Comment: In praise of the spare room

Living Arteries, Benjamin Marks

Living Arteries, Benjamin Marks - Credit: Archant

A spare room shouldn’t be seen as a luxury extra. Solutions to London’s housing crisis should allow for generosity of both homeowners and renters

The release of 100 shortlisted ideas by think tank New London Architecture unveils schemes from international architects, planners, and developers designed to solve London’s housing crisis. The list offers a host of creative and thought-provoking ideas, with highlights including infill and ‘onfill’ development, modular, pre-fab construction, self-building and floating ‘waterhoods’. What is encouraging about these proposals is that, while many suggest repurposing land (or air, or water) or increasing density, remarkably few stipulate decreasing the size of dwellings as a measure.

All too often, current housing thinking involves a degree of squeezed living not seen since before WW2. Central Londoners are used to compromising on space – a willingness to do so is one of the biggest divides between us and our suburban counterparts – but whereas this used to mean putting up with a narrow terraced house and a ‘postage stamp’ garden, a more common interpretation for under-40s nowadays is the micro-home: dwellings that toy with the boundaries of housing space regulation and focus on providing the absolute minimum necessary for city dwellers.

Meanwhile, a recent survey by online estate agent found that nearly a fifth of Brits with a spare room would be happy to house a refugee for a short time. This generosity is heartwarming, decent and sensible, given that there are 200,000 homeless asylum seekers in the UK. However, the sad reality is that a spare room is increasingly seen as an extra for Londoners, in terms ranging from happy luxury to immoral profligacy. Indeed, for those living at the sharp end of the housing crisis (but lucky enough to have homes), even communal living space tends to be seen as surplus when cost savings need to be made. How many more people would have polled ‘yes’ if this weren’t the case?

As the furore over the bedroom tax showed, ‘spare’ rooms are more than just a place to store junk but are essential lifelines for many families. They don’t even have to be used for noble acts like caring for the sick or housing refugees; shouldn’t we all be able to put up friends in the midst of break ups or younger family members embarking on unpaid internships?

Many of the proposals show that there’s scope to accommodate the desire for a bit of wiggle room. Let’s just hope the housing debate hasn’t moved beyond acknowledging people’s need for more than four walls, a bed and somewhere to store a bike.