Published in 4/2021 - Housing


Editorial 4/2021: From Small Dwellings to Microflats

Kristo Vesikansa

Recently, there has been a hectic debate on the pros and cons of small dwellings in various media. The reason for this is the fact that housing construction is increasingly focussed on one-room and two-room flats, as well as on the microflat concepts developed by construction companies, which test construction norms and well-established practices. Consequently, many architects, researchers and other experts have expressed their concerns regarding the development: we are producing, at a quick pace, a housing stock whose adaptability to changes that take place in society and lifestyles is exceptionally weak. This may result in serious problems later, especially in those new residential areas where most of the housing consists of one-room and two-room flats.

Small dwellings also worried architects who worked 90 years ago. For instance, Aino and Alvar Aalto organised an exhibition on the rationalisation of small dwellings (Pienasunnon rationalisointi) at Kunsthalle Helsinki in 1930. However, a small dwelling meant a completely different thing at that time than today: it meant a family home of 50–60 m2 which fulfilled the minimum standards of a home and which could be produced inexpensively in the form of a long series. With the help of these minimum dwellings, the aim was, above all, to improve miserable housing conditions among the working class. However, architects believed that studies on minimum dwellings would also expose universal housing practices – this way, it was possible to find “the  scientific requirements for a standard home in a class-free society”, as Alvar Aalto put it.

In many respects, the starting points and solutions for current microflats are the opposites of the small dwellings of the 1930s. In place of raising the general housing standard, it appears that the current production of microflats is chiefly motivated by the profit-seeking of developers, often utilising state support systems. It has been claimed that the current high prices and rents of microflats are proofs of their popularity, but, according to interviews, many of their residents dream about having a more spacious home. For some people, giving up the excessive square metres may be a choice in favour of a more ecological lifestyle.

For Alvar Aalto and his contemporaries, a key to better living was natural light that spread evenly to all flats and a division of space that guaranteed a sufficient amount of privacy for all family members. Both ideals have been compromised in recent years, when wide corridor-type buildings, flats opening in one direction and shaft-like inner courtyards are used increasingly often in Finnish housing construction. Even though the conceptions of health have changed over the course of hundred years, there should be no reason to return to practices that have turned out to be unsuitable. Remote working and studying – which have become common due to the Covid-19 pandemic – have shown that open space solutions that are used increasingly often are problematic in many respects. 

Even though the conceptions of health have changed over the course of hundred years, there should be no reason to return to practices that have turned out to be unsuitable.

In order to defend microflats, it can be said that they have aimed at responding to changes that are taking place in the population structure, such as the fact that living alone has become increasingly common. Otherwise, these trends that have had an impact for a long time have received far too little attention in the development of housing construction. Nevertheless, the development of new housing concepts has taken place almost solely according to the conditions of construction companies, seeking to gain cost savings. In order to find more sustainable solutions, we would urgently need comprehensive development projects for small flats in which the needs of various parties and the adaptability of the housing stock would be taken into account in a long run.

The articles in this issue present a few potential trends for making housing construction more versatile. In the main article of this issue, Anne Tervo writes about concepts that are based on the sharing of living space. These concepts could provide those living alone with a wider selection of housing types. Joint building ventures, which are popular in many Central European countries, have maintained the versatile character of housing production and helped to control costs. In Finland, however, joint building ventures have remained a marginal phenomenon due to a lack of support systems, as explained by Juhana Heikonen in his article.

When reading newspapers and discussions in social media, it is easy to receive a gloomy picture of the current state of Finnish housing construction. The projects that are published in this issue prove that, despite all of this, high-quality residential buildings are also completed. The selection includes upscale projects as well as subsidised rental housing, loft homes that were independently finished by their residents, and the converting of a former office building into homes. What is common to these projects is a clear concept within which a versatile selection of homes has been created for different kinds of residents.↙