Year 2050 – People Living in Boxes?

We used to live in caves. Then somebody dug a bigger cave and his neighbour got envious. Then along came Diogenes – the ancient Greek philosopher and cynic – he tried to teach us that we didn’t need the possessions to be happy.

Evolution: trees - caves - barrels - builders - castles - tiny houses

Evolution: trees – caves – barrels – builders – castles – tiny houses. What’s next?

A simpler life leads to a happier and more fulfilled life. To prove his point, he decided to live in a barrel (well, it was an empty clay jug for accuracy’s sake but let’s keep it the barrel because I couldn’t find a jug to illustrate this article, besides I don’t want to disappoint the schoolchildren). Diogenes also used to say that a man is accomplished only when he finds either a true friend or mortal enemy. I’m not quite sure whom will I find writing this though!

Fascination with the Big Houses

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle

Apparently, he wasn’t convincing enough because ever since Diogenes died the human race seems to be hooked on the idea of upsizing their living space.

As it stands, at the moment the biggest private dwelling in the World is here in England and it’s the Windsor Castle with its 484,000 sq.ft. of habitable space.

David Siegel is busying himself with building what will be the biggest dwelling in USA – his mansion is expected to be 90,000 sq.ft. when finished.

Do we need this much space to be happy? Probably not, but we also don’t want to be on the other end of the scale, do we?

England is Shrinking

And I’m not talking about the coast erosion. Our living space is shrinking. According to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, in the last 90 years we’ve lost on average 37% of our habitable space.

  • A detached house used to be 3,440 sq.ft. In 1920. Well, it is 2,409 now.
  • A semi – 1,647 sq.ft. then and only 925 sq.ft. now.
  • For the average terraced property it was 1,020 back in 1920 versus 645 sq.ft. today.

It’s the semi that has taken the biggest hit shrinking by almost 44%.

Furthermore, we’ve lost at least 2 feet in ceiling height adding to our ever increasing claustrophobia. There are several reasons for the ceiling to be 11ft – the Edwardian architects weren’t stupid. Mostly its to do with air quality but there are also considerations to the aesthetics and the psychological comfort of the dweller.

We have to remember though that there were just 1.6 billion of us at the turn of the 20th century while there are 7 billion of us today. So, we can’t expand horizontally any more. We’ll have to go up, build another Babylon, I guess :) Even though we’re limited by the surface of our beloved Earth, we don’t necessarily have to downsize.

The utopians have dreamt about vertical cities for more than we can remember. In the meantime, others are arguing that the human has expanded too far and it’s now time to downsize… and downsize quite seriously!

Micro New York

The mayor of New York wants to make the city more affordable so the idea of the My Micro NY competition was to provide modern accommodation at a reasonable price. The competition was won by the modular box flats of nArchitects. And the price is indeed reasonable for New York – a unit in the adAPT rental apartment block will cost $914 a month for people on low income (that’s $38,000 p.a.) or $1,870 for everyone else.

Mini New York

Mini New York

That is cheep for New York as you’d normally be expected to pay $2,500 pcm for an average NY studio flat or $3 – 5,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. However, this is not as good a deal as it seems on the surface. You’re basically paying less because you’re confined to living in a box.

Lets use some maths because maths never lie, at least that’s what my maths teacher used to say (she would, wouldn’t she!) So, we pay $1,870 for a 250 sq.ft. box. That comes to $7.48 per sq.ft. Then we take a decent 450 sq.ft. apartment for $2,500 which comes to $5.56 per sq.ft. The box is not so cheap after all, eh?

Some Newyorkers raise a good point. Currently, according to legislation the 450 sq.ft. is the legal minimum for a living space in the city. By bending the law Mr. Bloomberg creates a precedent for the minimum to be lifted. What some fear might happen is buildings being re-planned and split to even smaller apartments.

Something similar to what happened in England in the 70s and 80s when the beautiful pre-war family houses were acquired by property sharks and split into dodgy little flats. Not good, not good at all!

