“when we reside differently we also behave differently” *

 


When the Danish Architecture Centre moved into its new building last summer, their first major exhibition was called Welcome Home and looked at Danish housing. The first section to that exhibition was a timeline that gave an overview of the development of housing in Denmark through the century from 1900 and then the main part of the exhibition looked at recent housing … at how the planning and the building of homes is evolving and changing with new requirements for appropriate homes; new configurations of living space; new approaches to conservation and the use of new building materials and new construction methods.

 Immediately after that time line - and really part of the introduction - there was an important section that looked at statistics for housing in Denmark … first at data that marks out some of the differences in lifestyle when people own their homes and  when people rent their homes and then at data that demonstrates that there are now many different types of household. And these different family dynamics seem to suggest that different people now need different types of home at different stages in their lives.

Particularly in Denmark, a well-established and strongly democratic country with less-obvious extremes between wealth and poverty than in may countries - it is easy to assume that change is now relatively slow and that a home is simply a home and most people live in much the same way. In fact, statistics show that society is changing quickly … or at least quickly when compared with the time needed for planners, architects and builders to respond by trying to build the homes people want in the places where people want to live.

When you look at the statistics, there are fascinating differences for people who rent their home and for those who own their home. Perhaps the most important - over the long term - is that owners have eight times the equity of someone who rents but statistics also indicate that the most obvious or most tangible difference between owning and renting a home is in the size of that home … the average space for an owner-occupied home is 143.3 square metres but the average size of a rented home in Denmark is 82.4 square metres.**

But, actually, it is how that space is occupied in Danish homes that forms a more intriguing social study of day-to-day life and day-to-day needs because the difference between owning and renting would seem to influence more personal habits … so the owners smoke, on average, 10 cigars a year but tenants only 3 and there are differences in amounts of bread eaten or whether people drink more beer or more wine if they own or rent their home.

 

This data was presented in a dramatic way as a large dining room with a single large table with chairs around it and set for a meal but with table and room divided straight across the middle with one half with everything in white and the other half - the renting side - with everything in red.

Looking back, it was slightly odd … as if everyone involved in designing the exhibition could not or would not flesh out the presentation of basic numbers with more details about everyday life - as if that would be too insensitive or too awkward - too political - so it was like walking through a clever window display in a furniture shop but with numbers and percentages rather than price tags but there was little context let alone anything in the way of an explanation. Perhaps, simply, it was not the place to make more nuanced conclusions about differences that must also reflect age and education, for instance, as much as owning or not ones home.

That does not mean that the differences described were not interesting and not important and certainly conclusions from the data should have a strong impact on planning decisions and, of course, in political debate. However, owning or renting may in fact be a rather crude and blunt division that probably camouflages just how rapidly our attitudes to our homes is changing.

For a start, in Denmark, there is an almost equal division, in terms of overall numbers, between those who rent and those who own their home but it is actually the proportion of people renting that is now increasing and planners and developers have to take that on board.

There must be many reasons for this and it is difficult to see which are most important: it is obvious that fewer and fewer people stay in the same home throughout their adult life and, for at least the first decade of adult life, and possibly longer, it can be important for a career to be flexible about where you live and be flexible about moving on and that is certainly easier if you rent. ***

In Denmark there is a strong and relatively well-controlled sector for rented-housing which makes this easier and that is particularly important in Copenhagen where statistics suggest that now, each year around 10,000 people move into the city and this seems set to continue over the next decades. The city is now responding to that influx with laudable speed so last year there were more new homes built in Copenhagen than in any year since the 1930s although I have not yet found statistics to show what proportion of those new homes are to rent and how many are to buy.

 

People have moved to the city from other countries - particularly other parts of northern Europe - but when you talk to people, it is soon clear that many have moved into the city from Jutland and Funen and from Bornholm so, in Denmark as in so many countries around the modern world, there is a marked migration from rural to urban areas. Planners have to take that into account and reports have actually been commissioned to help form a policy for demolishing or finding a new use for an increasing number of empty properties and depleted communities in some rural areas.

This increase in demand for homes in the centre of the city is not just fuelled by newcomers. In the second half of the 20th century, many young couple moved out from the city to suburbs to find new houses with gardens and more space when they started a family, but it is now clear that young couples appreciate the advantages of living in close to facilities and to shops and entertainment so accept smaller inner-city homes and apartments but now expect that communal courtyards, parks and public squares and streets will provide the attractive and safe outdoor space their children need.

It was also clear from the statistics that it is not just newcomers who drive the demand for new homes but more and more people in the city are choosing to live alone - now 40% of homes in Denmark are occupied by a single person and that is an increase by 57% over the last 25 years - so even if no one was moving into the city there would still be a demand for more homes.

There are various reasons … from young adults moving regularly before they establish a career or people, if they marry, marry later and when married, many more couples divorce, so then have to set up separate homes, and, of course, people live longer so that increases the possibility of having to spend a period as a widow or widower living alone.

Young adults in Denmark move on average every two years … so that is one obvious reason why the demand for rented properties is strong.

The average age for getting married in Denmark is 35 years old for men and 32 for women so that suggests at least a decade of flexible home arrangements. If not always spent actually living alone many young couples presumably maintain two separate homes until they have children and not always then.

Statistics show that living alone also includes many more older and more established adults so in the broad age group 30 to 49, 19% of all men and 9% of all women live alone or, to put that another way, in that age group, two out of every three people who are living alone are men. It might be sexist or even politically incorrect to even suggest that men and women living alone live in different ways with different requirements but I'm sure that designers if not architects are already taking this into account.

