Wednesday 10 March 2010 | Property feed


Honey, they've shrunk the house

Are new build houses getting smaller, as a recent report suggests? Harry Wallop, with wife and three children, tried out a new-build for size.

Honey, they've shrunk the house: Harry Wallop and family road test a new-build home
Honey, they've shrunk the house: Harry Wallop and family road test a new-build home Photo: CLARA MOLDEN

'Is this really a cupboard?" asks my six-year-old. Well, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what it is.

We're examining one of the oddest spaces I've ever seen inside a British home. It has a good quality door, which opens on to a wide but unbelievably shallow aperture of just a foot deep – not nearly spacious enough to hang a jacket. But excellent for storing your collection of fencing epees or tubular bells.

Alexander, his two younger siblings, my wife and I have come to Dartford to test a new-build house in, as the brochure says, the garden of England.

The four-bedroom house on the Nexus development is an embodiment of inoffensive good taste: wood floors, high gloss kitchen units, beige carpets and far-reaching views across the adjacent builders' yard to the Queen Elizabeth Bridge and the Thames Estuary. It will set you back no more than 259,000 – good value for a family home less than an hour's commute from central London.

The developer, Weston Homes, has allowed the Wallops free rein for the day to prove that new-builds are "fit for purpose". It has been stung into action after a damning report from a government advisory group, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), last week.

The research confirmed what many had long suspected: new-build houses are increasingly cramped, with many owners unhappy about the poor design and mean dimensions of their homes. A country where every man's home was his castle has been transformed into a nation of rabbit hutches.

In a survey of 2,249 homeowners, whose properties were built between the boom years of 2003 and 2006, 44 per cent said they did not have enough space for small children to play safely while food is prepared. Almost half claimed they did not have enough room for their furniture, while more than a third said there was too little space in the kitchen for appliances.

Weston proudly, and correctly, boasts Nexus as being one of the best new developments in the South East of England, where land is at a premium.

The house we tried out was the largest at the Nexus scheme, and its biggest room, the sitting room which doubled up as a dining area, is undoubtedly spacious, measuring 19 feet at its longest point. It opens on to a modest but adequate 35-foot garden.

But to get to the room you have to walk through a typically ungenerous hallway, no wider than the front door, and far too small for coat hooks, let alone a buggy or pair of boots. The ceilings are low enough for me to touch without standing on tip toes. And, as my wife frequently points out, I am most definitely under six foot.

The master bedroom, at first glance, looks pretty decent and comes with the all-important en-suite bathroom, but it contains a double bed. A king size, which most parents with young children opt for, would struggle to squeeze in, especially if you also wanted to have a chest of drawers. Getting it up the narrow staircase would also be a challenge.

Kirstie Allsopp, who presents property programmes and has advised the Conservatives on their housing policy, said: "It's not a myth that houses are getting smaller and smaller. In the 10 years that I have been going around new-builds, I've noticed the ceilings getting lower, the rooms getting smaller and a complete lack of storage. Where are you supposed to put your Hoover and ironing board?"

She says the blame should not lay solely at the (cramped) doorstep of developers. "A lot of it stems from the desire from buyers to live in detached houses. What's wrong with semi-detached, or terraces. After the war nearly every village had a collection of houses built on its outskirts which were terraced or semis. They had a garage, a garden and decent-sized rooms. By creating these spaces between houses, you have to make up the square footage from somewhere. And it's the rooms that suffer."

The Cabe report has far-reaching implications. In the very unlikely event that the housebuilding sector, currently poleaxed by the recession, hits government targets of building 290,000 new homes every year, 190,000 of them will not have enough storage space. That's a hell of a lot of ironing boards, vacuum cleaners, buggies, box files, old cricket bats, Lego, wedding china and the flotsam of a lifetime of acquisition that will have no proper home.

The lack of storage in many new homes has led people to hire self-storage units to double up as spare rooms. Instead of cardboard boxes, some families use the units as rehearsal rooms, home gyms or a place to put the snooker table, according to the boss of Safestore.

The Cabe report also implies that there will be more than 100,000 homes built next year where owners will have to decide whether a microwave is more important than a food blender, or toaster, or kettle – because there certainly isn't room for more than one of them.

The Nexus kitchen is not the smallest kitchen I have cooked in (that honour goes to a new-build in Thamesmead, where the walls were so thin you could hear the punctuation of the neighbours' conversations). But it was too small to place a table, or for the children to enjoyably join in the cooking – one of the easiest and most satisfying way to keep them entertained, and for many families a crucial part of growing up.

A helping hand with breakfast ended up with a mini-Wallop getting egg not just on his face but all over the high-gloss surfaces as we jostled for space at the hob.

