Suitably sized housing for various situations in life

The housing market is now focusing more on smaller homes since they are seen as the solution to the housing shortage in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. At Heka, we build home for different kind of life situations.

Written by Pi Mäkilä Photos by Vilja Harala 

The comfort of your home has become increasingly important during the last few years. To many, the home is an important place to rest, and with the ongoing pandemic, it has also become a remote office. While we are spending more time at home than ever before, our homes have also become smaller than before.

“Housing has changed immensely in the last decades. First, the urbanisation after the Second World War brought us into cities, and living in blocks of flats increased rapidly. At the time, blocks of flats were seen as so fancy that the public discussion involved concerns about whether ordinary families could even live in the luxurious flats,” says Professor of Urban Geography and Director of the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Studies Mari Vaattovaara

Old magazines and spectacles on the table in the Worker Housing Museum.
The home of the 60s–80s in the Worker Housing Museum shows what everyday routines were like, including reading the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

Housing becoming denser and more urban is not a new phenomenon, and living in a block of flats is the most familiar and the most common form of housing for many urban residents.

An increasing percentage of new flats are small studios. There is demand for small flats, as an increasing number of people are living alone. According to statistics, nearly half of the households in Helsinki consist of one person.

Vaattovaara does not believe that small studios can solve the housing shortage in the Metropolitan Area as a whole.

“There is a risk of losing the diversity of housing. Helsinki has set housing policy goals, and now it seems, even at a more general level, that the private sector is going overboard. Cities’ own housing production takes a firmer stance on the ideals of housing. The city needs all kinds of housing for various life situations. This is why it’s great that homes of various sizes are being built for Heka around the city,” she says.

Helsinki favours studios

Heka is developing homes of all sizes, including studios.

“Overall, the new housing production in Helsinki focuses a lot on studios and two-room flats since there is high demand for them,” sums up the City of Helsinki’s Unit Manager of Housing Production Project Development Rami Nurminen.

Nurminen points out that Heka’s goal is not to build hotel-like small homes, but homes that are suitable for various situations in life. This is why Heka’s smallest studios are significantly larger than what is required by regulations.

City of Helsinki’s Unit Manager of Housing Production Project Development Rami Nurminen sitting at a desk in the Worker Housing Museum.
The construction of Heka’s new housing sites is steered by the land use plan and the location, among other things, says the City of Helsinki’s Unit Manager of Housing Production Project Development Rami Nurminen.

“According to the regulation, the smallest size allowed for flats is only 20 square metres, but at Heka, the standard minimum size for flats is 30 square metres. Of course, there are smaller flats in new buildings, but on average, this standard size is adhered to. The reason for this is clear: we want to invest in housing quality and comfort,” Nurminen says.

However, the average area of new Heka flats is significantly larger, almost 55 square metres.

“In the recent years, the average size of homes has gradually decreased. In the city as a whole, people are living a bit more spaciously, with the average area of all homes being about 63 square metres. However, it should be noted that this is just the average of the entire housing stock in Helsinki: including large old flats and all detached houses within the City’s borders,” Nurminen says.

The construction of Heka’s new sites is directed by the land use plan and the site’s location.

“We always specify if small or large flats are desired for the area. Sometimes, the land use plan may determine that a specific percentage of the site’s flats must be family housing, meaning flats with three or more rooms. In addition to the land use plan, we adhere to the average target area agreed on with Heka, and the aim is to build all sizes of housing around Helsinki,” Nurminen says.

Helsinki homes are more cramped than those in other countries

Compared to many other countries, people in Finland are living in somewhat cramped conditions.

“The Helsinki Metropolitan Area already has the highest number of studios and two-room flats, compared to Western Europe,” Vaattovaara notes.

In her work, Vaattovaara has spend a lot of time thinking about whether homes in large cities – such as Helsinki – are too cramped. She points out that if homes are too small, they will not longer be flexible for varying situations in life.

“Then again, the increasing number of people living alone is not just a Finnish phenomenon – there is demand for smaller flats everywhere in the Western world. People also have varying needs and wishes. For example, many want to live close to a tram route and hear all the sounds of the city in their home, even if that means compromising on their home’s size,” she says.

