The question of space standards in commercial to residential conversions raises bigger questions about what we want our cities to be. In essence, it asks how we want the space in our cities to be used; it asks, what are cities for?
If our high streets and town centres see their building stock converted into homes, so that residences dominate the townscape at the expense of public and commercial architecture, cities will be utterly changed. And not necessarily for the better. Buildings where people once congregated, whether to work or to shop, but essentially to be with others, will effectively become private space.
As Simon Jenkins has pointed out in a recent article, a building need only be vacant for three months before it can be greenlit for conversion to housing. That means something like one in seven shops in the current covid-ravaged high street landscape is eligible for conversion.
The sense of disorientation would be huge. The impact on mental health arising from these changes, is barely being discussed. Buildings, and their uses, ground us, help us understand where we live – changing their function, and effectively closing off access to them, will change the very nature of the places we consider ‘local’.
Another wellbeing issue we need to consider is the notion if how much space we think is enough. Driven by London’s forever rising land values, architectural design culture has, for the past couple of decades, has got a bit too excited by the prospect of designing smaller homes, legitimising this largely negative idea in the process. ‘How small can you go’ has become a ‘thing’ – leading to companies like Pocket Living (a developer that hires great architects to make stylish, highly functional – but very small – homes). The end results have landed RIBA awards. But the flipside of this ‘small can be great’ culture, are tiny ‘office to resi’ homes in in totally inappropriate buildings.
Whether designed by great architects or not ‘going small’ is an unwelcome distraction. We need to support legislated space standards that specify generosity. Indeed one such example, a 14sqm ‘double studio’ for two people, caused such an outcry last year that the government was forced to rewrite its planning legislation to ensure at minimum, 37m² of floorspace for a single occupier is provided in line with the Nationally Described Space Standard.
However, underlying the development of these just-plain-wrong conversions is a wider issue to do with re-use: put simply, as an industry, we just have to get better at retrofit. Retrofit is the new paradigm for design, whether we like it or not. It’s beyond debate. We just have start using our existing stock more readily and start using it well. We need to think about energy efficiency, quality, about well-made spaces. We need a better handle on how to use colour and texture appropriately. We need to consider light and arcadian rhythms (as Phil Coffey has noted) and create dual aspect homes that people want to live in.