But at least it had a functioning kitchen. Prue Leith, the cook and chairman of the School Food Trust, has railed against poor architecture and the fact that some new homes don't have an oven, or even a kitchen. "If the kitchen contained a table, some of the family might choose a conversation over a TV show. A kitchen could spark the desire to learn to cook and eat as a family," she says.

She recounts how she castigated a developer and was accused of "being a nanny-statist trying to reorder society, while he gave the customers what they wanted, which was a microwave, a chip pan and a kettle".

It was not always like this. Up until 1980 all builders of private housing adhered to the Parker Morris standards, which set a minimum square footage for houses, depending on the number of bedrooms. But the Thatcher revolution, which helped to create a new generation of owner-occupiers, also saw the standards dropped and rooms shrink. The average size of a new room in British house is 15.8 sq m (170 sq ft or, say, 11.5 by 15 feet), almost half the size of those in France.

Builders argue the unprecedented housing boom of the past 15 years (which the property crash has only partially reversed) has meant that land is just too expensive to be generous with room dimensions.

If consumers want a ''family home'' with en-suite bathrooms and high gloss kitchen units, something has to give. However, Bob Weston, the founder of Weston Homes, says the size of his houses has actually increased in recent years.

But his homes are a rarity. Although we could not store even a third of all furniture, photographs, bicycles, wellies, clothes, toys, books, pots and pans we own in the Dartford residence, you would be able to swing a smaller breed of Persian cat in most of the rooms without too much bloodshed. Too many of Weston's rivals are building rooms where hamsters would not have much of a chance.

Revealingly, none of Westons' major competitors were willing to let the Wallops test out their animal-swinging skills.

Even so, within a few hours of arriving at the Nexus development, cooking a meal, getting out the Twister, watching Madagascar 2 on DVD, changing a nappy, even one of the better new-builds on the market was starting to feel a little cramped. We returned to the chaos and mess of our London home, complete with cupboards with space to hang a coat.

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Comments: 35

  • "" A lot of it stems from the desire from buyers to live in detached houses. What's wrong with semi-detached, or terraces?"

    Never lived in one have you honey?

    What's wrong is that the soundproofing is non existent in a modern property and you get to hear everything your neighbours on both sides do from turning on the toilet light to what the watch on TV and what they do in bed."

    (Thalia, Aug.21, 10:40 PM)

    Thalia, as other posters have pointed out, and as I know from the house I grew up in, terraced houses can be built with good sound insulation between them - it adds very little to the cost, and gives a damn sight more room for families to live in.

    "Could have been a good article - unfortunately I couldn't be bothered to read it after seeing the clearly staged photo. Every kitchen naturally needs a large dining chair in the middle of it for the kids to stand on while Mum is doing the ironing. Pathetic."
    (Jeff, Aug. 22, 10:53 AM)

    Could have been a good comment - unfortunately you couldn't be bothered to read the article, just looked at the picture. Best stick to the 'Daily Star', Jeff. For your information, the picture would have been one of a large number, posed by the photographer, Clara Molden, rather than Harry Wallop, who wrote the article. Also, the final choice of picture would have been made by a sub-editor, almost certainly without reference to Harry Wallop.

    I think the ultimate reality check will come in the ways suggested by Kat, at 9:30pm, Aug.21, and by Phil, at 10:18pm, Aug. 22.

    When the current slump is past (and to judge from the way umemployment is still rising, that's going to be years from now), and people can afford to buy homes again, you can bet they won't be buying cardboard rabbit hutches - just as it was after the housing crashes of the 1970s and the 1990s. Cheap and nasty houses, and botched conversions, built at the height of the preceding booms, became virtually unsaleable for years, except at fire-sale prices.

    Maybe the biggest thing that developers, and buyers, need to learn is the difference between a hotel and a home. You can stay in quite a small hotel room for a week or two, quite comfortably - but who wants to live in a hotel?

    Jack Enright, Buxton, Derbyshire
    on August 22, 2009
    at 02:24 PM
  • We moved to a new build 4 bed detatched in Ely. What a mistake, the 3 bed semi, ex council house we had in Epsom was twice the size. Thankfully we were able to take advantage of the market and moved out to an older 4 bed detatched in Norfolk. Room to breath and room inside for a real family meal around the kitchen table.

    on August 22, 2009
    at 02:14 PM
  • I think the staged photo, Jeff, actually shows the lack of space in the kitchen and therefore serves a purpose.
    UK homes for the masses have ALWAYS been smaller than most other places. Now the the situation has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous and is yet another example of quantity over quality in the UK. Jeff what is pathetic is the lack of standards in a lot of UK today.

