Celebrities posting from gardens and hot tubs are taking to Instagram to implore us to stay in our homes. Politicians and medical officers can’t give us definitive answers on when the lockdown might ease. The over 70s and medically vulnerable are only a quarter of the way into their strict 12 week staycation. And one thing has become painfully obvious: we’re not all isolating equally.
Sophie Charara www.wired.co.uk
“For the current crisis, what’s becoming clear is that there’s a kind of assumption that the home, both physically and socially, is a privately-owned, bourgeois suburban house, with a garden, space to have a home office in, separate rooms for kids,” says Des Fitzgerald, an associate professor of sociology with a focus on science and medicine, at the University of Exeter. “But one of the things the pandemic is making visible is a kind of collective architectural problem in which it becomes clear that, for a lot of people, their houses are not designed and built for spending a great deal of time in.”
The lockdown is making it increasingly impossible to ignore the failings of both local authority housing and privately rented flats to provide basic shelter, comfort, health and safety. Polly Neate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, estimates that “hundreds of thousands” of families in the UK are living in overcrowded or bad housing during this pandemic, making the current social distancing advice almost impossible for them to follow. Last September, research by the Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, found that 3.6 million people currently live in overcrowded homes with 1.4 million in poor or substandard conditions. And in 2018, the English Housing Survey found that over a quarter of privately rented homes, mostly Victorian houses, in the West Midlands – a coronavirus hotspot – were unfit for human habitation, due to hazards including mould and insufficient heating.
“Adequate natural light, a view or views, access to nature, adequate ventilation, decent acoustics, comfortable internal climate and the ability to move around are all necessary attributes of a healthy environment,” says Geraldine Dening, lead architect and co-founder of Architects for Social Housing. “The same issues we would normally talk about in relation to housing are all exaggerated and exacerbated.”
Poor indoor ventilation could be a particular concern. It has been linked to asthma, one of the conditions which seems, at this early stage, to be linked to some cases of coronavirus, with those in single aspect developments, rather than dual aspect (with windows at the front and back for cross-ventilation) most at risk. Asthma UK’s guidance also notes that asthma sufferers will most feel the effects of poor indoor air quality if they spend a lot of time indoors: currently a civic duty. Then there’s the most visible housing issue during the lockdown so far: access to private outdoor space, such as gardens and balconies, particularly tough for – but not limited to – families with children.
With London parks including Brockwell Park and Victoria Park shutting or reducing their hours, neighbourhoods are losing vital access to green space – something that was accounted for in post war urban planning. “The city’s parks are fundamental to the ability to live healthily, and the home is not an isolated unit, but one that is in direct relationship with its surroundings,” says Dening. “Post war planners understood this when they located tower blocks adjacent to large, open green spaces like the Alton Estate by Richmond Park.” She even suggests we should have a statutory right to outdoor space to avoid dangerous knock-on effects on physical and mental health.
These could range from mobility issues for elderly people with no private gardens, who are used to daily walks, to just-released ONS data that suggests that younger people are struggling more with loneliness during this period: 24 per cent of adults are lonely ‘some or all of the time’ versus 12.7 per cent of over 70s. Paris has just temporarily taken away its residents’ right to outdoor exercise but the British government continues to encourage exercise – if not sunbathing – in public parks and on the streets. Fitzgerald suggests designing out private gardens altogether: “A really radical solution might actually be less about adding gardens to flats. What if all of us only had the public parks as outdoor space? I bet this pandemic would look a lot different.”
Housing that meets the minimum standards needed for planning permission, say 40 square metres for a studio, offers the basic amenities to live – kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. (There are, in fact, no minimum housing standards for private housing; hence landlords partitioning houses into tiny ‘studios’). “Beyond that it ceases to function for any other activity you may now need the unit to facilitate in this current scenario. After washing, sleeping and cooking, the base standard doesn’t give you qualitative living,” says Siraaj Mitha, an architect at Stanton Williams.
In this current stay-at-home phase, this has repercussions on our ability to turn our homes into places of education, work and Zoom-based leisure. A YouGov survey published this month by the Social Mobility Foundation found that 17 per cent of children in households with income over £70,000 a year do not have a quiet room to study enduring the lockdown; that rises to 40 per cent of children living in households who earn less than £20,000.
