Headlines of the UK housing crisis feature in the papers almost daily. Prices are skyrocketing, with an average increase of £80,000 in London since January, and demand is so high in the capital that shoebox flats such as this one are being snapped up in hours. These are all problems, and it is quite right that they are getting coverage. However, there is an even bigger housing crisis that is affecting our health and standard of living. That is, the design of our buildings. We all intuitively know that the layout and architecture of a building affects our mood and quality of life, but what are the actual effects and how are we being impacted in the UK?

The average home size in the UK is the smallest in most of the developed world. There is no minimum size standard in the UK as compared to other EU countries, so the average new build is just 76 square metres, compared to 81.5m2 in Italy, and 115m2 in the Netherlands. This represents a 40 percent decrease over the last 40 years, and is about the size of a tube carriage. Contrary to popular belief, this is not due to space issues; the Netherlands is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. The simple reason is: money. There is more money for builders the more houses they can build. As houses have gotten smaller, so have windows and therefore, access to natural light. The UK scrapped minimum window sizes in January as part of a package to slash regulations. The reduction in regulation is estimated to save builders £500 per new home, and the impact of less space and light on our health is even more astounding.

A lack of space leads to overcrowding, which has health effects estimated to cost the NHS around £21.8m per year. This comes from the easy spread of infection due to overcrowding, as well as being a constant source of anxiety and stress, especially for parents who are keen to provide the most positive environment for their children. The total cost to society per year is estimated to be around £1.5bn. These additional costs come from aspects such as the reduced educational attainment of children who do not have adequate space to study. The lack of privacy also is a source of stress and causes familial tension and arguments, which are difficult to quantify but understandably a cause for concern as it impacts our standard of living.

Windows are becoming smaller as it is cheaper to build. Light is invaluable for regulating vital aspects of our health such as glucose levels, our ‘body clock’ and blood pressure. In an experiment conducted by architect critic, Tom Dyckhoff, for the TV programme The Secret Life of Buildings, he agreed to stay in his apartment for a week with his windows boarded up to allow in only the average amount of light a UK home gets. He monitored some of his vitals, and the results after just a week were astonishing. His glucose shot up to dangerous diabetic levels and his body rhythm was out of sync due to the reduced production of melatonin, which over time can weaken the immune system and reduce energy levels. This is the environment in which many people are currently living.

What would healthier living look like? Apart from returning to the days of large bay windows and minimum space requirements, there are plenty of examples of how housing design can be made to suit the users, and at a reasonable price. Self-build is probably the most effective way that we can ensure our needs are met and that architecture works for us to create homes and not just profit. In the UK, around 10 percent of homes are self-built, compared to 30 percent in the Netherlands and 60 percent in Germany, France and Italy. This is largely attributed to the high costs of self-build in terms of land and complying with regulations.

There is another way. Just outside of Amsterdam is the town of Almere. This town is unique in that there are over hundreds of plots of land which people can purchase and build, all for a grand total of around €150,000, that is around £120,000. For this low cost they can have a house suited to their needs and tastes, and not have to worry about red-tape issues. Residents in the town include a single mother who was renting before and never dreamed of owning her own home. In the UK the closest example of a successful self-build project is Ashley Vale in Bristol, who at the turn of the century managed to build 26 detached and semi-detached properties at an average cost of £110,000. Unfortunately, nothing has come close to it since.

In order to change our health, happiness and overall well-being, we need to start demanding more of our buildings, and especially our homes. Architecture needs to start facilitating human needs rather than simply being about grandiose design. Having easier access to self-build options would allow us to regain some much needed health benefits.