Danae Haratsis 

We have come to expect that the starting point is always the least possible: the minimum wage, the poverty line, the minimum legroom, the minimum flat size. Particularly housing turns into a matter of achieving the minimum, providing only what is essential. In London, within one of the most market-oriented housing systems in Europe, and in absence of controls, developers tend to reduce the size of dwellings while minimising any reduction in value; minimising expenditure and maximising profits. Looking into the fetishization of small spaces by the likes of Ikea or Muji and their wide dissemination, as highlighted by the recent legalisation of new-built microflats, I wonder: what is this bare essential, how is it defined and by whom?

Fetishisation of the XS

The past decade has seen an increasing fetishization of small spaces, illustrated by countless Dezeen publications and epitomized by the rising success of companies like Ikea or Muji. Ikea excels in using its innovative design, coupled with brand personality traits such as youth and friendliness, in order to convert low-priced furnishings to socially acceptable, if not highly coveted, belongings. Furthermore, their stores regularly create 1:1 mock ups of tiny room configurations, advertising the flexibility and versatility of their furniture. A special section within their website titled ‘small spaces’ includes a youtube channel filled with good ideas on how to ‘create small kitchen that can handle big ideas’, ‘find your own space in a shared space’, or ‘make space to be together in a small apartment’. Muji, on the other hand, argues for ‘Compact Space’ in an age saturated with material wealth. It advocates for a well-designed life, that goes beyond just having fewer possessions, or exceptional organisation and storage, to something that approaches spirituality. Indeed, they illustrate their concept with the help of Marie Kondo (their ‘organizing consultant’), whose books Spark Joy and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying offer ‘top tips to joyfully declutter your homes’ into spaces of serenity.


Perhaps capitalising on this shift of common desires, and struggling to find solutions to their ongoing housing shortages, cities like San Francisco and New York have recently removed some zoning restrictions to allow for the construction of “micro-apartments”. These units, all under 40 square meters, are intended as relatively inexpensive alternatives to those cities’ unaffordable housing. In New York, young inhabitants often adopt a humorous response to their living situations, accepting it as a trade-off for the prestige and excitement of ‘life in the Big Apple’, offering endless possibilities and adventures just off their (tiny) doorstep. They treat their neighbourhoods as their living rooms, blurring the lines between public and private spaces. However, what might seem novel at the beginning may be hiding considerable challenges; studies argue that such developments present potential mental and physical health risks. Indeed, when do we cross the line towards overcrowding? How small is too small?


London itself is also struggling with similar issues. Despite having one of the lowest city densities in Europe, its average new build dwelling’s surface is below the European average. Multiple attempts have been made to define minimum space standards, the latest being the nationally described space standard applicable to all new dwellings since 2015. In absence of controls until then, developers tended to reduce the size of dwellings being developed whilst trying to minimise any reduction in value. Loopholes such as permitted development still allow office spaces to be converted to housing units bypassing planning permission; a recent development proposed converting offices into flats as small as 14 sqm. Even developments respecting space standards are clearly operating within a logic viewing the starting point as what is the least that can be done. Rather than being a safety net the minimum standard is almost interpreted as a statement of good practice; in this context, the minimum becomes the standard. When minimum is the standard, what should be the standard for the minimum?

London’s growing population has long created a challenge for the city to provide sufficient housing. Since 1999, demand for housing has outpaced supply, highlighting a market relatively unresponsive to increased demand signals. As an additive endless loop, the high value of property in London has led to speculative investment, further on increasing the already high prices. The resulting affordability gap has been widened by rising wealth inequality and greater financial liberalisation. Such conditions have trapped a large part of the population (often up to their early forties) in a short-term rent cycle. Earning too much to qualify for social housing, yet not enough to buy on their own1, they are led to consider unconventional forms of house ownership.

Illustrations of this struggle include a sharp increase in houseboats moored on London’s canals, as well as the success of new co-living ventures. Presented as upmarket student residences targeted at the young, cool, social, Generation Y, The Collective is offering the possibility to live within high-end ‘curated communities’.

Trying to reverse this phenomenon, a stream of self-titled ‘alternative’ developers has emerged in recent years. Igloo Regeneration advocates for sustainable property investment, measuring their returns over the longer term. They engage with the local community and aim to increase the value of areas developed by improving their social, physical and economic fabric. Solidspace encourages independent developers, promoting small to medium-sized developments in ‘gap sites’ across Central London as a reaction to giant developers too-big-to-fail. Perhaps the most successful thus far, Pocket Living focuses exclusively on delivering houses for the young, middle owners often priced out of homeownership in London2. Their one-bedroom apartments, at 38sqm each, are below national requirements (39sqm for a single person, 50sqm for a couple). That missing square metre has been a trade off through smart negotiations with local authorities: in exchange for qualifying as affordable housing by selling houses at 20% below market rates and ensuring their buyers fulfil specific criteria, they would be exempt from abiding to space standards and social housing quotas.

Smaller units enable developers to increase their revenue and offset high land values; while offering lower rates, they can build more and have higher value ratios (price per sqm). Smaller units also offer more possibilities when it comes to tighter, infill sites that might not have been suitable for larger developments. Local authorities, keen to make the most out of leftover sites, and striving to provide more affordable housing, often manifest strong support in favour of such developments. Could these micro - developments prove to be efficient in providing satisfying, affordable housing? Or are they just the latest trend, recycling Victorian housing solutions? Will minimum space requirements provev to be efficient in improving the current situation, or are they insufficient given the challenges at stake? The debate is ongoing.


1.    Dezeen
2.    Muji
3.    Ikea
4.    Postcard, by the author
5.    Airplane space requirements.
6.    New York micro apartments Carmel Place plan, nArchitects.


1.    Research by JLL indicates only 12% London’s workers aged 22-39 can afford to buy on their own, based on a typical 20% mortgage deposit. 2.    Based on the same JLL research, the proportion of London workers aged 22-39 able to afford Pocket’s one bedroom houses doubles, from 12% to 22.5%.