Britain’s Shrinking House Sizes

From 1875 to the present day.

Katy Preen
Sep 30 · 12 min read
A row of cartoon houses
A row of cartoon houses
Image: Needpix

This is going to be a long read, but most of it is pictures, so don’t worry!

uch is made of the declining size in UK dwellings over time, but I wanted to see what it actually looked like when comparing houses built in different decades. We have had various minimum standards for public housing, and we also have data on houses that were actually built.

I’ve created layouts based on size standards laid down at various times in the last 150 years, and these are compared with the results of a survey of 90,000 British houses constructed between 1930 and 2010.

We start at the beginning, with the UK’s first serious attempt to regulate public housing internal dwelling sizes.

1875–1918 Byelaw Houses

The working class back in the 1870s were a very different bunch to what we call the working class in 21st Century Britain. They were living in squalid conditions, had a life expectancy of about 45, and they were filthy.

I’m not just saying that. Many poor people (and the working class back then were genuinely poor) lived in overcrowded homes without proper sanitation. The government decided that something needed to be done, and so the 1875 Public Health Act followed, which required all new houses to have running water and proper drainage internal to the property — primarily to prevent the spread of diseases like cholera and typhoid.

It also placed a duty on local Councils to implement bye-laws governing the layout and construction of new streets and houses, ensuring minimum street widths, build quality, and provision of waste disposal. These houses would remain overcrowded by today’s standards, but they were a great improvement on earlier workers’ housing.

Loads of these houses (known at the time as Byelaw Terraces) still exist in the UK, and they are actually highly-sought after nowadays, even though they were built as basic accommodation. Perhaps that tells us something about modern housebuilding standards.

One benefit these houses offer now is that the room sizes are generous, with high ceilings and decent-sized windows, especially the bay-fronted ones (ooh, fancy). Because our households are way smaller today, these houses feel ginormous! As well as their imposing scale, these bog-standard public homes were designed and built with great pride. They contain lovely period details that we just wouldn’t bother with in modern homes.

Here’s a typical 3-bedroomed house from the late 19th Century:

A photograph of a large Victorian terraced house.
A photograph of a large Victorian terraced house.
Geograph

Isn’t it gorgeous? Here’s what it might look like inside (I based it on a floor plan from an estate agent’s listing for a 3-bedroom house of this type:

Floor plans for a large Victorian terraced house.
Floor plans for a large Victorian terraced house.

That’s one big ‘ol house. And it has a cellar! Alas, it’s all downhill from here.

1918 Tudor Walters House

Following WWI, the UK pledged to build “homes fit for heroes”. A set of five standard house plans were created out of the work of the Tudor Walters report, which was primarily concerned with reducing overcrowding. This is the layout of the smallest of the five housing types, all of which had three bedrooms upstairs:

Floor plans of the Tudor Walters house type ‘B’.
Floor plans of the Tudor Walters house type ‘B’.

It’s not massive, but it has all the right pieces. Larger versions of the Tudor Walters type had a parlour, and that really is fancy.

The 1930s and a note on the LABC Study

LABC looked at 10,000 actual houses from each of the nine decades preceding the last one (so, the years 1930 to 2010). They took the information from listings on two UK property sales websites, and they begin in the 1930s because there wasn’t enough data to get 10,000 examples for preceding decades. It does mean that the dataset represents the type of homes that come up for sale, rather than the type of homes that are out there (and they might be basically the same), but we can still compare these findings with the minimum size for public housing from those periods.

The Average 1930s and 1940s House

The average house from the 1930s was marginally bigger than the smallest Tudor Walters template. Based on LABC’s calculation method (the raw data is here), the average 1930s home would measure 68.28m² internally. By the 1940s, houses had shrunk by a small amount overall (to 68.14m²), but had more bedrooms.

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There would hopefully be a hallway and stair in there as well, but I’m following the simplified style used in the original LABC article. You get the idea.

