Thinking outside the shoebox: How small is too small for an apartment?

“‘A tiny, geometric shoebox’: Housing crisis prompts debate on minimum apartment sizes.”

“Housing groups and urban planners have raised concerns about sacrificing living standards and creating new urban slums.”

Are these quotes from news articles about New Zealand?

No, they’re from a piece in the Guardian, about a Melbourne inner-city dweller who felt trapped in their 28sqm apartment.

However, others were quoted saying the shoebox life was just fine for them, and they were surprised at how little space they actually needed.

Tiny apartments were fine for them, and they are for Chris Bishop. New Zealand’s housing minister foresees there’ll be plenty of “students and young professionals” who want “small, low-maintenance, and affordable dwellings that are near to their jobs and transport connections”.

Bishop is scrapping minimum floor areas and balcony requirements for apartments, saying buyers will decide what is big enough, and the market will deliver.

“You know what’s smaller than a shoebox apartment? Cars, and tents that people are living in right now,” he said, unveiling a suite of home-building booster measures midweek.

The move will undoubtedly cut development costs and price-tags but it may push up other, non-financial costs. It’s a well-versed debate anywhere you go, “with some believing market demand should dictate the size of homes, others that space standards are essential to maintain public health and well-being”, according to housing researchers in the UK.

Bishop evoked New York, London, Paris – the “greatest cities in the world” – as the model for Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington to aspire to.

Closer to home, you could look at Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

So do the cities New Zealand aspires to have open slather on apartments?

Essentially, no.

The rules, guidelines, principles and regulations differ in scope, success and the minimum size of shoebox allowed, but they exist. In each case, they are also accompanied by hard evidence from qualified planners, hard lessons about what works and what doesn’t, and the sort of tough debate that New Zealand could listen in to.

For instance, just days ago, the Sydney Morning Herald headlined an article ‘A diabolical mess’: How did we get into this housing crisis, and how do we get out?’, which mentioned how Europe did apartments better than Australian cities do.

What are those apartment minimums, what sort of rules are there?


an apartment building with many windows and bales on the balconys in london, uk - stockfoorent com

Victorian England and the 1980s were periods of largely unregulated housing development and cramped quarters.

However, “there’s a long history in this country of attempting to regulate the internal areas of living spaces”, said UK firm Urbanist Architecture.

The very first thing the 2010 London Design Guide says is, “No amount of sensitive design can compensate for houses and flats that are too small.”

That guide, the 2021 London plan, and the UK’s Nationally Described Space Standards, set the following minimums (a medium size car occupies about 8sqm):

  • One bed: 37sqm, in restricted numbers in central spots with good public transport and amenities – parks, shops, cafes
  • Otherwise, one bed: 50sqm
  • Two bed: 61sqm
  • Three bed: 74sqm

In the UK, research last year found “the price per square metre of small homes often far exceeds that of much larger homes in the same area” – so, in London at least, space shrinks at a faster rate than the price-tag.

New York

A fire escape of an apartment building in New York city.

The Big Apple has some small apartments. But it also has minimums:

  • Studio: 32-37sqm
  • One bed: 46-51sqm
  • Two bed: 60-67sqm
  • Three bed: 78-88sqm

There are very explicit rules about what must be in bathrooms and how large kitchen benches and closets must be.

It does not leave a lot to chance, but the city’s approach does leave a lot of room for clever design, such as the 37sqm Manhattan apartment a family of three altered so they could carry on living in it.


paris roofs and cityview landscape

Hard and fast rules were hard to find online.

A rental site suggested standard sizes are:

  • Studio: 9-35sqm, so very, very small at the tiniest end
  • One bed: Starting at 30sqm
  • Two bed: 50sqm
  • Three bed: 80sqm

Australia’s envy of Europe may have something to do with stories about it building 14,000 apartments for students and 82,000 for families over the past 20-30 years, that people seem to like. “How Does Paris Stay Paris? By Pouring Billions Into Public Housing,” the New York Times headlined.

(Paris also has its share of older, ghetto-like tower blocks, as do Bishop’s other “model” cities.)


Residential building facade - closeup of many windows - how people live in Melbourne CBD.

Three-quarters of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that there should be minimum apartment sizes, in official surveys in 2015.

In 2021, after some heated debate, Victoria began moves to strengthen its apartment design standards, not weaken them.

Planning rules specify minimum sizes for rooms within an apartment. For example, 9-10.2sqm for each bedroom, 10-12sqm for the living room not counting kitchen or dining areas.

Recent overall apartment minimum sizes appear to be:

  • Studio (the living-bedroom are combined): 24sqm
  • One bed: 42sqm
  • Two bed: 52sqm

Window sizes and placings are rigorously specified for light and ventilation. Ceilings must be 2.6m high or more, and apartments can only go so far back, 8-9m, to avoid a cave-like feel.

Each apartment must have storage space and a small outside private open space, such as a balcony of between 8-12sqm or a wee courtyard.

There are rules and designs to limit noise and maximise sun.

Politicians in Victoria have set out a policy they say, “will improve not only the quality of apartment designs, but also drive the delivery of high-quality, medium scale apartment developments”.

Apartments may not be big, but the rules are not hands-off.


Sydney Apartment Wall, Background

Sydney is expecting around 80 percent of residents to be living in apartments by 2030.

New South Wales has spent over two decades working up its apartment rules, culminating in a 2021 policy that “aims to deliver better living environments for residents choosing this form of housing, and to enhance our streetscapes and our neighbourhoods across the state”.

The streetscapes are subject to rules too – public spaces for apartment dwellers do not happen entirely by random market forces in Sydney or Paris.

Sydney’s apartment design guide dates from 2015, and states: “We have seen a shift to well designed, high quality apartment buildings with improved internal amenity and we have seen significant improvements to how apartment developments relate to their neighbourhood.”

Minimum apartment sizes:

  • Studio: 35sqm
  • One bed: 50sqm
  • Two bed: 70sqm
  • Three bed: 90sqm

There are design rules or minimums around room layout, shape, daylight and sunlight, natural ventilation, and acoustic and visual privacy.


skyline of Perth with city central business district at the noon

Perth has rules for size inside and out, demanding communal open space with “good quality landscaping, trees and deep soil areas” and “safe, accessible and high amenity spaces for social interaction”.

Minimum sizes:

  • Studio: 37sqm
  • One bed: 47sqm
  • Two bed: 67sqm
  • Three: 90sqm

Rules and their impacts

What is beyond the scope of this article, is what impact the presence of rules in these cities is having on their own idiosyncratic housing supply. All the cities are grappling with their own version of a housing crisis, each with its own controversies around that.

New York, for instance, has been batting around a proposal to let apartment buildings up to five stories tall to be stuck on top of laundromats, bars and other single-story commercial buildings in some neighbourhoods outside Manhattan.

The government’s, and Chris Bishop’s stated goal, is clear: More apartments, more housing, more choice.

“These changes … enable more choice in our housing market, and that can only be a good thing,” he said.

The apartment approach, however, strikes a dissimilar chord than in the global cities, whose pages and pages of rules share a common, hands-on ambition to make apartments and apartment living better, rather than an aspiration to simply get ahead of the worst alternative – sleeping in tents and cars.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

Related News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button