    David Phillips
    on August 22, 2009
    at 02:04 PM
  • Try looking at the room sizes and ceiling heights in older properties and you will see that these measurements you give are adequate. My 1880 semi has two downstairs rooms of 11'6" square and a 9'x7'6" kitchen. No room for a table or playing children in there, so they have to be in the next room with the door open. Storage is created by cupboards and chests of drawers,coats go at the bottom of the stairs which are narrow.If you need more space then get rid of clutter to gain space.We all have too many things now.

    on August 22, 2009
    at 01:17 PM
  • I would agree with Kirstie Allsopp re semi detached houses but those built in the 1930's had good thick walls between them.I lived in one and heard nothing from our neighbours despite them having a piano against the dividing wall, which was apparently played regularly. Unlike new builds where you can hear your neighbour scratching himself and other unsavoury sounds.

    Bruce Glanville
    on August 22, 2009
    at 01:12 PM
  • Parker Morris standards only ever applied to dwelling built for local authorities. Privately built dwellings, whether by developers or individual owners, only had to comply with the Building Regulations. These defined the rise and going of staircases and ventilated lobbies outside toilets, but nothing about the size of rooms or any storage. Developers compete to sell new homes and only build small if stupid people just buy on price rather than cost per sq ft.

    Thomas Hasler
    on August 22, 2009
    at 01:12 PM
  • In a tiny overpopulated country like the UK it is inevitable that: either houses get more cramped, or that more of our precious countryside gets built on.
    And yet no-one is willing to face up to the underlying problems - uncontrolled immigration, and a steadily increasing population.
    While we continue to ignore the underlying causes, things will continue to get worse.

    Peter Jack
    on August 22, 2009
    at 01:10 PM
  • Could have been a good article - unfortunately I couldn't be bothered to read it after seeing the clearly staged photo. Every kitchen naturally needs a large dining chair in the middle of it for the kids to stand on while Mum is doing the ironing. Pathetic.

    on August 22, 2009
    at 10:53 AM
  • The real problem, as mentioned in the article, is the price of building land in the UK (if you're lucky enough to be a homeowner, check the rebuilding cost on your insurance policy against your house's market value, and you'll see what I mean).

    That could be solved by, among other things, relaxing our planning laws, but governments (and certain sections of the media) seem too obsessed with keeping house prices high, and thus creating a feel-good factor for middle England, for that to happen.

    When you think about who suffers from this - young families struggling to find somewhere to live, or crammed into the rabbit hutches described here - it's a pretty immoral way of giving middle-class voters a warm feeling. Yet we're told that things will be 'getting better' when prices start rising again, thus putting a home even further out of reach of people without one.

    Until we cure ourselves of this obsession with something-for-nothing house price wealth, we will continue to have boom and bust cycles that leave thousands homeless and in debt, while thousands more never get a decent home in the first place. Is it really worth it?

    Paul Stephens
    on August 22, 2009
    at 10:18 AM
  • Newflash: "finished basements." It's not rocket science.

    Randal Oulton
    on August 22, 2009
    at 10:18 AM
  • Yet the solution to this is so simple - just make it a mandatory legal requirement for the floor area of the house to be listed in sale descriptions (as I believe to be the case in e.g. Germany).

    Once the discrepancies in size become obvious, the value of those shoeboxes will plummet and developers might suddenly gain some motivation to make them a decent size again (though one would probably also have to repeal Prescott's stupid "required density" regulations too).

    on August 22, 2009
    at 10:18 AM
  • In 1967, my husband and I looked at a new home built in Wakefield, and found that although there were two bedrooms, neither the kitchen NOR the living room had space for a table, no space for even a high chair. It appeared that buyers were expected to eat meals standing up. We emigrated, since we couldn't bear to live in the equivalent of a broom cupboard, and knew we couldn't afford anything better than what was on offer. Here in Canada homes have been increasing in size for the last forty years, and that has led to a backlash against suburbs encroaching on farmland. There must be a happy medium between what we'd LIKE to have and what is sustainable, but a broom cupboard can never be the ideal home. Unless we all just stop buying so much STUFF.