Many want to live close to a tram route and hear all the sounds of the city in their home, even if that means compromising on their home’s size.

Nurminen also emphasises the importance of various situations in life.

“At Heka, we are not building sites with only specific types of housing. It is important that there is room in the same building for people living alone, people with families, and seniors, for example,” he points out.

Heka offers new homes for various life situations

Heka also emphasises the flexibility of housing that Vaattovaara is calling for.

“We aim to build the kind of homes that you do not need to immediately move out of when your situation changes. We also make floor plans multifunctional whenever possible and try to make effective use of each and every square metre,” Nurminen says.

Flat F 11 in the Worker Housing Museum illustrates the housing style of the 1960s–1980s.
Flat F 11 in the Worker Housing Museum illustrates the housing style of the 1960s–1980s.

According to Nurminen, the available living area can also be increased by not building private saunas for each flat in Heka’s new sites, but having high-quality shared saunas for all tenants. This way, flats can have more storage space, or even more rooms.

“Instead of a sauna, even small flats may have a walk-in closet or an alcove that makes the home more flexible. However, it is challenging to make very small flats flexible since they may only have one spot where you can fit a dining table, for example,” explains Nurminen.

According to Nurminen, the efficiency of the floor plans can also be seen in that the rooms are smaller than before.

“In practice, we can fit more rooms into a smaller area,” he clarifies.

Living comfort and premium materials are key

In addition to flexibility, the pleasantness of the home plays a major role in living comfort. This is why Heka also focuses on high-quality and durable materials and floor plans that suit various situations in life.

“Durability and functionality are the cornerstones of our operations. We have specific instructions not only on housing sizing, but also the interiors. That includes the number of storage cabinets needed and the types of kitchens, with their appliances and cabinets, that should be designed for various types of homes. Everything about the planning aims to make housing usable, durable and functional. If the floor plan is dysfunctional, it makes everyday life considerably difficult,” Nurminen says.

The brightness of the home and the views from the windows are also significant.

“In dense urban construction, you can’t always influence the scenery, but with brightness and an open floor plan, you can make the home much more pleasant,” Nurminen says.

Professor of Urban Geography and Director of the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Studies Mari Vaattovaara sitting on a chair in the Worker Housing Museum.
Professor of Urban Geography and Director of the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Studies Mari Vaattovaara is delighted that Heka takes living comfort into account in its housing construction.

Vaattovaara would like to see other developers also focus on living comfort and functionality instead of just compact areas.

“It’s been great to see that Heka keeps taking living comfort into account in its building development. The private housing market may well be building very small studios only because they provide the best rental income.”

She emphasises that offering high-quality and reasonably-priced homes is key when building housing.

“This is one of the key aspirations of a welfare state, and in the past decades, the goal has been to improve housing quality. If we only build very small studios, the housing quality will start to suffer at some point,” Vaattovaara ponders. 

At Heka, small flats are the most in-demand

The tenant selection process at Heka follows the policy based on which households of one person can be offered housing with 1–2 rooms, households of two people 2–3 rooms, households of three people 2–4 rooms, households of four people 3–5 rooms, and households of five people 4–6 rooms. An unborn child is counted in the household’s number of occupants.

“At the moment, small flats face the highest demand: about 60 per cent of all applicants are applying for housing on their own,” says Team Manager of City of Helsinki Housing Services Kati Hytönen.

Heka itself does not process the housing applications or select the tenants. The tenant selection process is based on the laws and regulations regarding the selection and the criteria approved by Helsinki City Board.

“The housing applications are grouped into urgency categories based on the need for housing as presented by the applicant. For example, cases of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness are considered very urgent.”

Households living with at least three people per room are also considered to be in very urgent need of new housing.

“This refers to a situation where a family of three are living in a studio, or a family of six are living in a two-room flat, for example. The ‘urgent’ category includes cases where a family of three are living in a two-room flat, or a family of four are living in a three-room flat,” Hytönen explains.