In densely populated cities everywhere, city planners are espousing the inevitability of shrinking homes, but psychologists are warning that when homes shrink, costs to public health will explode.
When Tiny House Hunters and Tiny House Nation debuted on television screens in 2014, the idea they proposed was one that appealed immensely to all big city dwellers hit by high property prices.
Instead of saving up for years for a decent-sized home that could fit their lifestyles, participants on the two reality shows pared down their lifestyles drastically, and used creative ways to make tiny homes – often no more than 300 sq ft. in size – work for them. Oftentimes, this involved desks that could be folded up and hidden into the wall, sofas that converted into beds, kitchen sinks that doubled up as showers, and the like.
But do we really need to go there? Asking this question in 2017 is moot because it seems like we already have; this subculture of eccentric minimalist living is no longer an unrealistic lifestyle that only happens on TV. In June last year, Carmel Place, New York City’s controversial micro-apartment complex welcomed its first residents.
The development comprises apartments measuring only 250 to 370 sq ft. Closer to home, the supply of shoebox apartments in Singapore, usually defined as units below 500 sq ft. in size, also saw a rise between late 2015 and last year. Add to that the heated debate on whether HDB flats have shrunk in size over the years, and it is apparent that smaller living spaces has become a reality we cannot ignore.
The real question then is, should we really have “gone there”? The city planners say yes, but it’s a resounding no from the psychologists.
When our government announced in the 2013 White Paper its ambitious plans to fit 6.9 million people on our little red dot by 2030, it had to deal with a public outcry. There seemed to be an instinctive resistance to overcrowding, and there is science to back up the public’s apprehension.
According to Dak Kopec, the director of Master of Design Studies in Design for Human Health at The Boston Architectural College, research has shown that overcrowding can lead to stress, which in turn increases rates of domestic violence and substance abuse. Kopec’s comment was made as a response to the Carmel Place development in New York City.
Living in close proximity increases the chances of friction between individuals, leading to violence or unhealthy ways of escaping the situation when putting physical space between two disagreeing individuals is not an option.
Two professors from Syracuse University have analysed data across the US to find that students who spent high school in overcrowded households were less likely to complete high school and graduate from college by age 25. Theoretically, crowded conditions can make finding a conducive area to work and study difficult, affecting the child’s performance over time.
It’s worth noting, however, that the definition of overcrowding varies widely across different countries. The above-mentioned study conducted at Syracuse University defined any household that had more family members than rooms as crowded.
If this definition were applied to Singapore, the majority of middle-class, apartment-dwelling households would be considered crowded. It should come as no surprise that residents of cities like Singapore, Tokyo, and Hong Kong are much more used to crowded conditions, and better equipped to thrive in them.
For Singaporeans, the key is not to hanker after a detached house nestled in acres of rolling green. That’s a fantasy better suited for someone who lives in New Zealand, where sheep outnumber humans. Instead, consider jumbo flats and executive maisonettes (EM) from HDB, or simply a bigger condo unit.
But one may ask: “What about the price?” It’s easy to assume that the smaller the home, the more affordable it is. In actual fact however, shoebox condo units often have the highest psf prices. In prime areas such as Tanjong Pagar and Raffles Place, these units can be listed for as much as $2,000 psf. With these prices, a unit that’s only 500 sq ft. could well be a million-dollar home.
For the same amount of money or slightly less, one can easily buy a HDB unit more than three times the size in a less central location. Case in point: one 1,657 sq ft. HDB EM unit at Jalan Rajah was recently listed for sale on PropertyGuru for $858,000. Its psf price was only $517.80.
By putting money in shoebox units, property buyers may also inadvertently drive up property prices over time. Small units sold at a higher psf allows developers to make more money per square foot from a high-rise development than bigger units do. If demand for these small units grow enough, developers may come to expect a new norm for their return on investment. Then, prices that are considered extortionate today may well become acceptable tomorrow.
Beyond finances, remember that buying a property is also about finding a space to call home, and to encompass the hopes and dreams of the homeowner. A home means a lot more than just a roof over the head. Samuel Gosling, a psychology professor from the University of Texas who specialises in studying the connection between people and their possessions, pointed out that an apartment must also fulfil the psychological need for self-expression and relaxation, both of which may be difficult to achieve in a cramped space, where functionality would be the top priority.
The ability to decorate a space to reflect one’s personality and to invite friends over for a meal may seem trivial, but it’s a privilege that does a lot for one’s psych, and so likewise, when taken away, can be damaging.
The homes featured in Tiny House Hunters and Tiny House Nation work because, more often than not, they are dollhouse-like cabins in a rural area, or a converted recreational vehicle parked in close proximity to nature.
Referencing the influential study published in 1984 by Roger Ulrich, a visiting professor at Center for Healthcare Architecture at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, which showed that patients in hospitals given rooms with a window that looked out to nature recovered faster than patients who only had “wall views”, it is apparent that the need for space, or at least the illusion of it, is something very deeply rooted in the human psych. After all, we evolved from great apes who had free run of the African plains.
When the home itself isn’t spacious, then its surroundings have to be. In densely built-up cities, cramped homes are simply not healthy for the mind.
And really, who has the time and patience to convert the bed into a sofa for a space to eat breakfast, turn the kitchen sink into a shower, and pull the table out from the wall in order to retrieve the laptop, all before heading to work?
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