One in four Danes is over the age of 60 - a marked increase since 2000 when it was one in five - and average life expectancy now for women in Denmark is 82.9 years and for men 79 years. This has to have an impact on the number of houses needed overall and of course on the type of homes needed for older people … in 1900, on average, women lived to 56 and the average lifespan was only 53 for men.

Of course, the most common type of family still has parents and children living together so there are 436,097 Danish families with two adults and their children living together in one home but there are now also 115,627 households in Denmark with a mother who is living with her children but without a partner and 86,000 fathers with shared custody and these men must need different forms of housing to men without children. There are 10,086 single mothers with children but also visiting children and 8,069 single mothers with visiting children.

In all, the statistics show 37 different family types of which the rarest is where the mother and father have children together but both also have children from a previous relationship and they are all living together … in 2017 there were 31 families in Denmark that had that specific family dynamic.

What is important is that most of these statistics come from hard data - not opinion polls asking for responses to questions and then rounding up to form a national average - so real information updated regularly and therefore over a short period - or short in planning and design and building terms - and able to spot, track and respond to trends. This is not about looking for next year's fashionable colour or even spotting an increasingly influential architect but of trying to understand what sort of housing and where and what sort of infrastructure and built environment people first of all need and, if you are talking about satisfaction or well-being or even long-term health and happiness - then what forms of housing people want.

The way we live is changing and changing fast so the conclusion has to be that we now need housing that is much more flexible in at least the arrangement of the accommodation provided. One good conclusion of this section of the exhibition was that, "different types of family have different requirements for the perfect home."

 

notes:

* It was interesting that a main information panel in the exhibition included the statement “Når vi bor anderledes, opfører vi os nemlig også anderledes” …. when we live differently, we also behave differently … but I'm still trying to process the implications.
** Being English, I feel that should be seen in context: 82 square metres is not a small home … the UK has some of the smallest houses in Europe and there, across all types, an average home is about 70 square metres.
***  My grandparents lived in the same house for over fifty years but so far I have lived in eight different towns or cities.

All the data repeated here is from the exhibition Welcome Home that was at the Danish Architecture Centre from 7 May 2018 through to 23 September 2018 and was a collaboration between the Centre and SBI - the Danish Building Research Institute.

Copenhagen minimal

 

If you read about Danish design, or talk to someone about Danish design, the key words seem to be light, or natural or well made or quality but then, somewhere, at some stage, you get the word simple or now, more often, the word minimal.

So thinking about minimalism in Danish design, I wanted to see if I could find the most minimal object or minimal design in the city. To count it had to be designed … obviously … so thought through and planned and deliberate … and not a one-off design but manufactured or reproduced.

This is my best offering to date. It’s the triangle in yellow painted on a kerb just along from a road junction to show that you cannot park any closer to the corner without obstructing the traffic coming in and out at the junction and, more important, you cannot park beyond the triangle without chancing a fine.

It’s small - each side just 10 cm - and I guess that reduces any ambiguity because the point of the triangle towards the road implies that there is a thin line that is projected out across the road - implied and not actually painted onto the road - so again about as minimal as you can get.

 

at Northmodern last year there was a discussion session about the idea of a Danish Design DNA - a way to focus thoughts on what makes Danish design Danish - so everyone was asked to write key words on post-it notes that they thought expressed what is best or what is characteristic about design in Denmark

 
 

The words minimal and minimalism are a bit overused - so sometimes added for marketing to a product or an interior that is not actually that minimal. In part it is because minimalism has become fashionable and in part it’s because being minimal seems more acceptable than calling a design simple and it seems a bit more aspirational - so potentially more profitable - to sell something minimal to a customer rather than calling it basic.  

Go into a store and ask for a simple mobile phone and they take it as an admission you are not up to understanding what they normally sell and go into a fancy design store and ask for something basic and you get that slightly quizzical look that shows they are wondering why you are in their store. Ask for something minimal and it implies taste and discernment … or that’s what you hope.

But minimalism is not about being simple or being basic. It is about reducing or removing what is not essential so it is about designing something that looks carefully thought through and looks rational or looks clean or looks functional because it has been stripped of all unnecessary parts or superfluous decoration.

There is also a role for minimalism to make something less intrusive if you want it to drop back and be less dominant if you are trying to define a hierarchy of importance. 

The yellow triangle here needs no sign on a post setting out times or prohibitions - you can’t park beyond this point at any time - and there are no double yellow lines running around the corner - as there would be in England - and certainly in Copenhagen no bollards on the pavement at intervals around the corner - so nothing is needed to reinforce the message. 

That also raises an interesting question about minimalism requiring complicity. So, for example, there are apps or controls for equipment where the designer has stripped back the design - because they know what does what and why - but the designer underestimates the problem that the uninitiated don’t actually know. So it might be best to remove a door handle completely if the door swings away from you - so it can only be pushed and not pulled towards you - but a designer has to judge if there might be situations where that is ambiguous and might create a problem … for instance in an emergency if someone pauses to work out what to do or wastes crucial time pushing on the hinge side. The more minimal the design the more careful the designer has to be that users understand what it means or what it does.

Here, with the triangle, it seems that anyone driving a car in the city should know exactly what it means so this small yellow triangle is not only minimal in its design but pretty powerful.