The first such apartment block will be built on the 27th street. It will be assembled of pre-fabricated modules.

The Tiny House

The tiny house movement is getting quite popular in North America although it’s believed that it will remain a thing for connoisseurs for the foreseeable future. You have to be really selfless and eco-minded to give up all your possessions and go out there and live in a tiny house. I admire the people but I personally wouldn’t be able to do it at this stage.

I’m attached to things, yes, yes, I admit that!!! And living in a 90 sq.ft. house you cannot afford to have too many things. I’d probably need two of those to accommodate all my books :D

Inside a Tiny House

Inside a Tiny House

In essence, a tiny house is a minuscule prefab house that is built to be eco-friendly. Why do all tiny houses have sloped roofs? Well, because the bedroom is normally on the first floor (yes, it’s a two-storey dwelling) that is accessed via a steep (sorry, I meant ‘step’) ladder.

My problem with the concept is the price. Considering it is so much smaller than a “normal” house, you’d expect that this petite thing costs peanuts. It’s not the case – building your own tiny house costs around $20,000 while a fully assembled unit will set you back more than twice as much. If you feel like it’s your thing, you can pick up professional projects and tips package for around $800 at Tumbleweed. And make sure you check the Tiny house blog for some more insight.

Dwelle.ing

Dwelle.ing

And then the question is where will you put it. If you’re lucky enough to acquire a good plot of land, you’ll probably want to build a proper house. You cannot build a house on a paddock if you’re going to use it as a permanent dwelling.

The British answer to the North American tiny house is the Dwelle.ing. The largest model costing £75,000 has the habitable surface of 390 sq.ft. That is something already resembling a house, besides it is hi-tech and as sustainable as you can get.

The tiny garden office dwelle.ing costs around £40,000. So as it often happens with sustainable products, they are priced well out of reach of most of the people who would be interested in eco stuff in the first place.

Pod apartments

The modern time Diogenes (or Diogeneses if you like) have come down to the same conclusions – you don’t need much to be happy. And it really gives you a reality check – some people need very little to be happy. This woman in China considers herself lucky because she’s living in the capital and the pod-life enables her to send money back home to support her relatives. So next time you moan about something – just be grateful for what you have :)

Egg House

Egg House

This Chinese designer really needs to come out of his shell. If you want to live in Beijing, you have to be more outgoing.

Although, on a more serious note, with his Egg house he’s drawing attention to what becomes a serious issue of big cities. They simply don’t have enough space to accommodate everyone.

Recently we broke the barrier of urbanization! Now officially more people live in the urban areas than in rural spots. According to UNICEF by 2050 more than 70% people will be living in cities. By the way, this little human population calculator estimates that by that time there will be some 8.7 billion people on Earth.

Let’s Live in Texas!

It’s funny how density affects the area that we use. I stumbled across Tim de Chant’s wonderful resource called Per Square Mile. I suggest you click around. Some of the facts are mind-boggling.

800px-Texas

Welcome to Texas

For example, if all the people in the world decided to happily live in an uber-mega-polis with a density similar to New York, they could fit on an area equal to Texas. So, next time you hear somebody saying that the Earth cannot sustain a this-billion or a that-billion population in the future, look, just egg him, will you?!

You simply can’t ask people: “would you please consider stop proliferating?” You should have thought about that back in the 1960s when you legalised hippies and gagged the censorship. There will be more and more of us – that’s a fact and for us to become more sustainable we will have to expand vertically, which means building more cities or expanding the existing ones. Building them in a more clever and more sustainable way!

Modular Hotel

Japan has taken the downsizing trend even further and built temporary accommodation that isn’t much bigger than baggage lockers.

Baggage Unit or Apartment?

Baggage Locker or Apartment?

This picture shows a Japanese workman’s hotel and a Ukrainian baggage locker unit of a railway station side by side. Your job is to guess which one’s which. I’m sure you will agree that this is simply taking downsizing to an inhumane level.

sleepbox-arch-groupThe Russian take on modular hotels is a little bit more glamorous. The architect studio Arch Group has patented the so called Sleepbox pod and already built several modular hotels in large air terminals.

