Home comforts during
the Covid-19 lockdown
A Place Alliance report, with invaluable assistance received from Esther Kurland and Susan May of Urban Design London and Lynne Sullivan of the Good Homes Alliance. Thanks also to Civic Voice, the Town & Country Planning Association and Urban Design Group.
The research was presented by Professor Carmona at the “Design Now: what you need to know” event on the 7th of December 2020 as part of RTPI Online Events.
Here you can find the full recording of the event.
VIdeo recorded and produced by RTPI.
Based on 2510 responses, the research concluded:
Download the Research
OUR HOMES DURING LOCK-DOWN
1 – Most are comfortable, but many are not
- Millions of uncomfortable people: Two thirds of people felt comfortable or very comfortable during lockdown, but a sixth were either uncomfortable or very uncomfortable. Extrapolated across the UK this would represent 10.7 million uncomfortable people.
- Houses are more comfortable than flats: Those living in houses (of any type) were more comfortable than those living in apartments, with those living in mid- (5-10 storey) or high-rise blocks (over 11 stories) being the least comfortable of all.
- The newest dwellings are the most uncomfortable: Dwellings were progressively less comfortable the newer they were, with the most recently built homes (built between 2010 and 2020) recording the lowest proportions of comfortable residents.
- Social renters suffered the most: Tenure was the strongest predictor of comfort in the home. Owner occupiers were the most comfortable, followed by those in the private rented sector. Those renting from local authorities or housing associations were the least comfortable by some margin.
- Key workers were least comfortable: Perversely, those working from home during lockdown were more comfortable than those working away from home (the so-called key workers). residents.
2 – Why are some less comfortable than others?
- Access to private open space is critical: Access to private open space from the home was the strongest design-based predictor of comfort. Households with a private garden or terrace space were the most comfortable, followed by those with a private balcony or shared garden. Households with no access to any sort of private open space were least comfortable.
- More space means more comfort: Dwellings were noticeably more comfortable the more rooms they had per occupant, whilst dwellings with 5 or more occupants were noticeably less comfortable during lockdown.
- Most (but not all) work comfortably from home: Only 7% struggled to work at home, with social renters prominent amongst them. Common problems included a physical lack of space, difficulties in separating home and work life, poor home technology (notably wifi), and poor physical conditions (lighting, environmental conditions, inappropriate furniture, lack of storage, etc.).
- Internal design matters: Preferences for open plan over cellular arrangements within the home vary, although the pressures of lockdown have led to a desire amongst many for a greater degree of cellularity, including for a dedicated home office space. Good environmental conditions, fresh air, daylight into the home and good noise insulation, were widely seen as fundamental.
- We want more: Even for those with good space standards our aspirations are typically first, for access to better (larger) private external space followed by, second, more living space in the home.
OUR NEIGHBOURHOODS DURING LOCK-DOWN
3 – Our neighbourhoods serve us well (most of us)
- A minority suffer poorly designed neighbourhoods: Almost three quarters of residents felt that their local neighbourhood met their everyday needs well or very well during lockdown, approaching a quarter that it was OK, and just 4% felt this was not the case. Extrapolated across the UK this would nevertheless represent a population of 2.7 million people.
- Urban is just as good: Comparing levels of satisfaction with neighbourhoods across rural, suburban and urban areas revealed very similar levels of satisfaction.
High-rise comes out poorly: Neighbourhoods composing houses (whether detached, semi-detached or terraced) score markedly better than those with apartment blocks, particularly those with high rise blocks.
- Newer neighbourhoods come out worse: The data showed a progressive deterioration of the neighbourhood experience of lockdown in the most recently established neighbourhoods.
- Owner occupiers are happiest with their neighbourhoods: Again, owner occupiers scored their neighbourhoods most highly, followed by private renters. Those renting from housing associations and particularly from local authorities scored their neighbourhoods least well.
- Poor space at home and around: For residents with no or only limited access to private open space (e.g. a balcony), the wider neighbourhood was often failing to fill the gap left by their lack of access to open space at home.
4 – Green, mixed-use, less-trafficked and connected neighbourhoods are key
- Parks and greenery are fundamental: Proximity to a park or significant green space (within a 5 minute walk) was the strongest predictor of satisfaction with neighbourhoods during lockdown, with satisfaction dropping off markedly the further away open space was and significantly when over 10 minutes. The green (landscape) qualities of the environment, including green streets and garden spaces, were seen as fundamental by residents.
