Laboratory for Design and Machine Learning

Laboratory for Design and Machine Learning

London Housing: Policy, Regulation, and Typology

Year 2018-2021

Team Lucia Alonso (Lead Researcher, Project Coordinator), Dean Black (Researcher), Anna Voersel (Researcher), Seyithan Ozer (Researcher), Sam Jacoby (Project Leader)

Funder Prosit Philosophiae Foundation

The study of housing acts, reports, manuals, design guidelines, policies, and regulations reveal their collective impact on housing provision and key moments in the formation of the housing market. It highlights significant historical changes in how ‘universal’ housing ideals were implemented. This is analysed in the context of housing in London, which differ in its characteristic from other parts of England.

There has been a historical shift in focus of housing policy from general public health concerns to specific design problems linked to space standards and home use that take into consideration the daily routines and lifecycles of family households. More recently, less tangible design drivers such as sustainability or social value and wellbeing have come to the fore. These changes in policy focus were underpinned by health, social, and technical research whose evidence base has informed changing spatial reasoning and housing design. The interplay between socio-cultural transformations or ambitions and measurable assessments has been formative to housing design standards. 

In England, housing reports have been important milestones for new housing acts and design guidelines starting with the Tudor Walters Report (1918). England’s best-known space standard, deriving from the Parker Morris Report (1961), saw an important shift to non-standard and evidence-based, ‘scientific’ reasoning. While the report returned to the provision of numerical values and recommendations of minimum standards, it paid particular attention to notions of usability and flexibility. The abolishment of the Parker Morris standards in 1980 marked a significant reduction in government intervention. Space standards soon dropped by 5 to 15% and the marketisation of housing resulted in ‘public housing’ – accessible widely to the population – making way for ‘social housing’ that only provides accommodation to those not served by the market. Space standards in England are now significantly lower than those in continental Europe. However, there are not only critical shortcomings of space standards in some sectors but also in building regulations.

From a qualitative to a quantitative assessment of housing, today we see again a cyclical shift towards more qualitative assessment criteria, linked to issues of wellbeing, social value, and, as the most recent government housing report Living with Beauty: Promoting Health, Well-being and Sustainable Growth (2020) demonstrates, ideas of style. However, current housing policy also shows a fundamental disconnect between housing delivery, supply, and quality assessment from architectural design values, as regulations and standards rely largely on quantifiable performance requirements in which spatial design is of little importance.

There is a lack of more data-driven and evidence-based approaches to the analysis and evaluation of housing outcomes that account for the multi-scalar problems of housing, including issues of procurement and financing, but also understand better what housing quality indicators mean to occupants. Likewise, while research into the relationship between household, home use, and housing design was essential to housing studies from the post-war period to at least the 1980s, there is a significant knowledge gap how today’s demographics and use patterns compare or if changing housing needs and household compositions are sufficiently served by current housing models. 

A key question raised by this housing study is if housing standards and minimum performance requirements are an effective means to safeguard housing quality. It also points to the problem of how a minimum requirement is defined and might change over time. How then should minimum standards be determined and reasoned, and how can they be more inclusive of a wider demographic and emerging housing needs? 

Analysing the spatial organisation of dwellings, this study examines the design of housing from a historical perspective, what kinds of evidence-based spatial judgments exist, and how these impact the design and provision of space in homes. The study is divided into two related themes:

Theme 1, ‘Policy and Regulation’, examines the development of housing regulations and policy over time and highlights the shift from standardised plans to space standards. It analyses how quantitative space standards are derived mainly from qualitative ideas about housing and how space standards have changed over time, producing different design outcomes. 

Theme 2, ‘Housing Typologies’, studies the design evolution of London’s main housing typologies, such as terraced houses, semi-detached housing, maisonettes, and flats, but adopts a morphological classification of dwellings through their spatial organisation, number of storeys, and access type. It examines the political, economic, and cultural drivers that have shaped the design of dwellings. 

Housing Regulations

Housing policy and policy instruments are historically contextual to larger external events such as the Industrial Revolution, World War I and II or climate change and technological advancements as well as new national political or economic agendas and socio-cultural transformations.

  • Building regulations, housing manuals, and pattern books during the Georgian period led to the first far-reaching standardisation of housing design and details for speculative builders and developments.
  • From the use of ‘standard plans’ for Victorian philanthropic model dwellings or the Tudor Walters Report (1918), there has been a shift to ‘space standards such as those recommended by the Parker Morris Committee in 1961.
  • Today, technical functional requirements based on minimum performance criteria or dimensions that can be quantitatively measured have become most common.
  • Current regulations often derive from ‘good practice’ standards with a trade-off between a stronger status at the expense of weaker mandatory requirements.
London: Social and Functional Analysis, Abercrombie Plan, 1943

Housing Assessment and Criteria

The Victorian period, concerned with public health and hygiene, based many of its housing-related policies on medical advice and health statistics. In 1917, housing evidence began to focus on technical research with the establishment of the Building Materials Research Committee. From the 1930s onwards, housing policy and planning has been increasingly based on public opinion and user data collected from occupants and housing interest groups through polls, questionnaires, and surveys, with the first English Housing Survey conducted in 1967. The Parker Morris Report (1961) is an example of the social studies that have informed housing policy and standards. Since then, housing has been widely assessed through quantitative metrics and performance requirements that no longer stipulate specific design solutions. 

