As housing choices changing, people are changing their sleeping habits

In 2016, the newly appointed Head of Zaha Hadid Architects, Patrik Schumacher, caused a storm at the World Architecture Festival when in his speech on reducing exorbitant urban house prices, he suggested ending all social housing, privatising all streets and other public spaces, as well as repurposing most of Hyde Park in London for development.

In 2018, he again he again courted controversy with his comments on young professionals, saying that “a small, clean, private hotel-room sized central patch serves their needs perfectly well”, when arguing for deregulation of building standards for flats in the centre of the city. To Schumacher, the yuppie, “out and about networking 24/7”, could have no need for such extravagant luxuries as a living room.

The Government’s 2015 standards for a one-person, one-bed flat stipulated that they can be 37 square metres if a bath was swapped out for a shower room. By contrast, the Japanese minimum, which Schumacher held up as an ideal is 25 square metres. It is perhaps worth noting that Japan has the highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven Countries and that suicide rates among young people hit a 30-year high in 2018. Social isolation and loneliness have been identified as key factors.

With mental health professionals warning of a rise in mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, an increased spotlight has been focused in recent years on insomnia and Sleep Hygiene. A key part of this is the transformation of the bedroom into a Sleep Sanctuary which includes the elimination of screens, inclusion of houseplants as natural air filters, soft lighting and keeping the bed for ‘sleep and sex only’ – absolutely no eating, working, watching tv or browsing social media.

All of this is, of course, very much at odds with the no living room model. The removal of this space necessitates the transplantation of working, dining and entertainment spaces into the bedroom and means that the bed and bedroom become associated with mentally engaging and sometimes stressful activities such as reading the news or answering emails.

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Come bedtime the brain cannot instantly turn off thinking about these things or re-set for sleep and this insomnia leads to worsening tiredness, lack of focus, irritability and poor mental health. This in turn worsens stress and intrusive thoughts, which lead to more severe insomnia in a never-ending downward spiral.

It is perhaps no surprise then, that there has also been a boom in the market for sleeping aids, with scented candles, sleep podcast and meditation apps, sleep radio, ASMR and salt-lamps among the products and services seeing a surge in popularity. Lockdown only accelerated this demand as many, particularly young people, faced a “mental health crisis”.

Loneliness is also a major contributing factor to anxiety and depression. Students, a traditionally vulnerable group who move into halls and live with strangers, away from home for the very first time, prove a salutary example. With halls in expensive areas increasingly sacrificing communal spaces, they increasingly retreat into their rooms and isolate themselves instead of socialising, a trend that lockdown exacerbated.

Once they have graduated, young people’s living conditions do not improve. Forced to accept illegally small and often unsanitary conditions just in order to survive while working in an entry level role, the bedroom remains an all-in-one place living space, rather than a calm oasis of relaxation. For those who have to share a bedroom, even privacy is sacrificed.

But, perhaps, this sudden and unprecedented requirement for all inhabitants of a household to be at home at once, working and studying from home has led to a change in Schumacher’s attitude. In an interview in October, he said that redesigning office spaces, including “making them more social spaces” was a priority concern for the coming years. He acknowledged that this involved re-thinking home design, stating: “We need to inflate our homes, have work spaces, internal office spaces. And I was wondering even if we must allow [for] employees coming to your home.” Maybe, then, the pandemic has made the most avid developers stop and re-consider our approach to home life.


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