They also suggest that businessmen could use this concept to build hotels on otherwise unusable premises – such as hangars, for example.

The retail price of this box is $7,000. At the air terminals the price for using the tiny hotel room is $60 per night or $15 per hour… hmm, are you thinking the same thing that I’m thinking? Quickly moving on…

Born out of Water

According to the timeless classic “Endless Blue” by Kevin Grivois, (massive fan, me) the life was born out of water. I know that some scientists would agree with him. So why is it that so many of us have this primal fear of water? Just sign up with your local swimming class. Chances are you can have it for next to nothing courtesy of your borough council!

The housing shortage and crazy property market is pricing many Brits right into the water. No, they’re not trying to drown themselves, they’re simply embracing the canal life. Britain has got 2,000 miles of canals – they used to be the veins pumping blood through the magic machine that was the Industrial Revolution.

Now that we’ve sold our industry over to China, the canals are slowly being taken over by weeds. But it seems that we’re making a good job of reclaiming the canals for leisure use… and not only that. Many people are discovering the joys of living on a barge permanently.

In Scotland, they’re even encouraging people to take up the canal life by staging events and preparing marines.

For more info on canals in Britain, head over to the Canal River Trust. They’re doing a wonderful job to keep the canals alive!

River Barge

River Barge

As far as the prices are concerned, there is a better variety than there is with houses. A houseboat will cost anything between £30,000 and £300.000. If you’re planning on escaping the terra firma, check the Apollo Duck for used and character boats or Barging.co.uk for new-build barges and DIY tips.

Artificial Island

Artificial Island

Looking into the future, it may seem that the water may hold an answer to the overpopulation. After all, 70% of the Earth surface is water and there are places where it is relatively easy to reclaim the water by building artificial islands. One of the examples is not that far away from me – the Whale Island near Portland is an artificial structure.

So is the famous Ile Notre-Dame in Montreal – the site of the Expo 67. The estimated cost of building the Ile Notre-Dame was $30 million CAD (including the pavilions and infrastructure) – that’s approximately $210 million in today’s money. Not really that expensive if you get the right investors on board.

Boxed in a 40ft container

Yes, the shipping containers are relatively cheap, they are widely accessible and they tick all the boxes of an ideal modular home. I mean, you can use one for a modest dwelling but you can stack them like Tetris and build a big house.

At this particular moment it will be difficult to get a planning permission for a DIY modular home mainly because of safety issues. Also, insulating a container is a rather tricky job. However, there are examples of this being done. Falcon Containers, for example, are already distributing various layouts for people wanting to build container houses.

Container City

Container City

And then, of course, you have the famous Container City in London. This is an actual example of a container house being built. It’s legal, the planning permission was obtained and people are living there and by the looks of it enjoying themselves tremendously.

So, what is your predicted habitation model for the next 20 years? Do you see yourself upsizing or downsizing? Would you find any of the featured projects acceptable for yourself? And, of course, how do you see the urban life developing in the future. That’s a lot of questions indeed. Take it away! That’s what the comment form is there for!

Pic of the Container City by Cmglee.
Japanese hotel via Tumbler.

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Arvid Linde is an independent SEO consultant, award-winning journalist, MSc in engineering, published author and a technology addict. More info on the about page.
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  • douglas montgomery

    Hi,

    I noted on your twitter profile (thanks for following btw) that you’re a professed ‘tory’ and so feared the worst when beginning to read this article . However, I have to admit its great. Having been brought up in council housing (happily) during the pre-sell off era in one of the successful New Towns, I imagined from the title of this piece – as I prefer my prejudices confirmed rather than confounded – that you were about to advocate living in cardboard boxes, and that you might cite ‘trends’ which prove how this was an expression of choices made, rather than what people are resorting to. But I particularly like your sympathetic attitude and your canny calculation of the price-per-square-foot of the NY apartments.

