Rory Sutherland

The stupidity of the ‘spare bedroom’

The stupidity of the ‘spare bedroom’
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The Tesla Model 3 is an astounding achievement, but one thing baffles me: why do electric cars lack even the most basic tea-making equipment? I can’t be the only Briton to wonder why you would travel around on top of a 75kwh, 360v lithium-ion battery without having the facility to plug in a kettle. Or indeed power an off-the-grid shack for a few days.

I have become oddly obsessed with questions like this because of the many lockdown hours I have spent watching bizarre YouTube videos. One remarkable series concerns the tiny house movement, where people seek to simplify and declutter their lives by moving into little wooden huts. I have always been interested in tiny homes, since it occurs to me that, with a certain amount of cunning design, it would be possible to produce effective micro-housing of extremely high quality — spending less money on land (which accounts for most of the cost of urban housing) and devoting far more attention to the design of the space and fitments.

Given how expensive domestic property is, it is bizarre how much space we waste. One of the dumbest things is the ‘spare bedroom’; in London, even a crappy spare bedroom might cost you as much as a new Bentley, and yet spare rooms spend 95 per cent of the year housing a stupid empty bed. In the tiny house movement, almost every square foot performs double duty. There are beds that fold into the wall, and storage drawers built into the risers on stairways.

I once asked a property developer why so few very small apartments were built. He explained that this was not through lack of demand — you simply are not allowed to build them. As one council jobsworth had told him: ‘It isn’t about what people want — it’s about what we think people need.’ As a result of minimum size rules, London has been flooded with two-bedroom flats — marvellous for buy-to-let investors and for overseas buyers, no doubt, but largely useless for an individual or a family.

If you don’t believe that small spaces can be extremely liveable, try looking at the YouTube tiny homes, or alternatively try watching filmed reviews of American motorhomes. I know it’s slightly naff to like enormous RVs, but they are in many ways the most American things in the world, matching absurdity and ingenuity in equal measure. It is now standard even for entry-level US motorhomes to include an outdoor television as standard. Why would you want such a thing?

On the other hand, the need to use limited space leads to truly ingenious ideas: a fridge door which opens from the left or the right, a wardrobe that converts into bunk-beds, or a fabulous in-built vacuuming system where you sweep all the crap from your kitchen floor towards a vent, then flick a switch and have it all sucked away into a central bin. Why don’t houses have this feature?

It is worth studying innovations in this area even if you have no interest in motorhomes themselves, since many such technologies could be adapted to work in everyday homes. For obvious reasons, this sector is pioneering the use of solar power. I have just discovered that it is now possible to buy a portable solar panel with a large battery (called a ‘solar generator’) for a couple of hundred pounds. If you have a summer house or a shed you want to turn into an ersatz home office this summer, this would allow you to electrify it for a fraction of the cost of connecting to the mains. I’ll provide more tips of this kind, including how to extend the range of your home wifi, in my column next week.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.