    R.B. Hempsey
    on August 22, 2009
    at 09:52 AM
  • If they think "new-build" houses are small they should come into the ones that we live in. These were built in the 1940's in Bewsey, Warrington and they're all built slightly different. Unfortunately we got the short straw on space as some have a dining room, where as others don't. Every time we buy a table we can barely get it in the living room, the kitchen is really narrow and barely enough room to swing a cat, and even though it is a "three-bedroomed" house one bedroom is more a box room than a bedroom. You can tell this house we're in was designed before the TV came about and the council have never once thought to modernise it. There is both a downstairs and upstairs toilet, the downstairs toilet takes away half of the kitchen space (ideal before the days of microwaves and food processors), and the gas and electric meters are hid at the back of the meter room under the stairs, you can only put a small amount of items in there 'cos you have to take it all out every time the man comes to read the meter. Some of the houses in the street have had an extension on the back to make the kitchen larger, but ours got missed on that one so we're stuck with a very small and very dangerous kitchen. The kitchen is that small that once you open the fridge door you can no longer walk round the kitchen as the door touches the unit opposite.

    on August 22, 2009
    at 09:22 AM
  • It boils down to a lethal brew of over-population and greedy builders; stir in incompetent government diktats and the result is the rabbit hutch ghettos that disfigure the outskirts of every town in this country.
    An additional twist is the government's order to developers that a percentage of dwellings have to be for 'social housing': so not only do people beggar themselves to put a roof over their heads by buying these cardboard constructions, they also have society's chuck-outs dumped next door to them.
    The contempt shown by government and builders towards those trying to stand on their own feet is absolutely disgusting.

    anne allan
    on August 22, 2009
    at 09:09 AM
  • We built lots of great semi-detached houses in the 1930s and lots of great council houses in the 1950s. I have lived in both. My chums christened my modern house "shoebox of Horley". I feel the decline is, in part, due to having Westminster politicians with no local government experience and consequently no experience in managing housing stock including an appreciation of family space requirements. I do not think our politicians are bad people just limited in experience and ability.

    John Francis
    on August 22, 2009
    at 08:54 AM
  • Developers have to get their profits somewhere. Section 106 agreements force them to build and sell high standard housing to housing associations at hugely reduced prices. The subsidy to the socials has to be recouped from the payers. They end up with small, expensive houses, and the privilege of paying for potentially anti-social 'social' renters next door. This is what is known to New Labour as equality in action. Keep paying your taxes - a chav near you needs the money.

    on August 22, 2009
    at 08:54 AM
  • Malcolm Freeman.7.59am. You say older Oz houses are 22 square metres. Thats four meters by five metres and bit. 13ft by 16ft.
    And that includes a double garage!
    If that's the case, you must be very squashed.
    Reckon you mean 22 metres square, cobber.

    james rogers
    on August 22, 2009
    at 08:43 AM
  • no one to blame but the buyer, and the government, but then the buyers elect them as well. Any attempts to change or regulate are met with a chorus of disapproval and angst...

    on August 22, 2009
    at 08:13 AM
  • What is a "buggy"? A baby carriage (also called a pushcart or stroller?

    Roger A,C, Williams
    on August 22, 2009
    at 08:04 AM
  • It is interesting about houses getting smaller in the UK. In fact it is the reverse in Australia. The houses have increased in size from 22 sqs meters to over 30 sqrs due TV rooms etc. Australian houses have always had a laundry and most have ensuite and double garage, large family room.
    It all gets down to available land. Melbourne is the same area as London, but with 3.5 million people. We have urban sprawal
    Malcolm Freeman

    Malcolm Freeman
    on August 22, 2009
    at 07:59 AM
  • That foot-deep space behind the door must be nearly three feet wide by almost eight feet high -- perfect for shelving. Buy yourself some wood, a drill, screws, rawlplugs and screwdriver and stop complaining.

    james rogers
    on August 22, 2009
    at 07:17 AM
  • In order to most efficiently utilize reduced space, we must learn to reduce our need/desire for "stuff." We will need to alter our living-large mindsets to fit-in with these homes. Living in reduced circumstances doesn't mean deprivation,it means understanding the difference between our wants versus our needs: less-is-more!

    on August 21, 2009
    at 11:09 PM
  • It's not only the housebuilders that are at fault. It is the government, and leading architects, encouraging them to build to a high density. Planners encourage poor design by demanding high density development.

    They believe that "good design" will over-ride the need for space. It's just nonsense. A 35 ft garden is huge compared to government guidelines (about 15 ft)...and what about space for cars and, increasingly, recycling bins. Where do you keep a bin in a mid-terrace house with no rear access? The front of houses permanently littered with recycling bins. It's nothing more than a disgrace.

    The government want to encourage use of public transport by limiting parking spaces...madness. Most garages that are built are used for storage and not for parking a car.

    Many small houses resort to extending with a conservatory, making their gardens even smaller. Later to regret the decision when summer comes along making south facing conservatories unusable.

    High density does nothing but increase land values. The only beneficiaries are therefore existing landowners, making huge profits at the expense of new house owners.

