The ups and downs of micro-living

Are studio flats just another profit-making tool or can we create shared spaces where the community can thrive?
By Adrienne Lau

(Credit: Adrienne Lau)
(Credit: Adrienne Lau)

She wakes up in her studio flat. With well-practiced motion, she rolls up the duvet and pillows to one side before folding the bed into a smart wall bed system. After a quick shower, she has eggs and coffee as the washing machine churns next to her. She ponders if the overgrown plant in the corner should be replaced by an armchair. Every bit of space is precious. The washing machine beeps. She takes out the small items and switches on the dryer for the large items. Where would she hang the bed sheets? 

At mid-day, she resumes the work on her model. The model sits on the work desk along with various objects: laptop, printer, sketch book, materials and tools. She clears her desk by putting the printer and its cables under the desk and spreading the tools and materials on the floor. She places the laptop on the sofa and puts on some music. Finally she can work away with enough desk area. After a few solid hours of focused work and making a mess, she cleans up and gets ready for a friend’s visit. 

Having promised to make a Cantonese dinner, she comes home with bags of groceries. The door cannot fully open because that space behind the door is the only place for a shoe rack and a bike. Storing anything outside in the communal hallway is forbidden. The open kitchen is a cluster of appliances arranged in the smallest footprint possible. She folds out a small table to supplement food preparation surface. Her friend arrives and compliments the smell which reminds her to open the windows to ventilate. She sets up the same small table for eating as the flat-sharing friend complains about not getting along with flatmates. That makes her feel lucky to have privacy and freedom in her own space. After the friend leaves, feeling too tired to prepare the wall bed, she falls asleep on the sofa. 

I wrote this imagined diary based on my own experiences living in a new studio flat in Colindale around eight years ago. 

Colindale has a high density of studio flats with many more currently being built. Some residents have expressed concerns to Barnet Post that Barnet Council are not building enough family homes and studio flats could make the area feel more transient, potentially leading to lower voter turnout. 

The studio flat is ubiquitous in new developments across the capital. Micro-living is a global phenomenon especially in cosmopolitan cities like Paris, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong etc. At first glance, the general reasons seem to be the high demand for affordable properties in desirable neighbourhoods, the rise of singledom or childless couples, and a stepping stone for first-time buyers to trade up in the future. But, can we really explain the trend through demand? 

In Colindale, studio flat sizes in new developments ranges from just below 300 to over 400 square feet. The larger versions are an ‘optimised’ one-bed flat layout with a sliding screen separating the bed from the living space. The smaller ones are a single open plan space with a bathroom. Some have balconies half the size of the flat. The monthly rent is upwards of £1,000 a month which is just about acceptable for someone upgrading from flat-sharing in London. 

The prices for buying range from around mid £200k to mid £300k providing enough differentiation in comparison to one-bed flats priced at around £400k in the same developments. It is in fact a brilliant business plan for developers since studio flats increase the total number of units that fit in a buildable area. The strategy makes every square foot work hard to make a profit from the cumulative premium buyers pay. I can imagine the council welcomes it because of the extra council tax collectable from sheer higher occupant numbers. 

Even architects and designers love designing micro-living spaces. It is a fascinating design challenge to solve real problems. How to double and triple up the use of one space, how to design fold-out furniture and smart storage units the likes of which Marie Kondo would applaud. How to create a hyper-functional environment for the next generation of cosmopolitan go-getters. There are design competitions, conferences, TV shows and publications dedicated to small spaces. This industry helps proliferate a certain ideal that there is a trendy modern lifestyle thriving in metropolitan cities. 

In illustrations where a single man lounges comfortably with an iPad in his multi-functional cocoon, looking like a first-class flyer, we’re seduced into thinking that humans are not diverse and messy with a wide range of needs. Sometimes you cannot design your way out of the lack of space with furniture systems or advocating disciplined and organised living. 

People need space to sleep, work, cook, dry their laundry, stretch and do things they love. Keeping sentimental objects should not be a luxury. People with disabilities might need more space to manoeuvre. Not everyone can work from a small tablet. People need space to be creative. 

The pandemic has exposed the acute difference in experience between people living in large homes and those living in small homes. With work-from-home practices, many city dwellers have moved out of their extortionately pricy shoeboxes to more affordable and larger homes outside of the capital. This ought to be a wake-up call for London councils to address spatial inequality. 

There is a place for studio flats, of course. In fact, they can be a valuable asset for a community if they are managed equitably and not as a financial product. Small affordable spaces can be helpful for people going through transitional times such as couple separation or when someone is finding their feet upon arrival to a new city. They can also be an attractive option for people needing short stays – tourists, people who need a regular but temporary presence in the city, guests visiting and staying for the night. 

We could make studio living more attractive by increasing the quality and quantity of community spaces. For people who do live permanently in studio flats, their experience outside of their homes becomes incredibly important. What lacks in their own homes can be provided for in communal gardens, shared kitchens, storage, workshops and studios, workspace, guest rooms, social and play areas. If we can make studio flat living attractive as a community, then we can be assured that everyone benefits from a higher quality of life. Studio-livers would have more incentive to stay in an area, feeling less transitory. Like this, an area dense with studio flats could become a real home for many. 

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