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The distributed home

The distributed home

The BBC has analysed the rapid growth of city centre living, putting numbers to the anecdotal evidence of growth provided by the forest of cranes across British cities, and the towers that spring up beneath them. City centre living in Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester is growing near or above 150% a year.

This is a trend we should encourage and expand in the future, but to do so, I think we have to reassess what we expect a home to be.

Shrinking accommodation

Houses are shrinking. They have been since the 1970s. I don’t mean that the bricks dried out and shrivelled like a sponge. The houses we build now are significantly smaller than they were. Living rooms down 32%, kitchens 13%. bedrooms 10%. There are fewer bedrooms as well: down from an average of 3.53 to 2.95. We now have the smallest footprint for homes in the EU at under 100sqm.

Despite this, we still cling to the idea of a home being something with all of these components. And of a certain size.

The micro home/tiny house movement has boomed on both sides of the Atlantic, albeit actual sales probably don’t warrant the noise about them on YouTube and Instagram, where their clever, compact features and cute aesthetics have become a hit. Despite this the number of truly micro homes that we have built remains relatively low, with a huge amount of opposition from planners and campaigners.

In 2015, the government introduced a minimum space standard of 37sqm for single occupancy and 50sqm for two bed homes, though this standard isn’t truly enforcedand has been relaxed for repurposed properties — typically converted offices.

The space standard is not totally arbitrary. There is evidence that people need space and light for their mental health. We need to escape others sometimes, and we don’t want to be in claustrophobic spaces, squeezed between walls and furniture.

But I think we need to keep those standards under review.

Shared services

Micro homes make most sense in a context where people are well served with other amenities, and despite the woes of some major restaurant chains, city centres are increasingly densely packed with quality ‘third space’. There are the ubiquitous coffee shops, from the boutique to the chain. There are the gyms, the private members clubs (much more affordable when your home doesn’t consume half your income), and actually the workspaces. The blending of home and work life in a positive way, as the formal office environment starts to break down, actually might make us feel less inclined to escape to our homes.

We can think of all of these third spaces as extensions of our ‘distributed home’, with the space in which we sleep, wash, and dress just being a single component.

Reshaping the environment

These arguments don’t work for everyone living in a city. When you’re young, single and at the start of your career, perhaps you need fewer opportunities for true isolation. As we age we naturally want more space, not just for kids, and we are inherently less flexible. But technology may start to offset some of the other space challenges.

Firstly, materials may change. I am a little obsessed at the moment with the possibility of changing the materials from which we construct our world. Imagine if we could get the strength and other properties we need in furniture and appliances with drastically-reduced dimensions. Imagine how much space could be freed up, especially if these items could be collapsible. Truly micro homes (under 15sqm) rely on clever folding items but this requires the occupant to constantly reconfigure their homes for different times of day. This becomes much easier if the furniture reconfigures itself around you. Smart materials could fold and unfold themselves into a variety of shapes – sofa, bed, table — perhaps even cleaning themselves and changing their hardness for different circumstances, a stiff table becoming a soft bed.

Secondly, a growing proportion of our physical environment will be virtual, with the advent of mixed reality and — perhaps — holographics, for those times when we’re not sporting a headset. Our physical environment becomes deeply mutable at this point. We can flatten the four walls to reveal any environment we wish. Ensconce ourselves in a game or just live in a virtual forest, beach or mountaintop. Now the distributed home isn’t just split across a city, it’s networked across the world.

Those already worried about time spent gaming may be sceptical, despite the absence of any real evidence this causes harm. And it’s true, there is no substitute for physical space: as we pack our cities more densely, the demands on public planners to integrate and improve shared outdoor spaces get ever greater.

But in the coming years we have to find places for people to live that they can afford and that suit their lifestyle: an experience culture inherently supports a smaller home with fewer goods in it, at lower cost to release cash for personal pursuits beyond the material. Perhaps truly micro homes are the right thing for people at certain points in their lives. Perhaps we can engineer micro homes to be truly luxurious, even with a tiny footprint.

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Tom Cheesewright