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Opinion: Prioritising small housing units on crammed sites leads to risks

Orla Hegarty writes that lockdown has been a time to reflect on getting our new housing right.

Orla Hegarty Architect & assistant professor at UCD

SPENDING 24 HOURS a day at home during lockdown was difficult if you weren’t used to it. Space, daylight, privacy and safety are important, and being housebound was a challenge and a reminder that in our immediate surroundings the small things matter.

Home is more than the activities of eating, sleeping and washing: we need space for work, play, home-school and socialising.

Given a choice, people don’t move very often and they put down roots in a community, so for most households, a house is for life or a very large part of it. Our houses therefore have to suit expanding and shrinking households and the changing needs of childhood, disability, caring, and aging.

Regulation is not red-tape

This is why housing is regulated, broadly in three strands, for safety, environmental protection, and ‘liveability’, such as sound insulation between neighbours, adequate daylight, storage and space outside. 

These standards make a difference. Thirty years of energy improvements have taken running costs to under €400 annually; accessible homes have a downstairs toilet; smoke detectors, triple-glazing, and certified gas installations are the norm.

This is not red tape, it is future proofing and smart investment.

At the current build rate only one percent is being added to the national housing stock every year, and that excludes houses lost through obsolescence. So, now all new houses and apartments need to last into the next century, with durable materials and resilience for climate change, lifestyle changes and even future pandemics.

However, current housing policy has a short-term focus on supply targets rather than building sustainable communities, incentivising developer margins over long-term homes.

  • As part of their in-depth investigation into fire standards of publicly-owned residential buildings, Noteworthy will investigate current and planned housing policy to find out if new developments are being adequately protected against fire risk. Support their work here

Low standards risk reversing improvements

This drift to prioritising small ‘units’ on crammed sites brings risks. Overcrowding and lack of privacy are very damaging to mental and physical health.

Too many people, too close together, is stressful and creates conditions that spread disease. This is particularly true when someone ill can’t self-isolate because they share kitchens, bathrooms and lifts.

There are valid concerns that Covid-19 outbreaks in meat factories, care homes, construction sites and direct provision centres are exacerbated by poor housing conditions.

Recent deregulation of housing includes ‘co-living’ – rooms smaller than one parking space with shared kitchens, and ‘studios’ – homes the size of three parking spaces.

These low standards risk reversing decades of health and social improvement through decent housing. Whatever the lifestyle marketing for these properties, there are echoes of tenement living a century ago when 20,000 Dublin families each lived in just one room. 

Balconies made optional 

In 1966, when the government last regulated overcrowding it was to control disease with a maximum number of people in bedrooms and adequate ‘free air’ (ventilation).

The science still stands, but conversely recent lowering of ceiling heights and shrinking of rooms have combined to reduce the volume of air in a two-bedroom apartment by almost 20 percent.

Mandatory balconies and cross-ventilation have also been made optional for ‘build to rent’ apartments, and the requirement for playgrounds and creches reduced.

Access to a balcony or a garden made lockdown bearable for many, and space to distance made it safe. However, one recently permitted development has 190 apartments with just three lifts serving more than 600 people, at a time when public health advice is that lifts should not be shared.

Eroding liveability 

These erosions of ‘liveability’ are barriers to more sustainable living and compact city growth, because without attractive and affordable alternatives, people will continue to favour the commuter belt.

In reality, neither small flats nor sprawl meet the challenges of public health, climate change, and housing affordability. Add to that a lack of confidence in construction and a legacy of poor fire safety standards and shoddy construction.

An absence of consumer protections and a ‘hands-off’ approach to regulation (construction is still self-certified) frequently leave owners, both public and private, carrying the cost.

Independent inspection of construction, enforcement and credible consumer rights are all needed. Living more densely has higher risks and different challenges, so trust has to be built starting with real protections, for both lives and investments.

The lockdown has been a time to reflect; to re-imagine our cities, streets, and towns; to learn from the communities that support rather than alienate; to value the social, economic and environmental benefits of good homes; and to redirect all efforts into getting our new housing right.

Orla Hegarty is an architect and assistant professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy in University College Dublin. 

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CATCHING FIRE Investigation 

Do you want to know if our publicly-owned residential buildings are properly equipped to stop fire tragedies?

The Noteworthy team want to do an in-depth investigation into fire standards and as part of this will talk to experts about current as well as planned housing policies and standards to find out if new developments, such as those planned for social housing, are being adequately protected against fire risk.

Here’s how to help support this proposal>

About the author:

Orla Hegarty  / Architect & assistant professor at UCD

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