A Note on Three-Bedroomed Houses

I chose to compare 3-bedroom houses because the data in the literature going back in time consistently contains this house type. Other house configurations are given in the standards from each period, but the only one that is present in every decade’s standards is the three-bedroomed house. Some standards refer to the expected occupancy, some consider the number of storeys the house has. But some don’t. At least we can agree on one constant.

The homes in the LABC survey also conveniently have an average of about 3 bedrooms each, so we can calculate comparable house sizes for all of the decades.

1944 Dudley Report and Housing Manual

In preparation for postwar reconstruction, the Dudley Committee set out standards for minimum room sizes within new Council Housing. The report also made recommendations on the overall design of whole estates and the philosophy of creating more diverse neighbourhoods, in terms of type of dwelling and mixing of the social classes.

The recommendations of the Report were translated into the guidance in the 1944 Housing manual, and a resulting typical 3-bedroom Council House might look like this:

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Some of the storage provision has been moved from the main dwelling into an outhouse. You can still find a few outhouses left in back gardens nowadays, but most have since been demolished.

1949 Housing Manual

This was an update of the 1944 edition, with a slight increase in overall dwelling sizes. The above 1944 house has been scaled up to comply with the new dimensions of the 1949 guide. It’s not drawn to scale, so it looks the same — but the 1949 house is about 1.15 times larger than the 1944 house.

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1951 Harold Macmillan’s People’s House

During Churchill’s second term in office (1951–1955), he employed Harold Macmillan (a future PM himself) as Housing Minister. Macmillan dealt with the enormous task of delivering 300,000 new homes per year with the ruthless efficiency he had demonstrated as Minister for Supply during WWII. He oversaw the construction of the easily replicable and quick to build “People’s House” (for which I cannot find plans).

A three-bedroom version of this house type measured 900 sq ft (83.6m²) and had lower ceilings of 7'6" (the previous standard was 8' or higher). It would have been similar to the above 1949 house, but without the external storage. This is where the decline in British house size standards begins.

The problem with allotting part of the floor space allowance to outbuildings is that it can be lost easily, with reasonable-sounding justifications, and then it is a fight to regain what was lost, if it can be achieved at all.

The Average 1950s and 1960s House

The average home built in the 1950s or 1960s was smaller than the 1949 recommendation, and smaller than even Macmillan’s utilitarian People’s House. Of course, the boom in housebuilding around this time included a large contribution from the private sector, which was not bound by the same regulations as public housing.

The average 1950s 3-bed home measured 77.01m² internally, and the average 1960s equivalent was 77.49m².

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As per the previous example (the 1930s and 40s averages), this is a simplified layout, and it’s not to scale, not even with itself. But it should demonstrate the varying room sizes as well as the changing house sizes.

1961 Parker Morris Standards

The Parker Morris Report, titled Homes for Today and Tomorrow, was the last real national directive on public housing space standards. Due to improving living standards post-war, the government recognised that homes needed more space to accompany changing consumerist lifestyles.

If we take a three-bedroom house of two storeys, for five people, it would need 84.5m² of internal floorspace plus 4.6m² of internal & external (like a shed) storage. That would look like the 1949 house but with a much smaller outbuilding, or even no outbuilding at all. The Parker Morris standards are often quoted as the Gold Standard for dwelling internal space, and yet even they represented a contraction of space standards.

1967 Parker Morris Standards

The revised 1967 standards did, however, offer a slight increase in minimum dwelling size. A two-storey, three-bedroom, mid-terrace house for five people would require a minimum internal area of 89.1m², although this would be inclusive of any storage space. It might look something like this:

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The omission of storage space from the total area means that built-in cupboards would fix the internal layout without adding any space, and rooms built without storage would require more furniture. Either way, it’s a formula for reducing the available space, and in practice that’s exactly what happened.

The Average 1970s and 1980s House

But maybe the Parker Morris Standards did have an effect on the size of all homes built after its introduction. Or maybe they didn’t — I have no way of proving it. But the average house built during the 1970s was larger than the average house from the preceding two decades. In the 1980s, though, we were back on the downward trend with the average houses size decreasing from 83.33m² in the 70s, to 74.66m² in the 80s.

