Shrinking Households: Why Housing needs a redesign


Families are changing and the twentieth century concept of the nuclear family is giving way to a plethora of alternative ways of living. This rapid change is having an important impact on our demand for housing. We do not just need more homes to solve the housing crisis. We need more homes that are smaller, more efficient…and we need them soon. 

Number 10 Downing Street has a new tenant. Theresa May, Britain’s new prime minister, has inherited an in-tray overflowing with issues of national importance. Sorting through her unenviable to-do list, Theresa May outlined the priorities of the government in her first speech. While Brexit inevitably dominated the agenda, the Prime Minister also spoke about another immediate challenge facing the nation: the housing crisis. Emphasising the urgent need to address the UK’s housing shortage, the prime minister argued that “housing matters so much” and stressed “the need to do far more to get more houses built” (The Telegraph, 2016). If left unaddressed, the Prime Minister added, the housing crisis will cause “the divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t to become more pronounced” (NLP, 2016). This prospect is intolerable for a prime minister whose central leadership pledge has been to make Britain “a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few” (The Telegraph, 2016).

Yet, while the prime minister rightly attributes Britain’s skyrocketing house prices to a lack of housing supply, this is just one factor impacting upon Britain’s strained housing system. Alongside the issue of housing supply, are the neglected complexities of housing demand. While issues such as migration have become staple features of political and media debate, subtle demographic changes ranging from life expectancy and fertility rates, to the decline of marriage and the rise of cohabitation, remain underexplored (Centre for Population Change, 2015). Demographic changes and the housing system are inextricably linked and, in order to fully comprehend the extent of Britain’s housing shortage, and develop targeted ways to alleviate the crisis, incorporating a demographic perspective into the debate surrounding Britain’s fledging housing system is vital.

Indeed, the structure of the household has changed no less dramatically than the structure of the UK housing system in the past half-century. When George Murdock coined the phrase “nuclear family” in the 1950s – referring to a couple and their dependent children- this reflected the majority of households in the United Kingdom. However, a rise in divorce rates since the 1950s has led to an increase in solo living across the age spectrum and an increase in the number of non-residential parents, especially amongst men. Strengthening this shift towards smaller households has been a rise in the average age of first parenthood, contributing to smaller completed family sizes (Centre for Population Change, 2015).  At the same time, generations of decreasing birthrates have also resulted in few extended family members, narrowing the “horizontal” spread of blood-relations. This narrowing of the family form has had significant effects on household sizes (The Social Issues Research Centre, 2008). Over the last fifty years, the average size of the households has decreased by 17%, and the decrease in larger households of 6 people or more has dramatically fallen from 6% to 2% of the total number of households since 1971 (ibid).

What do these shrinking households mean for housing? Recent data on housing demand suggests that these changing family dynamics will ultimately increase our demand for housing as a nation. Despite the rise of smaller completed families, by mid-2037, Britain’s population is projected to be 71.3 million, representing a 14.6 per cent growth from 2012. During this period, it is predicted that the total number of households in Britain will increase from 28 million to 33.9 million, a rise of 17.4%. Household numbers will therefore grow faster than the total population, reflecting the continuing shift towards smaller average household size, which is projected to fall further from 2.28 persons in 2012 to 2.14 persons in 2037 (Centre for Population Change, 2015). In order to just keep up with population growth, most analysts say that at least 250,000 more houses are needed each year. Factoring in the issue of changing family structures and the trend towards smaller households is likely to further exacerbate this demand.

If more than 250,000 need to be built each year in order to keep up with demand, the houses of the future need to be compact, scalable and crucially, quick to build. Chototel’s construction methodology, which enables the buildings to be effectively manufactured off-site and simply assembled on-site, has reduced construction cycles to a swift 180 days. The interior rooms are innovatively designed to be just 280 square feet, comfortably accommodating the new average family size of 2.14 persons, while maximizing space in up-and-coming, urbanizing locations. The trend towards smaller households not only puts pressure on precious space, but vital resources. As the number of homes increases, so does the amount of energy needed to light, heat and cool them. The houses of the future need to be respond to the demand for more homes in a way that also is environmentally responsible. While Chototel’s design innovations have reduced the energy required by each room to an impressive 180 watts at peak load, its closed-loop utility system also ensures that the energy that powers each Chototel is generated from sustainable resources. The microbots fitted into each room will enable guests to track and pay for utilities on a pay-per-use basis; a feature that appeals to next generation of renters who are both environmentally conscious and tech-savvy. From both a moral and market-driven standpoint, this issue of sustainability cannot be ignored in the scramble to build more houses.

While housing has been at the forefront of public discourse and policy debate in Britain in recent years, Theresa May’s government needs to bring demographics into the debate surrounding Britain’s chronic housing shortage. Changing family structures are rapidly impacting our demand for housing, and an evaluation of how these changes affect both the overall demand for houses and the type of houses that are required is long overdue. Households and housing are interdependent, and Theresa May’s government must address the issue of demographics in order to build new houses that really “work for everyone”.

By Imogen Farhan


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