Tiny Homes and Minimum Space Standards - Can They Be Friends?
By Maddy Longhurst
We’ve been encountering some uncertainty from members of our housing enabling team at the council around the question of tiny homes and how they relate to the ‘Nationally Described Space Standards’ (NDSS) that recommend minimum sizes for bedrooms and homes in the UK.
As we come into the last stages of preparing our planning application for the UK's first Tiny House Cohousing Regenerative Community (woohoo!), and because the tiny house/NDSS relationship is something the planners will want to understand, be reassured about, and measure our application against, I feel it would be helpful (to me and you) to write about it.
What is NDSS?
Nationally Described Space Standards - also referred to as ‘minimum space standards’ - are set by national government and then interpreted and set locally by councils. They exist for good reason - without them, the door would be open for commercial developers, designing and building to create profit in the housing market, to squeeze more, smaller homes or rooms into a conventional development, without regard for detriment to the quality of life.
As this is the dominant and familiar behaviour of market-driven housing developers, state intervention to ensure some baseline for citizen wellbeing makes sense.
Saying that, many thousands of people live in substandard homes, provided by private and state housebuilders, that do meet NDSS. NDSS is certainly no guarantee of an enjoyable, safe, healthy home, and certainly no guarantee of all the other things that home means to us: belonging, community connection, affordability, good quality, reliable services and facilities, comfort, adaptability, or any other characteristic of a good home you might identify.
Thought about holistically, NDSS is one part of what makes a decent home, in the context of conventional development.
In Bristol, the Council already applies NDSS with discretion and flexibility. For example, they have decided that student homes and bedrooms don’t need to meet minimum space standards (as outlined here). Probably justified by the need to optimise the use of limited urban space by a relatively transient, presumed to be adaptable, population of mostly young people. Also, there are usually shared facilities in student blocks used by multiple households. So student flats are a type of basic co-housing.
Whether you think smaller student flats are ok or not, it is a useful example of NDSS being applied with discretion, according to the scheme, and who’s living there.
Tiny Homes, Co-housing and NDSS.
Our proposed tiny house scheme in Sea Mills is made up of 13 private homes, one extra tiny ‘guest house’ and shared communal spaces and facilities. It is therefore a ‘co-housing’ scheme; functions and spaces normally contained in a private home (e.g. workspace, washing machine, bike store, workshop, private garden, spare bedroom for visitors) can instead be shared and located in shared spaces, resulting in new efficiencies and benefits to all residents and the environment. Some of these functions are often clustered in a ‘common house’ at the heart of the community.
In this way, the private + shared spaces make up the whole usable space for the residents. Understood in this way, our scheme exceeds minimum space standards and can also deliver many other benefits not available in a conventional housing development where there is no requirement for or even perhaps desire for sharing and cooperative interaction.
Co-housing is designed to optimise space, build community connection, create a culture of shared care and responsibility, reduce short and long-term costs, and minimise the impact on the planet’s finite resources.
Are tiny homes ‘sub-standard’?
However, because planning departments, and indeed most people in this country, are used to standardised homes and not co-housing, and certainly not used to tiny homes in our midst (they’re forced under the radar in the UK), one or two officers in the council, who are involved in our proposal, have voiced their personal views that our homes are ‘sub-standard’ and that the bedrooms at least must meet minimum space standards in order to be considered decent.
That is an understandable concern, yet it is a bit of a red herring and lacks a more informed and nuanced understanding, not only of tiny homes, but of community-led housing and co-housing, too. It is beholden on us, as community-led housing developers, to help educate, inform and inspire those who will be making decisions about the future direction of housing in the city - our officers and councillors.
A community deep-dive analysis of NDSS bedrooms in a tiny home
Collectively, we, active members of THCB, who are co-designing the scheme as its future residents, and with the support of our architects, have put NDSS under the microscope.
When we explored this as a group of potential future residents, with different household shapes and sizes, different tastes and needs, our guiding questions were:
What is the optimum layout for each size of home?
What would work best for me and my household?
What would work best for someone who might live in the homes after us?
Should NDSS be strictly applied to the bedrooms of all tiny homes?
If not, how should NDSS be applied to a tiny house co-housing scheme?
This is what we discovered:
In some cases, a bedroom that meets minimum space standards in area but not dimension works optimally (a), while applying NDSS to the bedroom size would reduce the optimum form and function of the home, distort the balance of the layout and diminish the liveability overall (b).
A key tiny house design principle is that nothing is wasted, and form and function are optimised.
Different interior layouts and configurations suit different households.
For example, in a 2 bed, 3 person house, with a young child, the parent(s) might want theirs and their child's bedroom to be together (c), whereas if the child is a teenager, it would work better to have 1 bedroom downstairs and one upstairs (d).
Or, for an elderly person living with a family member or other carer, a bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor could be appropriate for the elder, and the carer's room on the mezzanine level (e).
Where a mezzanine is possible, it may be easier to have a bedroom that meets minimum spaces standards in area and dimensions (f), but where a mezzanine level is not possible, a bedroom that complies in area only may optimise form and function (g).
(f) 1 bed 1 person with mezzanine
(g) 1 bed 2 person no mezzanine
So, in summary…
Our Sea Mills tiny house cohousing scheme overall (private + communal spaces) exceeds minimum space standards.
Blanket application of NDSS on bedroom sizes will not produce the optimum form and function of the home
This scheme has been designed by many of its future residents (this is community-led housing!) and all design decisions are therefore intentional and not hypothetical or arbitrary. This is what we, the community, want, need and choose.
Based on this deep dive with prospective residents with different ideas and needs, our architects and project management team, we would recommend that for tiny homes schemes, space standards should be applied through a balanced consideration of:
(a) Optimisation of form and function of space (regardless of who lives there)
(b) Adaptability and flexibility as to the formation and needs of the household living there
(c) The quality, abundance and functionality of communal spaces, both indoor and outdoor
(d) An understanding that community-led housing, co-housing and tiny house living are entirely intentional and not driven by profit, rather, it is a futureproof model that foregrounds the needs of people (quality, affordability, community) and planet (regenerative, circular, low-impact).
I hope that by writing about our participatory co-design process and group analysis of NDSS in relation to tiny homes we’re helping to grow an understanding and love of what tiny homes are, what they are not, and what they can be to a city deep in a housing crisis.
We were really impressed to see a small number of local councillors at the launch of the Bristol Commons on 28th March. We know there’s a keen interest in community-led innovations within the council and that it’s just a matter of time before they become a more commonplace feature of our urban culture and landscape. We’re excited to be riding this wave of innovation and to share our process and our learning with the city as we go along.