    This trend of high density, build at any cost, is a repeat of the government mistakes of the sixties which resulted in high rise development. What happened? Housing unsuitable for families, unsatisfactory living conditions and subsequent demolition.

    A return to sensible and appropriate sized houses and gardens is essential. Note, "houses" not the multitude of flats being built today.

    R. Barnes
    on August 21, 2009
    at 10:40 PM
  • " A lot of it stems from the desire from buyers to live in detached houses. What's wrong with semi-detached, or terraces?"

    Never lived in one have you honey?

    What's wrong is that the soundproofing is non existent in a modern property and you get to hear everything your neighbours on both sides do from turning on the toilet light to what the watch on TV and what they do in bed.

    What you don't mention is that after the second world war the previously excellent building and fire regulations were "temporarily" suspended to facilitate speedy re-building but were never re-instated hence the tiny rooms, bad build quality and everyone who can possibly afford it buying detached.

    It's depressing that before the advent of TV's and stereos on an everyday day basis we had far better building regulations that blocked the sound than we do now when everyone has a 40" TV and a music centre in every room.

    I can't believe you don't know why people want detached, where have you lived all your life? You must be really rich.

    on August 21, 2009
    at 10:40 PM
  • we should switch to the european model, where every home advertised must show the square metres (or feet). then these space saving (money saving) tactics will be clear for everyone to see

    helena d
    on August 21, 2009
    at 09:39 PM
  • A lot of new build is badly designed.I saw details of a new build where a whole wall was wasted in a small kitchen.Needless to say the property was heavily reduced in price.When building upwards as in apartments there is no need to skimp on space.The air is still free.Terraces are underrated- free insulation on either side and only two outside walls.

    on August 21, 2009
    at 09:30 PM
  • I agree with MH; in UK first question asked: "how many bedrooms?", whilst elsewhere in the world: "total area?". Secondly metric measurements please; not American nor geriatric.

    on August 21, 2009
    at 09:28 PM
  • Having lived in the US for 14+ years, I'm used to my 4,000 sq ft house with plenty of room. Obviously there is less space in the UK, but I always wonder why the houses are not built with basements - that adds an additional floor and is cheap to build in new construction.

    on August 21, 2009
    at 09:13 PM
  • I work in the Middle East and spent my summer house hunting in Sussex. I was shocked by the size of rooms in many houses and it is definitely noticeably worse in new builds. I agree that there appears to be an obsession with room numbers rather than room size and the lack of storage space is shocking. When you look at the high ceilings and spacious rooms of Victorian properties it highlights the fact that the standard of houses being built has not improved since then, they have deteriorated.

    on August 21, 2009
    at 08:50 PM
  • perhaps the commentators who deplore the decline of family life caused by families eating in front of the tv should consider that a kitchen with a table and chairs will be the natural focal point and hanging-out space for the family. perhaps people are eating instant meals in front of the tv because their kitchen is too cramped to cook and eat in.

    how bonkers is that?

    Lady A
    on August 21, 2009
    at 08:50 PM
  • I've read the entire article and nowhere does it say the square footage (or square metres) of these new-build rabbit hutches.

    Why is it so hard to just measure the sizes of the rooms and add them up?

    Got something to hide?

    Jon Leigh
    on August 21, 2009
    at 08:46 PM
  • The japanese seem to survive in tiny spaces but then they are tiny themselves and we would have to change our culture.

    Steve Bush
    on August 21, 2009
    at 08:16 PM
  • Being an ex-pat Brit living in Canada, and one who designs and builds homes, I am acutely aware of the differences in what you get for your money on either side of the pond. The Brits are fixated on number of rooms, no matter how small they are. North Americans are interested in square footage. It amazes me how little space the Brits get for their money....can your building costs really be that high? It's a huge great UK rip-off!

    martin humphries
    on August 21, 2009
    at 08:00 PM
  • Small amount of footage does not necessarily equal lack of storage. If a small space is properly planned it can be very functional indeed. The same applies the other way around, large amount of space does not equal good planning and ample storage. We're currently living in a rowhouse of nearly 2000sq ft and yet there's no place to keep the hoover or suitcases either!

    on August 21, 2009
    at 07:44 PM
  • What you say is very true- I've just bought a new-build property in Bromley, and storage is the biggest problem we have- there is no-where to put items like the hoover, brooms, and, more irritatingly, suitcases! The "open-plan" idea is also catching on, but with the mean dimensions, the bin odour from the kitchen area does start to waft over to the sofa/TV area... Being young and single, storage and space doesn't really pose a problem, but is completely inappropriate for a family.

    Anna T
    on August 21, 2009
    at 07:08 PM

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