Pressing Problems with Pocket Sized-fix

By Siobhan Hudson.

London boroughs are struggling to provide well located, affordable housing and are now suggesting selling public land to private developers – does this sound familiar?

Pocket Edition’s affordable 2-3 bedroom apartments in Wandsworth. This slender 27-storey development breaks away from negative stigma of modular construction and affordable provision with the help of terracotta cladding and fine detailing. (Source: Pocket)
What is the situation?

Marc Vlessing is an avid cyclist who was perplexed by the patterns of infill developments on his morning route - they were only ever in multiples of fourteen. Floor plates would creep to fill each site and provide luxurious 2-3 bedrooms in prime locations. Meanwhile London mayor, Sadiq Khan , accuses property developers of constructing “too many luxury penthouses that only the very wealthiest investors can afford” and morning newspapers revealed the number of young professionals in public service professions who can no longer afford to live, and therefore work, in the bustling capital.

Vlessing, asked the question of a town planner, “Why just fourteen?” The answer, that apartment designs now had an unspoken rule. Greater than fourteen apartments mandates inclusion of social housing or paying a penalty (closer to home, inclusionary zoning (meaning planning ordinances that require a given share of new constructions to be affordable housing) is proposed for inner city Sydney developments). Appalled and frustrated, Vlessing set a new personal agenda of solving the affordable housing ‘crisis’. He threw in his role as a financier at Canary Wharf and started a housing development company – enter Pocket Living.

What is the solution?

In response to the shrinking provision of affordable housing, Vlessing devised a business case for providing well designed, well located, high density affordable apartments. These receive no public subsidy, sell for 20% less than market value and target first time buyers, as ‘starter homes’, for those earning less than £45 000 per annum and working in the borough.

In order to do so, Vlessing approached councils to acquire prime inner city brownfield sites for development, close to public transport, local shops and employment opportunities though without the additional social housing provision. The arrangement did not come easily though.

Pocket properties can only be sold for the price they were bought and to those meeting re-sale criteria. Current apartments sell for £270 000. Since establishing seven years ago resale numbers have been slim, whilst a minimum annual residency and the provision of common spaces encourages interaction between neighbours and fosters a neighbourhood – or perhaps you’ll run into them brunching on the local high street?

As the name suggests, Pocket supports small footprint living – 38m2 to be exact. These one bedroom apartments are smaller than your average tube carriage and local authority policies had to be changed to make way for the first prototype scheme. The apartment plans were far smaller than the minimum standards however, they promised high quality detailing and materials to ensure longevity. The current waiting list of 35 000 people proves good things can come via small floor plans! Mandating no on-site parking and instead providing bicycle parking allowed large ground works savings that could increase the construction quality. Affordable, well deigned, well located apartments are incredibly rare in London so it is easy to view a Pocket offer letter as Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, particularly when offers are prioritised to those who need the housing most - earning well below the income cap and via ‘help to buy’ schemes.

These one bedroom apartments are smaller than your average tube carriage (Source: Pocket)
Construction costs have further been kept to a minimum by re-introducing modular design. After a reputation for poor quality and unattractive homes throughout the 1960s, Pocket has sourced high quality providers of prefabricated building elements to ensure speedy assembly on-site. This process effectively halved the construction time and takes approximately twenty weeks to assemble. The Government has been particularly excited with this production flow as it shares construction work with the Midlands and the North and also provides local jobs. Traditionally work has been dictated by site location and kept work predominantly in the South-East.

Pocket has successfully provided seven developments since commencing in 2010 and houses 200 professionals locally. With this development track record, the government provided a huge boost of encouragement and financial security. London’s then mayor, Boris Johnson, and all 33 London councils invested in a profit making private housing developer for the first time in 2016. This took the form of a social investment loan, not a grant, while the Greater London Authority, Lloyds Bank and the London Enterprise Group provided £150 million, interest free for ten years. Pocket is now worth 25 million and has big aspirations.

How can Pocket up-scale?

This social investment loan is an opportunity to provide 1000 homes by 2021, a significant amount of the social housing provision that local authorities need to provide. Provision of 43 000 affordable homes per year is needed to meet with demand and Pocket serves as a precedent for similar developments.

Excitingly, future evolutions now provide larger units for family homes and are investigating private rentals or acquiring public land to incorporate a mix of social housing…sounding familiar? This arrangement would allow councils to hand over the site on first day of construction, now down to a timeframe of 20 weeks, and provides a huge saving on construction costs. This would support inclusion of not-for-profit social housing. As Australian cities discuss how best to upgrade their own social housing stock and put public land on the private market, Pocket should serve as a precedent with a successful development record and exciting future development models in store. Watch this space!

Who wore affordability better?

A creeping trend in inner-city developers has been berated after providing lavish street entrances for private owners and providing ‘poor doors’, Spartan rear entries for lower income earners. Even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities and postal deliveries are being separated. In planning applications developers have even argued;

"that on-site provision of affordable housing would result in significant design inefficiencies due to the need for separate entrances and building cores".

These design choices reinforce social strata each time you enter the building and assure you never accidently say ‘hello’ to your well-earning ‘neighbours’ on the stairwell. It is a modern day approach to Victorian servant circulation – except these individuals are your nurses, police and key public service providers. Pocket developments are deliberately designed to respond to neighbourhood character whilst providing beautiful interiors and shared spaces. Affordable apartments can be achieved without sacrificing aesthetics and without stigma.

Left, the luxury lobby of One Commercial Street, marketed to wealthy City workers. Right, the side-alley entrance reserved for affordable housing tenants. Photographs: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Pocket Living were among keynote speakers attending the recent Agency Congress in Sydney, November 2017. The Congress focused on practitioners who have noticed opportunity for growth and innovation in policymaking and the built environment, and more excitingly, are being proactive about it.

Further reading: 

Osborne, Hilary.
Poor doors: the segregation of London's inner-city flat dwellers, 26 July 2014, .

Colson, Thomas.
These factory-made homes the size of a London Underground carriage could help fix London's housing crisis, 20 September 2017,

Knowles, Tom. Pocket-size solution to help solve housing crisis, 4 September 2017,

Evans, Judith. Marc Vlessing of Pocket micro-homes is big in small housing, 18 May 2016,

Allen, Kate, Housebuilder Pocket Living attracts cash from Boris Johnson, 25 October 2013,

Booth, Robert.
Sadiq Khan: London needs to build 66,000 new homes a year, up from 29,000,
27 October 2017,


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