As anyone with daily video conference calls can attest to, broadband access and speeds – now crucial to working from home and homeschooling – also vary wildly across geography and socioeconomic backgrounds. The research also found that one million children in the UK do not have an internet connection at home or a device they can use for online lessons. The case for public ownership of broadband, a policy in the 2019 Labour Party manifesto, arguably looks stronger than it did pre-crisis.
It’s not just school-age students, either. As Dening points out, students who have been turfed out of university accommodation may have moved back home without a room of their own to focus on their studies and escape to. Overcrowding, whether it’s private rented accommodation in cities with no dedicated living space or multiple generations living in one house, is also exacerbated by stay-at-home orders. Open plan design has been the preferred mode since the 1950s, but this approach limits the ability to acoustically shut off spaces; even a lack of storage space in open plan homes will be more of a problem.
An Ipsos Mori/King’s College London survey of 2,250 people carried out in the first week of April didn’t ask questions specifically about housing but found that 15% of people are already finding it “extremely difficult” to cope under current lockdown measures. Another 14% on top of that expect it to become so in the next four weeks.
“The number of rooms one might have in one’s home is an economic and political issue,” says Dening. “The bedroom tax, for example, means that residents on housing benefit are fined if they have an extra room, so their ability to work from home or ‘self isolate’ if one or more family members gets sick will be considerably diminished or non existent.” It also means there is little or no ability to adjust, alter, transform or subdivide rooms that aren’t “functionally predetermined” for the weeks and months of lockdown. Workers on low incomes, or who are not in work, are already living in the maximum space they are allowed.
The need to be able to safely isolate potentially infected family members as much as possible is much more likely to be an issue for key workers such as NHS staff and supermarket workers. Access to spaces such as vestibules and garages, which are now being used as DIY decontamination zones, have become a point of difference across housing, says Emily Sargent, senior curator of the Wellcome Collection’s Living with Buildings exhibition.
“These liminal spaces like porches and internal stairways are being employed to create distance between the interior and the exterior,” she says. “Looking at the 20th century infestations, your coat and your hat, which had a relationship with the outside world, would be contained in a cupboard or on a hook in an entrance hall. They wouldn’t go into your bedroom or living room.” This kind of behaviour is at this current moment no longer a nice-to-have in modern homes, it’s a necessity. Together with issues around lack of spare rooms, poor ventilation and outdoor space, this might go some way to explaining the recent PA Media reports of frontline NHS workers living in hotels or sending their children to relatives, rather than attempting to safely share one household during this peak of coronavirus infections.
Sargent also wants to see more conversation about another use of the home that will be new to some: the fact that many people are, as instructed, managing and recovering from coronavirus entirely at home. Books like the 1943 The Care of Tuberculosis in the Home published recommendations on how best to replicate sanatorium conditions at home – “offering the patient the best room in the house, ideally on the first floor, removing all the curtains and carpets… ideally with a south facing exposure” – with the instructions in some cases leading to the construction of ‘TB sheds’ in gardens.
Here, the modern trend for open plan design strikes again: “We don’t have the same delineation between living spaces now. We operate in more of an open plan interior and that makes some elements of infectious diseases quite difficult to manage.”
The question remains, then, whether the magnifying glass of this crisis could lead to an opportunity to rethink how our standards and principles of housing actually translate to the homes we live in. Post-pandemic, will we be designing or upgrading for quarantine in a meaningful way?
According to Sargent, we’ve lost track of ventilation as a core “principle of health” in housing that’s in need of revisiting with renewed urgency. Fitzgerald says the critical issue is less about design than maintaining access to public infrastructure safely “if and when this happens again”. For Dening, it’s a question not of architecture alone but political will and above all, the crisis should not be used to provide cover for the type of demolition and gentrification projects that lock out existing residents.
“The idea of the slum and the healthy living environment is rarely solely a material or design issue, but an economic one,” she says. “Refurbishment should always be the default mechanism for making improvements to people’s environments which enable the existing community to remain. There are very few situations where the design is so poor that simple interventions to the existing fabric – rather than wholesale demolition – cannot address.”