- A 5 to 10 minute city: Factors relating to the presence of local facilities (shops and services) within easy reach of the home and large shops not too far away were almost as strong as a predictor of satisfaction. Satisfaction peaked at 5 minutes and dropped away markedly over 10 minutes.
- Space for walking and cycling on quieter streets: The availability of less trafficked streets and good walking and cycle routes from the home were particularly prized during the lockdown, as were wider pavements where they existed.
- COVID is an opportunity: There is a strong desire to use the crisis of COVID to deliver better environment standards and clear long-term health and quality of life benefits through a permanent switch in modes of travel, a material change in the quality of streets and open spaces, and a safer and more pleasant environment.
OUR COMMUNUTY DURING LOCK-DOWN
5 – A variable sense of community (pre-COVID)
- Community feeling is typically rudimentary: Most respondents (two thirds) felt that a tangible but weak sense of community existed before lockdown. The remainder split between those for whom the feeling was either strong or weak, or in excess of 10 million people in each category if extrapolated across the UK.
- Rural is better for community: Rural areas seemed to exhibit a significantly stronger sense of community.
Building higher means less community: Apartment blocks have a much weaker sense of community than houses and the sense of community reduces the higher blocks become.
- Older means more community and newer less: The older the housing stock, the stronger the sense of community.
- Churn reduces sense of community: The weakest sense of community – perhaps explained by the higher rates of churn in the sector – were occupiers in the privately rented sector, whilst owner occupiers report the strongest sense.
6 – COVID has boosted community feeling, but not equally
- Community has helped us through: Approaching a third of respondents suggested that the sense of community had changed a lot during lockdown, and a little over half that it had changed a little. Those at home but not working during lockdown experienced the change most keenly, a group incorporating older groups who were most likely to benefit from assistance.
- Community builds community: All categories of dwelling and neighbourhood saw an increase in community feeling and support during lockdown, but those with the strongest pre-exiting sense of community saw it reinforced most.
- Higher, newer and social come off worse: People living in rural areas, in houses (as opposed to apartments), in older housing and in owner occupied dwellings experienced a greater deepening of community support. Residents in high rises, post-2010 homes, and local authority owned developments experienced the smallest boost in community feeling.
- Online can boost community: Residents strongly value a community spirit and nice neighbours, and during lockdown this partly expressed itself in the emergence of local online social networks which people value.
- A silver lining: Respondents reflected on a period in which people seemed friendlier (despite social distancing), in which the environment seemed to recover and even thrive, and in which they had more time for things that matter, the family, exercise, the garden, neighbours and the community.
A small number of simple but fundamental recommendations can be made:
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE DESIGN OF DWELLINGS
- All new homes and newly converted homes should have mandated access to private open space, even if just to a balcony.
- Without exception, all new and newly converted homes should be built to decent national minimum space standards such as those in the Nationally Described Space Standards and in a manner that prioritises good environmental conditions in the home: access to fresh air, daylight and good insulation against the transmission of noise.
- The Nationally Described Space Standards should be amended to reflect working from home needs, and all new and newly converted homes should be built with provision for occupiers to comfortably work from home.
- Greater care is required when building high. People in the survey were happier when closer to the ground suggesting that we should only build high if we can simultaneously deliver the other recommendations in this report, both at the home and neighbourhood scales.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE DESIGN OF NEIGHBOURHOODS
- The higher and the denser we build, the greater the need for high quality parks and green spaces and local facilities within the neighbourhood.
- The aspiration should be for everyone to live within five minutes walk of a significant green space or park, and never more than 10 minutes.
- The aspiration should be for everyone to live within five minutes walk of a basic range of local facilities, including shops, and never more than 10 minutes.
- Homes, facilities, and green spaces should be linked by connected, walkable, and green streets and by high quality walking and cycling infrastructure with, wherever possible, low levels of traffic.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FOR A MORE COMMUNITY-FOCUSED CITY
- To encourage a stronger sense of community in newer and denser developments, shared public and private spaces for safe interaction and play should be built into schemes, as well as convenient access to local amenities and facilities.
- Social housing should enjoy the same essential amenities as housing for sale or to privately rent, including access to the qualities recommended above across dwelling and neighbourhood scales.
- Giving stronger security of tenure to renters in the private rental market would help to reduce churn and build a stronger sense of community and greater well-being.