Space expectations: do small homes affect our wellbeing?

As populations grow, so does the need for homes. Going small and compact is increasingly the answer in crowded urban areas, but how does this affect residents’ mental health?


  • Noella Pio Kivlehan

27 September 2022

With the world’s population mushrooming from 5.3bn in 1990 to just under 8bn this year, the need for housing in cities has reached critical levels. The result is often micro housing solutions to solve macro housing shortages.

But this raises questions about the effect of living in small properties, including the impact on wellbeing, and just how small are people willing to go with their homes. On the flip side, some believe a tiny home can be the ultimate expression of minimalism, and even good for the planet by saving energy.

Small homes gained credence in the 1970s when Allan Wexler, an American interdisciplinary artist, and educator, pushed the concept of compact living to help promote his artistic work. More advocates followed into what became known as the tiny house movement.

The modern small home is geared for the 21st century with an emphasis on wellbeing, health, use of outdoor space, and harnessing the latest technologies and gadgets. 

First rung on the ladder

Barratt, one of the UK’s largest house builders, has been developing the SMRT range of homes, at its Eastman Village development in Harrow, north-west London. Aimed at young professionals looking to get on the housing ladder, the 37.5m2 (just above the minimum UK space requirement) houses cost £312,000 and have a main open plan living area, bedroom, kitchen, desk space, and private balcony.

“Being priced out of the housing market is not conducive to psychological wellbeing,” says Rose Pullan, senior marketing manager at Barratt London. In fact, studies show that the insecurity, lack of control and frustration of private renting can cause anxiety and depression,” says Pullan, quoting the UK Collaborative Centre of Housing Evidence.

The Barratt development also has specifically created streets and outdoor spaces at different scales, with foot and cycle routes, play areas, communal gardens, and green spaces.

This should be the thought process when it comes to small properties: thinking outside of the box, or the home, according to Maria Garcia, principal sustainability consultant with Savills. “What’s important is not only the homes themselves but the spaces, infrastructure and amenities that surround and connect [them]. You could argue these may become even more important should the internal spaces of homes become smaller, as reliance on these other spaces increases," says Garcia.

The negative mental health effects of being confined to a small space can be balanced by providing access to gardens and outdoor spaces. A 2019 report from the Texas A&M University, published in the Journal of Environmental Horticulture, found that spending time in natural settings and cultivated gardens, can improve mood and reduce the negative effects of stress. It also encourages physical activity and enhances overall wellbeing.

The report states that the benefits of experiencing nature, both indoors and outdoors, include reduced symptoms of depression, stronger memory retention, higher productivity and improved concentration, higher levels of creativity and better self-esteem. If a house is thoughtfully built, with plenty of natural light and views of natural spaces outside, they may not feel as small to the occupants.

The psychologist’s view

When someone lives in a space not adequate for their needs, there is a huge judgment and stigma placed around them, says psychologist Dr Audrey Tang.

Too often, says Tang, what was a temporary stop gap before moving on to other accommodation becomes acceptable, and the real problem is overlooked: “We need to recognise that it is not just the effect of the environment at play: human nature, behaviour, and stigma will also contribute to wellbeing.”

Looking at the more broad base effects of environment and wellbeing, Tang says: “Humans have always been biophilic, we have an innate affinity with imagery and sensations that remind us of what we see in nature, wood, slate, curves.” 

There is also, she says, a difference between minimalism and house size: “You can have people living in a very large house with many possessions to the point of hoarding, or with nothing except white walls, floors, appliances, and objets d’art. Wanting a small house that one can take care of, or not feel like they are rattling around in it can be part of psychological safety.”

Ultimately, Tang believes if someone can use a small space well and it serves their purpose: “Why would you want a bigger one? People’s own preferences, needs and functional use of space will vary.”

“The insecurity, lack of control and frustration of private renting can cause anxiety and depression” Rose Pullan, Barratt London

Smaller home, smaller bills

Then there is the environmental side to small living. Given today’s ongoing energy crisis, and rising fuel prices, Garcia says: “In terms of energy efficiency and cost effectiveness of running a home, smaller makes sense and is more appealing for the socio-economic benefits it could deliver.”

There is also an expression of minimalism and not being encumbered by possessions when living in small homes, that goes together with a more sustainable future and way of life. “Minimalism means rejecting the need for overconsumption,” says Georgina Nimmo, Savills sustainability consultant. The tiny home concept, she says, is becoming less unusual, as is “co-housing, which generally consists of smaller individual spaces alongside community/shared areas and facilities.”

Los Angeles-based architecture and design company, Office Untitled is building a series of projects that, co-founder and principal, Christian Robert says: “Explores how to create a shared apartment with independent rooms. Indoor ground floor and outdoor roof amenities provide spaces for residents to work, socialise and entertain.

“In the last two years, places like West Hollywood are seeing the need for more housing and are more open to smaller units, with the requirement for them being that they are exceptionally designed,” says Robert.

“In terms of energy efficiency and cost effectiveness of running a home, smaller makes sense” Maria Garcia, Savills

How small is too small?

The question, however, is how small people are willing to go. The squeezing of floor plans has reached its breaking point, argues Dev Mehta, principal at BDP.

“Residential units can only be tightened so much without sacrificing the quality and functionality of the space,” he says, adding that unit layouts will have to consider adjustable partition elements that allow users to define and change their space in a way that is more fluid throughout the day. “We have already overcome this psychological barrier of delineating and rigidly programming our spaces, and architecture will have to catch up to and embrace this.

“A bedroom is not always a bedroom, and a dining space is not always a dining space.”


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