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We must note that these average houses still don’t meet the minimum area set by the Parker Morris standards. They’re an improvement, but they don’t even make the bare minimum!

The Neoliberal Years

Following the Parker Morris Report, there were no more regulations governing the internal floor area of public housing, or any housing for that matter. The building of Council Housing declined markedly since the end of the 1960s, and most new homes were built by private developers, subject only to the Building Regulations and the demands of the market.

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Source

Although no legally-enforceable space standards were developed during this time, much public housing — built by Local Authorities — was built to consistently high standards, albeit in much smaller quantities. The transfer of most Council Housing stock (and ability to build) to Housing Associations from the end of the 1980s, however, led to a decrease in room sizes.

From then on, housing constructed by the private sector, be it for Housing Associations or for sale to private owners, comprised a far greater range of housing types and sizes than traditional Council Housing. But that which was constructed for Housing Associations tends to fall at the lower end of the market. Decades of deregulation have led to much smaller homes being built for working-class families and single tenants, because these compact homes provide the optimum return on investment.

The Average 1990s and 2000s House

By the 1990s, the average UK house had shrunk to 73.4m², and then to 72.38m² in the first decade of this century.

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The LABC study that I got this data from also looked at the average house size in the first 7 years of the decade in which it was written, the 2010s. Those houses were, on average, a tiny 67.8 sqm.

2015 Nationally Described Space Standard

Things had gotten so ridiculous by the middle of last decade that a Conservative government introduced minimum space standards once again. The catch is that while central government lays down the rules, Local Authorities can choose whether or not to enforce them.

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The plans above show a house that isn’t particularly big, but is still a whopping 37% larger than the average house that was being built at this time. This is what we mean when we say British houses are tiny.

The Timeline of Average House Sizes

infographic showing house size in square metres for each decade, or for the year a regulation was published
infographic showing house size in square metres for each decade, or for the year a regulation was published

You can see in the above infographic that average house sizes, and the minimum standards set by government, have actually remained fairly similar over the last 150 years. The outliers are mid-Victorian dwellings and the 2015 nationally Described Space Standard.

Where I live in the North West of England, there are loads of these grand, old Victorian terraces, and they are chuffing massive inside. There is a distinction to be made between the large homes once inhabited by the Victorian industrialists, and the large homes constructed for the Victorian poor — who would have had many children, and/or shared houses with other families. The houses might have been huge, but they were often over-occupied.

But to the 21st Century dweller, what they see is a properly-proportioned home, large by today’s standards, but which they might not know the story of. The Victorians built bigger and better than their immediate predecessors, and it’s something that modern householders seek out, because modern-built homes just don’t have it, in general.

The other outlier, the Nationally Described Space Standard, reinforces this observation and paints a very poor picture of recent size standards. In the almost 50 years since the Parker Morris Committee, the average size of as-built British houses has declined.

It is likely that the lack of a national conversation about size standards during that period contributed to the continual shrinking of homes, to the point that the government felt it necessary to intervene today. Everyone knows that UK houses are really small inside; something needed to be done.

But what we got wasn’t an improvement. Even considering that housebuilders only had three years to redress the balance since the new recommendations were published, the average 2018 house size in the LABC study is quite a bit smaller than the 2000s equivalent. The rate of shrinkage appears to have accelerated, not slowed.

There are conversations being had today about the value of living space and the effect on an area of having so much small housing. Not all of them are in favour of increasing size, in spite of Britain having more than enough room to build bigger. Amidst a housing crisis of unaffordable house prices and rents, and a shortage of available housing, there are those who can still see a profit in cramming as many people into as many overpriced, low-quality homes as possible.

Our reliance on the market to remediate the problem means that any improvements will be slow and not as radical as those we really need. British homes are likely to stay small for the forseeable future; unless a proper plan, and the political will to execute it, emerges. And what we have at present is an optional standard and a government opposed to “red tape”. I suppose the next question is “how much smaller can British houses get?”.

Machines for Living?

The state of British housing in the 21st Century

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