“Melbourne's tiny flats would be illegal in other cities,” a recent headline in The Age stated.
According to the article, Sydney, London and Adelaide all have rules that ban new one-bedroom apartments smaller than 50 square metres. In Melbourne, however, 40 per cent of the city’s newest apartments are smaller than this.
Is this such a terrible thing?
Denser cities may mean letting go of the suburban dream of a four-bedroom house replete with separate media room, walk-in pantry and parents’ retreat, but sacrificing space doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing style or amenity.
In a recent article, I gave examples of how greater density can mean greater amenity, but if we are to live closer together, we need to be using less space, rather than more.
In New York City, where the growth rate for one-and two-person households is outpacing larger households, ‘micro-units’ as small as 23 square metres are helping us to think outside the square. While the apartments are small, they are big on style, and feature spectacular shared spaces such as rooftop gardens, porches with picnic tables and public lounges that can seat 20 for dinner or accommodate 40 for standing room events.
I’m inspired by the founder of Life Edited, Graham Hill, who sings the praises of the ‘compact life’, and who shows people how easy it is to achieve in his NYC apartment. Around 100 square metres of functionality is found in a space of just 40 square metres. A large living space is transformed into a bedroom as a double bed swings down from the wall at night. Another wall is transformed into a study as a desk magically appears. Dinner guests arrive and – presto! – a console table expands to seat 12 people. A wall of storage slides back to reveal a guest room for two.
In London, where average house prices are rising by as much as 17 per cent a year, Pocket is building compact, stylish homes that are sold for around 20 per cent less than the market rate. Lloyds Banking Group and London mayor Boris Johnson have recently teamed up to provide Pocket with a £30 million revolving debt facility that will fund construction of 4,000 one-bedroom ‘starter’ homes on small brownfield sites across London.
In Hong Kong, architect Gary Chang has maximised his minimal 32 square metres, creating 23 rooms out of one. The walls move on tracks, peeling back like layers of an onion to reveal a compact but practical kitchen complete with cocktail cabinet, a laundry, study with storage for 3,000 CDs, and a media room with retractable blind that doubles as a movie screen. His bathroom features a deluxe ‘spa wall’, while his bedroom includes a spacious walk-in wardrobe. His desk acts as a ‘Swiss army knife’, folding out to seat dinner for 10, and he even has the luxury of empty space for yoga practice.
These examples all address affordability by making the most of the smallest of spaces. In Australia, meanwhile, housing affordability is reaching crisis point. The City of Melbourne’s recently-released draft housing strategy, for instance, has found that essential workers such as receptionists, cleaners and hospitality workers are being priced out of suburbs within an hour’s commute to the CBD. Some renters with incomes up to $100,000 a year, including nurses and teachers, are considered to be in “housing stress.”
The story is the same around Australia. The 2014 Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey once again ranks Australia as having one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the world and, according to the International Monetary Fund, Australia’s ratio of average house price to average income is one of the most frightening – currently the third highest in the world after Belgium and Canada.
In recent years, we’ve found that new Australian dwellings are also, on average, among the largest in the world, at 214 square metres, compared with new homes in the US that average 201 square metres or the UK where they are just 76 square metres.
So while many of us resist the idea of higher urban density, compact living may hold the key to solving our affordability crisis, improving sustainability outcomes and enhancing the liveability of our cities.