While American homes metastasized during the late 20th century, Britain’s shrunk, and the country now has the smallest homes in Europe. “Battery hen Britain,” the Daily Mail tabloid has declared.

The average size of all new dwellings built in 2008 in the U.K.—houses, townhouses and apartments—was 818 square feet. That’s a scant third of the average new single-family home in the United States, and quite a bit smaller even than the average new apartment built that year, which was 1,250 square feet. Today, after the recession, the average new apartment built in the U.S. is still 1,138 square feet.


U.S. Census data on housing available here and here. U.K. housing-size data via the U.K. Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment 2010 dwelling-size survey.

Two years ago, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) began calling for more space and natural light in new U.K. homes. RIBA is now asking Parliament to adopt national minimum standards for space and light. London already has such standards for its housing, and RIBA recommends that these be rolled out across the U.K.

With Parliament’s review imminent, the architects’ association is pulling out all the stops for its campaign, called HomeWise (call to action: “Fight for Space+Light”), to build bigger. Comedian Stephen Fry and writer Alain de Botton have voiced their support on social media. Kevin McCloud, presenter of the popular TV show Grand Designs, appears in a RIBA video filmed inside a train carriage on the London Underground. At 46 square meters, or 495 square feet, the carriage is equivalent to an average new one-bedroom home in the U.K.—four square meters (43 square feet) smaller than the minimum RIBA is recommending, enough space to fit a single bed and nightstand.

Rebecca Roberts-Hughes, RIBA's policy manager, said Parliament needs to describe national standards that can be set by local planning departments. Otherwise, local governments would not necessarily be required to follow them. Even better, she said, if these standards were put into regulation, they would apply to all new U.K. homes—making them binding for home builders and curbing the spread of what RIBA has described as “shameful shoe box homes."

A policy proposal to make houses bigger? Backed by architects? To an American, it seems almost inconceivable. In the States, the pendulum is starting to swing the other way: If Seattle builds all 48 micro-housing projects for which permit applications have been submitted since 2006—and if people take to them—then more than 2,300 Seattle residents will be living in micro-apartments. The mayors of Boston and New York want to change their building regulations to allow micro-housing. When New York issued an RFP for a micro-housing pilot last year, it was downloaded 1,600 times, a record response. Young people dream of (or have perhaps gladly resigned themselves to) owning a tiny house one day.

Plans for a 463-square-foot (43-square-meter) one-bedroom flat.

Plans for a 463-square-foot (43-square-meter) one-bedroom flat.

Credit: RIBA


Britain and the U.S. are divided by land use as much as by our common language. Britain has a high population density and is experiencing a severe housing shortage. While American home builders tend to put McMansions on big lots in the exurbs, British builders try to fit as many small houses as possible on scarce, valuable land. That makes sense—up to the point that new housing becomes cramped, dark, and undesirable. (Interestingly, the Netherlands is even denser than Britain but its new homes are over 50 percent larger, supporting RIBA’s case that Britons are unduly squeezed.)

Through polls, RIBA found that almost half (49 percent) of those Britons surveyed preferred older homes. About one-third of those surveyed said that they would not consider moving into a home built in the last 10 years—with more than half of these people citing a lack of space.. RIBA researchers met one couple so pressed for space in their new flat that they keep the trash can in the middle of the kitchen and store food in the trunk of their car.

Use created when a 463-square-foot one-bedroom flat is increased to 537 square feet (49 square meters).

Use created when a 463-square-foot one-bedroom flat is increased to 537 square feet (49 square meters).

Credit: RIBA


In real estate, people trade space for location or affordability all the time. But that’s not what’s happening in the U.K., Roberts-Hughes said—there simply aren’t enough housing options. “People can’t always vote with their feet because we’ve got such a huge undersupply.”

The association maintains that better standards will result in more flexible, comfortable homes that satisfy residents without significantly adding to costs or red tape. Good design, Roberts-Hughes said, “means making sure the layout makes sense to people, that they’ve got natural light in their homes...The focus of the campaign is really raising quality.”

Plans for a 904-square-foot three-bedroom flat.

Plans for a 904-square-foot three-bedroom flat.

Credit: RIBA


Use created when a 904-square-foot three-bedroom flat is increased to 1,055 square feet.

Use created when a 904-square-foot three-bedroom flat is increased to 1,055 square feet.

Credit: RIBA


If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. More than a century ago, housing reformers in Britain such as Octavia Hill and George Cadbury worked to improve the grim living conditions of the urban poor. Space and light were what residents of slums lacked and what reformers sought to provide them: Hill by managing her own working-class housing schemes and lobbying for the preservation of London parks, and Cadbury and other industrialists by building model villages thought to be more salutary than cities. “Improved dwellings, light, space and air” were the attractions of Bournville, the village Cadbury established next to his chocolate factory outside of Birmingham.

RIBA’s campaign continues the tradition that began with Hill and gave rise to the Garden City and New Town movements. Overcrowding may seem like an obsolete, Victorian issue, but successful places need a variety of housing types for different family configurations and for every stage of life. A 26-year-old won’t care about not having space for a kitchen table until there’s nowhere for his child to do his homework, or his elderly mother-in-law can’t climb onto a bar stool to eat at the counter.

Incentives or requirements for developers to build a little bigger, and to adhere to universal design principles, could keep cities on both sides of the Atlantic from becoming monocultures of the young and shoeboxed.

Update: The chart has been replaced with one that more clearly demonstrates the relationship between the areas. The data have not changed.