  • The evidence base and reasoning informing housing have significantly changed over time, from public health concerns to home use routines and technical building or material performance research.
  • Socio-cultural norms and aspirations remain a great determinant of housing and its design.
  • Qualitative housing criteria, such as ‘good’ design or ‘social value’ are today largely assessed using quantifiable and dimensional data criteria. Yet, how housing quality is defined or experienced is subjective and varies greatly over time. 
  • Little reliable research has looked into how quantitative criteria shape housing quality, the use or experience of the home, design decisions, and housing outcomes.

Household Composition and Definitions

The needs of the working family have, since the nineteenth century, remained a key public housing concern. Housing policy and regulations have therefore been biased towards the spatial needs and organisation of the family, despite significant demographic change over the last decades. 

  • Historically, the definition of the household has not been limited to familial bonds but extended to that of domestic servants and lodgers. Today, the number of households in London made up of one- or two-person households and unrelated adults living together are rapidly increasing. 
  • In inner London, the majority of dwellings have one (30%) and two bedrooms (32%), while in outer London, one-bedroom dwellings account for only 16% and dwellings with three bedrooms or more make up over half of the housing stock (54%).
  • There is a significant mismatch between the availability of dwelling typologies and sizes in comparison to household compositions, and demographics, leading to an increase in housing inequalities and over- or under-occupation of homes. This is in parts due to England having one of the oldest housing stocks in Europe, with 56% in inner London built before 1945.
The younger family. Ministry of Housing, Design Bulletin 6: Space in the Home, 1968 (metric version)

Space Standards and the Housing Stock

Space standards are the most tangible housing design controls, however, it is not always clear how they are determined and make generalisations about common user needs. As in England properties are marketed based on the number of bedrooms and not floor areas, it shows a continuing tension between socio-cultural factors, housing market dynamics, and regulatory cultures when trying to achieve policy objectives. The conflict between safeguarding space standards and usability and economic drivers of housing has led to space standards becoming a maximum, not a minimum design target. 

  • Space standards in England have fluctuated over time, reaching an all-time high with the Housing Manual of 1949. The overall recommended dwelling size has increased while bedroom sizes have decreased.
  • How a building is accessed ultimately defines its disposition at the scale of both the individual unit and the wider urban context.

Evolution of Dwelling Typologies

Housing policy, standards, and design guides have historically reinforced cultural preferences for dwelling typologies, for example, the terraced house. Dwelling typologies have a specific relationship between the scale of the unit, the building, and its surrounding context and to access and circulation types. They are therefore not only determining the housing interior and its use but also the urban scale and its morphology. The transformation of dwelling typologies highlights the relationship between their layouts and a variety of social, cultural, economic, historical, technical, political, and environmental contexts. Different occupancies, building conversions, new use patterns, and user adaptations had a significant influence on dwelling layouts.

Space standards study. Mayor of London, London Housing Design Guide, 2010
  • Social transformations, especially in the post-war period, saw spatial hierarchy and organisation no longer shaped by social norms and aspirations but increasingly by considerations of efficiency, convenience, privacy and affordability. This affected the type of rooms provided in a home, for example, a parlour, the adoption of new types of circulation spaces such as corridors and access galleries, and the reorganisation of ‘public’ living spaces and ‘private’ bedrooms.
  • Modern utilities and appliances in the home had a significant impact on its spatial and functional organisation, for example, the rearrangement of kitchens, WCs, and bathrooms.
  • There has been a change from the standardisation of dwelling typologies to the standardisation of rooms and elements within the home.
  • There has been a shift from building two- and three-storey dwellings such as terraced and semi-detached houses to single-storey dwellings such as flats, both historically and in terms of location within the city. Today flats account for over 54% of London’s housing stock while terraced housing, once the predominant housing type, now constitutes a mere 25.9%.
  • The increase of flats in London has also been the result of many conversions of terraced housing. This terraced-house-flat hybrid demonstrates the unreliability of conventional housing typologies, as dwellings and their classification and function can change over time – from a house to a flat.
The changing design of rooms: two-storey houses and maisonettes (from 1960s)


Jacoby, S., Arancibia, A. & Alonso, L. (2022). Space standards and housing design: Typological experimentation in England and ChileThe Journal of Architecture.


Timeline contextualising selected case studies of housing standards and regulations with built examples in London and political and institutional bodies.