Saturday 16 November 2019

As households get smaller, we must change type of homes that we build

Conor Skehan
Conor Skehan

Conor Skehan

The Irish housing bubble that started to crash in 2008 was characterised by an over-supply of houses in areas with little or no demand.

A similar crash could be caused by an over-supply of the wrong types of houses - a type for which there is less requirement. In the very near future, Ireland will need a dramatically different range of house types, according to the 2014 Housing Agency Report on future Housing Need. Housing needs change because people's behaviour changes. And Ireland's population is currently going through a period of great change.  

While the population itself is growing, families are getting smaller. As more people have children later (if at all), they are likely to live for longer in apartments or smaller homes. As parents live longer, they could spend up to 30 years rattling around in a house that was bought to raise a family. As household sizes reduce, there will be greater need for smaller homes.


Another significant change is that as people become more affluent and urbanised, they are more likely to spend more of their lives renting.

All of these changes lead inevitably to a need for different types of homes and the housing stock will need to be flexible to respond to the needs of different household types: students, working people, families, couples and single people. If we continue the business-as-usual production of expensive semi-Ds, the house type favoured by traditional builder/developers, then we may be headed for trouble all over again.

These factors have led the Housing Agency to advise that nearly 60pc of all the homes needed nationally will be for one- and two-person households. This is completely consistent with international trends. Other behaviours are changing too. Irish home ownership peaked at 80pc in 1991 and has fallen steadily every year since. Now, it is around 70pc, a figure not seen since the late 1950s.

In Dublin, approximately 30pc of people now rent their homes - this figure has grown by 50pc in the past five years alone. More and more of us will rent our homes in the future. Ireland's 'baby boomers' are now approaching retirement age. They will be the wealthiest and best educated generation of Irish householders.

Many are likely to down-size to smaller homes. This type of housing mobility is to be encouraged as it results in a more efficient use of the current housing stock.

But these movers will insist on quality and value. The right type of housing has to be affordable and high quality, and must contribute as well to the quality of people's lives. Affordable so that people have a real choice to rent or buy and in terms of energy efficiency and location, proximity to centres of employment, schools and public transport.

In an ideal world, the market would respond quickly to these new demands by providing precisely what people are looking for - new types of build-to-let, urban, affordable, high quality, well-managed units - as well as the very large number of units with fewer bedrooms and better residential amenities. Unfortunately the conservative construction, property economics and planning sectors will unwittingly conspire to stick with the tried and tested formula of semi-detached housing estates.

Houses take a few years to plan and build. In the worst case scenario, we will discover that we have built the wrong kind of houses at exactly the same time as the need fully emerges for houses of a new and different type.

The Housing Agency is responsible for advising the Government - and society - on all aspects of housing. We need to continue to research and debate these issues to make sure we build the right type of homes in the right places.

Conor Skehan is Chairman of the Housing Agency

Irish Independent

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