    Housing is a contentious social and political issue in Britain, and successive governments have intervened to ruin what was once a given in terms of requirements a person might attain without a terrifying anxious struggle and precarious sense of long-term security. Where I grew up in Harlow in Essex the town was 75% social housing before 1978, even then waiting lists were increasing as the children of post-war families grew older. Taking just one aspect of the current housing ladder conundrum to demonstrate how skewed and irrational it is, I think the 25 year mortgage model is an outdated concept which was devised during, and applicable to, an era when people could even be relatively certain of a ‘job for life’ or at least successive employment. Asking anyone, let alone new families, to sign up and stretch themselves to enormous mortgages when they might have to work till they’re seventy is inhumane – house prices and rentals in London border on sadistic.

    The container houses are a great alternative, young people – particularly in London – have fewer pre-conceptions about what a dwelling should look like. But any developer or organisation fortunate enough to create another such community would hardly be likely to secure planning permission as any attempt to provide truly affordable properties would disturb the pricing benchmark enjoyed by the property industry and existing owners. Governments know this and so promise to encourage the market to provide (supposedly) affordable housing to the younger generation, whilst simultaneously leaping up and down to celebrate every time the national average house price increases as it does year-on-year – the government know these are conflicting objectives but pretend to sympathise with the interests of both. Someone needs to do an ‘EasyJet’ with housing.

    A great read.

    Thanks.

    Douglas

    http://douglasmontgomery.net

    • kensingtongreen

      Hi Douglas, thanks for your comment. We’re not all toffs you know :)

      I completely agree, the vicious 25-mortgage circle is not nice but currently the only alternative is to rent a property, which pretty much means supporting the landlords-profiteers. I’ve got no problem with people making money but in 95% cases the landlords don’t add value, hence they don’t deserve to earn money from rent.

      The “EasyJet” housing sounds like a great idea. The large cities in Asia are already in the process of adopting this concept. It inevitably means compromising where very few home-buyers want to compromise – square footage, however with the modern urban lifestyle, I don’t think it’s such a big problem.

      If London wants to compete with other global cities, it will have to find a solution. I think cheaper modular housing is a perfect long-term solution.

      • douglas montgomery

        Hi Arvid,
        If the Tory party had more like you, they’d win more votes I’m certain. Myself I’m apolitical in practice. However, I suspect you’re not representative of the traditional Tory (or at least the stereotype) and appear to be to-the-left-of-the-right, if such a thing is possible. I pondered on the ‘EasyJet’ idea whilst at university about a year ago, it was tragic listening to the genuine despair of young people about to enter the workplace yet never picturing a home of their own and resigning themselves to room sharing forever. I’ve never known it as bad as this.

        People claim London has always been expensive and popular, but when I was their age (in the mid-eighties), London – particularly Notting Hill, Clapham, Shoreditch etc – was full of squats and people could almost take their pick. So London wasn’t that desirable, certainly the above areas weren’t trendy, and it was definitely not full of BTL landlords chomping at the bit. A developer with an ‘EasyJet’ or even charitable philosophy, could build homes with a very very basic spec. I’m talking no skirting, no tiling in kitchen and bathroom, plywood floors – perhaps even no partitioning walls bar the bathroom. This would save on materials, but more crucially labour costs. First time buyers could sign an agreement to add these features themselves over a certain period. Most people can turn their hands to something like tiling or attaching some skirting, especially in the age of YouTube demos. This would boost the DIY market and enable more basic practical skills of the kind our Dads often possessed. Things like Plywood floors can look great, many progressive architects actual live in homes with these features, but the older/existing house buyer/mover and builder is too conventional to accept them. Having spoke to many youngsters in the last four years, they’ve no such disdain or preconceptions, they seem more open to new ideas and just want the secure roof over their heads that doesn’t eat away at their wages – assuming they can get a job.

        Thanks for voting for my table by the way, the support is really really appreciated! I’ll let you know if I win and thank you again accordingly.

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