How small is too small for an apartment?

“‘A small, geometric shoebox’: housing crisis sparks debate over minimum apartment sizes.”

“Housing groups and urban planners have expressed concerns about the loss of living standards and the creation of new slums in the city.”

Are these quotes from news articles about New Zealand?

No, they come from an article in the Guardian, about a resident of inner Melbourne who felt trapped in his 300-square-foot apartment.

However, others said they were fine with living in a shoebox and were surprised at how little space they actually needed.

Tiny apartments were fine for them, and they are for Chris Bishop. New Zealand’s housing minister predicts that there will be plenty of “students and young professionals” who want “small, low-maintenance, affordable housing that’s close to work and transport links.”

Bishop is removing minimum floor area and balcony requirements for apartments, saying buyers will decide what is big enough and the market will determine that.

“You know what’s smaller than a shoebox apartment? Cars and tents that people are living in now,” he said, unveiling a raft of measures to boost housing construction in mid-week.

The move will undoubtedly reduce development costs and price tags, but it could also drive up other, non-financial costs. It’s a well-informed debate wherever you go, “with some believing that market demand should dictate the size of homes, others that space standards are essential to maintaining public health and wellbeing,” according to UK housing researchers.

Bishop cited New York, London and Paris – the “greatest cities in the world” – as models for Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington to aspire to.

Closer to home you can look at Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

Do the cities New Zealand is aiming for want an open approach to apartments?

In principle not.

The rules, guidelines, principles and regulations vary in scope, success and minimum shoebox size allowed, but they exist. In each case, they come with hard evidence from qualified planners, hard lessons about what works and what doesn’t, and the kind of tough debate that New Zealand could listen to.

A few days ago, the Sydney Morning Herald ran the headline (https://www.smh.com.au/national/a-diabolical-mess-how-did-we-get-into-this-housing-crisis-and-how-do-we-get-out-20240628-p5jpj8.html) ‘A diabolical mess: How did we get into this housing crisis and how do we get out?’, which noted that apartments in Europe are doing better than in Australian cities.

What are the minimum requirements for apartments? What rules apply?

London

An apartment building in London.

Victorian England and the 1980s were periods of largely unregulated housing development and cramped housing.

“However, there is a long history in this country of attempts to regulate the interior of living spaces,” said British practice Urbanist Architecture.

The very first thing the 2010 London Design Guide says is: “No amount of thoughtful design can compensate for the smallness of houses and apartments.”

That directive, the London 2021 plan and the UK’s Nationally Described Space Standards set the following minimum requirements (a medium-sized car takes up about 8 m2):

  • One bedroom: 37 m², in limited numbers in central locations with good public transport and amenities – parks, shops, cafes
  • Other, one bed: 50m²
  • Two bedrooms: 61 m²
  • Three bedrooms: 74 m²

Research in the UK last year found that “the price per square metre of small homes is often much higher than that of much larger homes in the same neighbourhood”. So in London, the area is shrinking faster than the price.

New York

An apartment building in New York.

The Big Apple has some small apartments. But there are also minima:

  • Studio: 32-37m²
  • One bed: 46-51m²
  • Two bedrooms: 60-67 m²
  • Three bedrooms: 78-88 m²

There are very clear rules about what should be in bathrooms and how big kitchen countertops and cabinets should be.

Not much is left to chance, but the city’s approach does leave plenty of room for clever design, such as the 400-square-foot Manhattan apartment that a family of three renovated so they could continue to live in it.

It was difficult to find hard and fast rules online.

Paris

An apartment building in Paris.

A rental site suggests the following standard sizes:

  • Studio: 9-35m², so very, very small on the small side
  • One bed: From 30m²
  • Two bedrooms: 50 m²
  • Three bedrooms: 80 m²

Australia’s envy of Europe may have something to do with stories of the construction of 14,000 student apartments and 82,000 for families in the past 20-30 years, which people seem to appreciate. “How does Paris stay Paris? By pumping billions into social housing,” headlined the New York Times.

(Paris also has a number of older, ghetto-style high-rises, as do Bishop’s other “model” cities.)

Melbourne

An apartment building in Melbourne.

Three-quarters of respondents in official 2015 surveys strongly agreed or strongly agreed that there should be minimum dimensions for apartments.

After heated debate, Victoria began strengthening, not weakening, apartment design standards in 2021.

Planning rules specify minimum dimensions for rooms in an apartment. For example, 9-10.2 m2 for each bedroom, 10-12 m2 for the living room, excluding kitchen or dining areas.

Recent minimum dimensions for apartments appear to be:

  • Studio (combined living room and bedroom): 24m²
  • One bed: 42m²
  • Two bedrooms: 52 m²

The size and placement of windows are strictly specified for light and ventilation. Ceilings must be 2.6 m or higher and apartments are only allowed to be set back a certain height, 8-9 m, to avoid a cave-like feel.

Each apartment should have storage space and a small, open outdoor space, such as an 8-12 m² balcony or a small courtyard.

There are rules and designs to limit noise and make optimal use of the sun.

Victorian politicians have outlined a policy they say will “not only improve the quality of apartment designs but also encourage the delivery of high-quality, medium-scale apartment buildings”.

Apartments may not be big, but the rules are not strict.

Sydney

Apartment blocks in Sydney.

Sydney expects that by 2030, about 80 percent of residents will live in apartments.

New South Wales has been developing rules for apartments for more than two decades, culminating in a 2021 policy that “aims to create a better living environment for residents who choose this form of housing, and to improve streetscapes and neighbourhoods across the state”.

The streetscape is also subject to rules: public space for apartment residents is not entirely the result of arbitrary market forces in Sydney or Paris.

The Sydney Apartment Design Guide dates from 2015 and states: “We have seen a shift towards well-designed, high-quality apartment buildings with improved internal amenities and we have seen significant improvements in the way apartment buildings relate to their neighbourhoods.”

Minimum apartment sizes:

  • Studio: 35m²
  • One bed: 50m²
  • Two bedrooms: 70 m²
  • Three bedrooms: 90 m²

There are design rules or minimums for the layout of the space, the shape, daylight and sunlight, natural ventilation and acoustic and visual privacy.

Perth

Perth skyline.

Perth has regulations on the size of the city, both inside and out. There is a need for public space with ‘good quality landscaping, trees and deep ground’ and ‘safe, accessible and well-equipped spaces for social interaction’.

Minimum dimensions:

  • Studio: 37m²
  • One bed: 47m²
  • Two bedrooms: 67 m²
  • Three: 90m²

Rules and their impact

What is beyond the scope of this article is how the presence of regulations in these cities impacts their own idiosyncratic housing supply. All cities are struggling with their own version of a housing crisis, each with its own controversies surrounding it.

New York, for example, has floated a proposal to allow apartment buildings of up to five stories high to be built on top of laundromats, bars and other single-story commercial buildings in some neighborhoods outside Manhattan.

The government and Chris Bishop’s goal is clear: more apartments, more homes, more choice.

“These changes … will bring more choice to our housing market, and that can only be a good thing,” he said.

The approach to apartments, however, has struck a different chord to that in global cities, where the pages of regulations share a common, practical ambition to make apartments and apartment living better, rather than a drive to simply prevent the worst alternative – sleeping in tents and cars.

rnz.co.nz