices and overall liveability?

The desire to get out of building sustainably is quite strong. This is because big companies have got everything set up so that they are keeping all their costs as low as possible and getting as much profit as possible.

But, housing is moving into a new phase. So they now need to trust architects, engineers and a lot of different trades. There are also a lot of options, even down to different types of taps and showers. In every way, developers are expected to act with a sense of responsibility. They are expected to look at all of their processes in terms of construction so that they are not only using materials efficiently but they’re also experimenting with new materials as well. 

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On top of this, they are asked to assess and evaluate developments post-occupancy. So developers are having to think forward quite some way. These post-occupancy evaluations are beginning to come in as standard.

I can imagine that the construction industry is feeling like it is more difficult due to all these regulations. Over the next five to ten years, it will be very interesting as I believe there will have to be more substantial movements towards sustainability. 

Can you explain the BedZED property, and how effective it is at achieving a sustainable housing model?

The BedZED project consists of around 100 apartment dwellings with a similar number of workspaces. The developers aimed to abide by the global footprint network’s measurements for sustainability. 

bedZED sustainable housing development
Air ducts at a sustainable housing development BedZED in London, UK. (Photo by Johnny Greig/iStock)

The problem though, was several years after it was developed, they had the property assessed and the BedZED residents’ footprints had surpassed what is considered to be ecologically sound. This is where the importance of post-occupancy evaluations reveals itself. The developers expected the occupancy to be higher when they were doing the initial assessments. However, those 100 BedZED dwellings were occupied by just 220 residents in 2014 when they did the post-occupancy evaluations. Not to mention that residents shop, work and socialise in a high-impact city, which contributes to the housing development’s overall footprint.

A lot of the approaches developed several years ago worked on the assumption that if the right sort of housing was created, people would naturally lower their footprint. This has turned out to be incorrect. 

Another issue is that these sorts of housing developments are often unaffordable. Funnily enough, BedZED celebrates that the building has continued to have above-market sale prices when, in reality, this contradicts the original objective. These prices may have contributed to the poor sustainability assessments, potentially attracting older couples who could afford it rather than the larger families that would have made the space more ecologically effective.  

If the UK’s cities could start from scratch, what city is a perfect example of liveable, sustainable housing?

I think that one of the best examples is Zürich. Though the location is renowned as an expensive city to visit, they have a history of squatting and housing cooperatives. In a referendum several years ago, a majority of residents voted to mandate that at least 30% of Zürich’s apartments should be managed under a cooperative model. The spectrum of cooperative housing is quite wide and allows for projects where housing is highly managed rather than co-governed (the ideal).

In Zürich though, there are a great many young radical housing cooperatives that originally developed out of people who squatted late in the 20th century and then realised that the cooperative model offered them the capacity to get together and purchase something that didn’t have problems in terms of social equity or sustainability. Zurich’s housing cooperatives developed in the early 20th century when the council allowed trade unions representing middle-class professions such as teachers to develop housing for their members. They now encompass a wider range of residents.

These sorts of radical organisations are great models to follow. 

Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet by Anitra Nelson is published by Pluto Press and is available through the Open Access Programme.

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