Imagine opening your eyes after a good night's sleep and taking that first cartoonish morning stretch, only as your arms unfold, you end up fist bumping the walls of your bedroom. This is the reality for anyone who snapped up and squeezed into one of the 8,000 micro-homes that were built in 2016.
From micro-flats for cash-strapped millennials to shipping containers providing emergency accommodation, as London's housing crisis grows to monumental proportions (one in every 59 people are homeless in the capital), the solutions seem to be shrinking — literally. The latest Polly Pocket-sized scheme on our radar is the SHED, a collaboration between property guardian firm Lowe Guardians and London-based architect Studio Bark, who describe it as "a flexible solution for the short term, a responsible solution for the long term".
Why flexible? Because the flat-pack style SHED can be built in a day, taken apart and rebuilt on a different site — perfect for a guardian on a 28 day notice period, who might need to shift their stuff pronto. Why responsible? Because the aim is to provide a low cost, low impact space for London's keyworkers and creatives. The idea is that property owners keep their buildings secure, Londoners benefit from cheap rent and a disused space becomes a home — albeit a temporary one.
But what's it actually like to live in one?
Thankfully, we don't need to traipse through your dad's back garden to get to this man cave, as the first prototype has been installed in a former warehouse in Battersea. We pull up a couple of stark, white stools and sit down with Marc, a well-groomed graphic designer and the first guineapig to live in the SHED.
The warehouse is huge, with jutting, red beams above and the kind of light an artist would kill for. "I pay £300 including bills, which is incredible, I think they've priced it like that because they consider this way of living to be a disadvantage. In a way, you would need to heavily incentivise this for someone to think ok. I can do it. But this stripped back way of living suits me".
The phrase "less is more" first entered our lexicon back in 1855 when Robert Browning wrote it into his poem Andrea del Sarto, but its recent reincarnation sees minimalism repackaged and sold to millennials who are said to be "more into the style of life than the stuff of life." Mark agrees that there is an appeal in downsizing, saying if rolled out, the SHED "would change people's expectations of what's possible."
Perhaps unrealistically, the original design positioned the SHED as a self-contained unit, whereas Marc has an entire warehouse to play with, including a gigantic communal area Marc shares with a couple of others.
Lowe Guardians isn't the type of property guardian firm you'd read about in a Vice exposé. All its buildings are kitted out with kitchen and bathroom facilities and tend to have that Insta-perfect vibe about them. Alongside six other firms, Lowe recently released a report outlining methods of best practice and the standards expected from guardian firms and their guardians. Essential homework if this has peaked your interest.
Although in itself the SHED's dimensions are small, its ambitions are grand.
It's estimated there are some 20,000 vacant properties around the city, which have a combined value of £11.7 billion. The SHED aims to put a dent in that figure by turning empty warehouses into habitable spaces with minimal expense and impact on the 'host' building. Tim Lowe, a former guardian himself, before it was regulated as it is today, explains the benefits: "For our guardians, they often get to live in quite inspiring buildings in central locations at affordable rates. So it's a positive from their point of view and it's a positive for the owners too."
There are plans afoot for 25 SHED homes to be set up side-by-side in a warehouse in south east London, which is where Marc foresees issues. "This works very well because everyone else I live with is behind bricks and mortar walls, but if there were sheds next to each other – they would need to be soundproofed and it's half see-through, so you're never quite at rest." These are issues Tim Lowe says have been resolved with the new SHEDs. You'd also need to buy into the communal way of living but another perk of being a guardian is your housemates are "curated" to minimise the risk of irresponsible behaviour — aka warehouse raves.
"There is very much a collective mindset among young people that they can be increasingly transient with their movements, people quite enjoy the flexibility." Yet despite the obvious benefits — space to sprawl, creative freedom and insanely cheap rent (for London) — we're less convinced this is about enjoyment and more about necessity and the dearth of suitable, affordable, long-term accommodation.
But Marc, at least, has embraced the ephemeral nature of his home, which is secure until February before going through a rolling six-month process of being approved or denied planning permission. "There's a thrill that it has an ending — it does make you live in a certain way." At £300 a month, he must be saving a lot?
Not as much as you'd think, he says, "the people are great and it's an extremely calm, soothing space, so the opposite has happened. I thought, well, I'll use that money to make this place as good as it can be. To me, it's about enjoying the very best thing you have for the time you have it."
With 50,000 new homes needed each year to meet housing demand, no-one is suggesting scaling down is the solution to all of London's housing woes. Nor are these small-scale developments a replacement for genuinely affordable, long-term housing but while developers snatch up land for luxury flats, hotels and offices and people languish in hostels on housing waiting lists, it's positive to see innovative schemes like the SHED sprouting up in some of the city's disused spaces.
Here are four more types of mirco-home you'll find in London
If you want to get your big toe on the property ladder, the pocket home could be the one for you. Mayor Sadiq Khan is a fan, having invested £25m in schemes aimed at people already local to the borough, who are first time buyers. While Pocket Living ensures all its properties are 38 square meters — which we're informed makes it 'compact' rather than 'micro' — developer U+I has been criticised for offering floor space well below the national minimum guidelines of 37 square metres, (roughly the size of a tube carriage FYI) AND it can be harder to get a mortgage on these types of properties.
Shipping Containers, Ealing
Last year we found out what it was like for people living in Marston Court, an estate made up of shipping containers, which had been converted into emergency housing by QED and Ealing Council. The same developer recently installed the UK's largest temporary accommodation site in Acton. The 60 apartment development opened just in time to house 290 residents who found themselves homeless in the run up to Christmas. It's a low-cost, rapidly deployable alternative to bricks and mortar, but we hope the issues surrounding security and anti-social behaviour have been resolved with this latest build.
This big grey block, punctuated with crayon coloured reds, peaches and yellows, was developed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in partnership with the YMCA. Y:Cube is an experiment in off-site manufactured housing, which provides starter homes for people who come from YMCA hostels and Merton's housing waiting list. The first residents moved in in September 2015. It's cheap and fast to construct but again, only provides 26 sqm internal space, as opposed to the 37 sqm recommended for a one-bed studio flat.
RSH+P obviously thought they were onto something with the Y:Cube modular method because you'll find another of their projects in Lewisham. While the upper levels of PLACE/Ladywell provide temporary housing for 24 families registered homeless with the council, the lower levels are let out to creative start-ups and anyone looking for affordable desk, retail and studio space.