front door number 76 in black and white

In 2016 the homeless charity Shelter, working together with British Gas, produced The Living Home Standard. Their aim was to ask the public ‘what an acceptable home should provide’.  

This Living Home Standard resulted in 39 attributes comprised of 5 separate essentials. These were: Affordability, Decent Conditions, Space, Stability, Neighbourhood and other ‘tradable’ criteria, according to differing needs/priorities. 

This standard is not a list of demands. These are bottom line expectations for contemporary living.

Thankfully, we no longer live in the Victorian age and so a home that is free from pests, mould and has hot/cold running water is not an entirely excessive expectation. And in this day and age having enough space for all members of the family to have privacy and comfort and space for storage, bathing and cooking should surely be a given, rather than a luxury. 

What strikes me most about this list of attributes is that it is grounded in real experience.

It is not about seeking out an unreasonable lifestyle, but of maintaining close connections to family, friends, neighbourhood and the opportunity to live life quietly within their home – with the occasional night out, a holiday and a hobby. Just like everyone else.  

In context, the home has to be a place where people can feel safe in their neighbourhood, close to amenities, family support networks and transport – where the rent is affordable, where noise is not an issue and they have a sense of stability.

Remarkably, this survey (designed by Ipsos Mori) was the first project of its kind to  involve the public in developing a standard. And specifically, because of that, it has yielded rich data based on what people value, need and aspire to –  rather than what other agencies decide on their behalf. 

People described ‘Home’ as a place that is: ‘safe’, ‘warm’, ‘secure’.

Emotionally it is a backdrop for ‘living’; the one space where people should be able to feel relaxed and comfortable. But, if the roof leaks, if there are draughts, anti-social behaviour, poor ventilation or light there will be little or no emotional pull. It will just be an occupied space – with added stress. 

This was not a tick-box exercise. It was about listening to what people say and think, and do. And, it provides a much more rounded view of people’s day to day living.

So, instead of costs – as the direct relationship between set weekly income and outgoings, they recognise that people tend to take an overall view on expenditure. People save for day to day and eventualities: school uniforms, replacement appliances, a new pair of glasses, etc. 

Affordability is not just what people earn and what they spend, it is a constantly shifting process; according what they have, what they want and what they need. And then there are the unexpected costs. These are items you cannot budget for, and events you did expect to occur, which ultimately can push people into debt. 

Top of the list for decent conditions was heating – simply because it impacts so much on how people function in the home: doing homework, sitting watching TV, maintaining good health.

You can occupy a space that is cold, but you cannot ‘live’ in it. (The alternative might be to go to bed with a hot water bottle just to keep warm, or spend all day in the local library.)

But a home also needs to be suited to the age of the occupants so they can access all areas. It needs to have sufficient electrical sockets, bathroom facilities, be structurally sound and hazard-free, mould and pest-free, and secure. 

Dwelling is not just about occupying a space under a roof.

As one interviewee said: “we want to live, not just survive.  For the benefit of mental and physical growth, that must include a social life, friends coming to visit, hobbies and treats. And why not?

This standard is not a wish list. It reflects basic human needs for a space that is fit for dwelling, in the 21stcentury. It recognises that there has to be more than a base line, because housing is not ‘shelter’, housing is a ‘home’. 

By listening to what people say and what matters to them at different lifestages this standard accepts that people have quirks, non-standard behaviour, and ‘wee ways’.  We are all different and we also live in changing times. Ten years ago a mobile phone may have been considered a luxury, now it is a necessity.

Issues related to stability – and the opportunity to put down roots –  impacted more on people in private rented accommodation on in public sector than those who owned their own home.  The landlord/ tenant relationship can be testy, and tested, and can disrupt the sense of continuity that many people desire – especially if they want to become part of the community and build social relationships. 

Consider also how much it takes before someone is willing ‘invest’ in a property that it not their own. The freedom to decorate (in your own style), to make alterations, hang pictures or keep a pet is often subject to rules and regulations, set guidelines, authorisations and applications that constantly remind you that this space is not yours.

The powers-that-be have ownership of your home, your space. You may have the ideas, but they make the decisions.

  “If you want your own place and it to feel homey then you should be able to do something that makes it feel like your own home.” 

Being able to make personal choices about space, is about assuming control over your space.

Choosing colours, floor surfaces, tiles, kitchens etc. – these things matter. They connect people to the space, that is their home because it engages people emotionally and creatively.  

Taking pride in how a space looks gives people a sense of ownership, which is important if they want to feel they belong. Being able to put a little bit of themselves into creating a home for their family, they are investing in that space. 

In 2016 the survey concluded that four in ten homes in Britain did not meet an acceptable living standard.

By far the biggest issue was affordability. This was most evident in private rented accommodation, particularly in London.  No surprise there! 

In 2018 the Living Standard, applied in Scotland, found that one in three did not meet the standard – again with affordability and decent conditions being the biggest issues. A different location, different context and housing system, but a stark reminder that the emerging problems were the same.

These findings surely must set off some alarm bells somewhere – No? 

If we are to continue to shape, inform and improve the design of living conditions  and homes then the Living Home Standard is a very good place to start.

The elephant in the room is that the desire to develop and build more homes is all very well, but affordability has to be addressed.

And that is a bigger conversation

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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