How do you squeeze more homes into a fast-growing, over-populated city?

Posted by Derek Mason

28th September 2021

Picture credit: John McMahon on Unsplash

What do you do when a city lacks affordable homes but has limited land available to build new ones?

One answer being trialled in Bristol is to sneak homes into the gaps left by derelict garages.

This micro-housing will be factory-built off-site, causing less disruption to neighbours and communities than a standard build.

And with an estimated 2000 garages on 300 sites, this is a plan that has the potential to add a sizeable number of homes to the city. Disused garages can also attract anti-social behaviour, so replacing them with housing has additional positive repercussions.

It’s not the full solution to Bristol’s housing crisis. But it’s an innovative way to add more homes to a city that’s struggling to house its fast-growing population. As the city’s numbers expand, it’s estimated that at least another 30,000 homes are needed.

The first “gap homes” are initially planned for an old garage site in Horfield, north of the city centre. The council has consulted on the project over the summer and, assuming it goes ahead, nine homes will be dropped into place in between two rows of back gardens from existing homes.

The development will include outdoor seating with each house and shared green space to help foster connection and community. These two-storey micro-homes will have an open-plan living space, kitchen and upstairs bedroom. It sounds like they’ll be too small for families, but they’ll be a good option for individuals or couples.

With average house prices in Bristol at just under £310,000 last year, anything that can provide a more affordable option will be welcome. Bristol City Council said in their consultation that they’re exploring how these new homes can be let in a way that benefits the local area.

The architects, BDP, which came up with the gap house, has said that this design – with large windows, solar panels, low-energy lighting and air source heat pumps – means these are contemporary, cost-effective eco-homes.

Landscape architect director in BDP’s Bristol studio, Martin Jones, has said these could work well as homes for key workers and that “gap homes” could potentially be rolled out across the UK as a way to fit more homes into already packed cities.

There are, of course, challenges to this method of building. When we worked on the narrowest house in Twickenham, which was 1.8m from wall to wall, we used mini-piles for the foundations, with ground beams, because we didn’t want to put load onto the adjacent buildings. I’d expect the micro-homes planned for Bristol to be timber, built on a raft slab, if the soil conditions allow this, so that they won’t need massive foundations or piles.

If this approach is rolled out, potential problems are likely to include access to drainage, since drainage often goes through gaps between houses. If you build over the gaps, will drainage still be accessible? If they can make it work, it’s an innovative way to squeeze sustainable homes into spaces that might otherwise be an eyesore, but it won’t be without its challenges!

As always, I welcome your thoughts, and if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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