Skip to content

The Key Worker and the Tenure Divide

Post date:

Key worker housing is what remains of worker housing. Key workers include nurses, teachers, police, paramedics, firemen – I’m not sure if firemen still are. Wasn’t there a strike not too long back? I hope they’re not privatised. I can’t imagine a world in which they were. Let’s hope somebody isn’t.


People in these occupations are called key workers because they’re essential to keep society functioning. They don’t get paid enough to afford to live where they’re needed and so they need special consideration for housing. This was a problem first identified in Aspen as early as 1969 but later came to blight lives in other rich people’s hotspots such as Valldemossa or London. You can find out here if you’re eligible for key worker housing.

Key worker housing is like co-housing or co-living only not so sexy. Each person gets a room with maybe a private bathroom, and the rights to use a cooking/eating/seating area shared with one to five others. Here’s what it looks like for nurses. Hmm … looks familiar.

keyworker housing

Oh shit – I might have had a hand in designing it!

  • Apartments are designed to a module so a 2-person+studio can be substituted for a 4-person etc.
  • Use of truncated bathroom units and tighter planning enable a larger living area and less expensive construction.
  • Modular planning enables different combinations of apartments to be substituted so respective percentages don’t have to be fixed until the last minute.

This next project looks like a regular house. Inside it has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Despite that, you can still tell from the plan it’s keyworker housing for people of the same rank because all bedrooms are exactly the same size.

Another giveaway is the second bathroom downstairs to make life easier for shift workers. This is housing for the people who get paid to plump up your pillows, take your temperatures and empty your bedpans. Key worker housing for nurses can be designed to appear like conventional housing so they don’t have to be ashamed of not living in and owning a proper house.


Nurses’ housing is mostly built by housing associations and leased back to hospitals to  allocate. The housing comes with the job, as it must if nurses are to be enticed away from other countries.


The housing association is usually a registered social housing provider and remains responsible for facilities management, day-to-day maintenance, ground maintenance and tenancy management, and something called ‘the overall delivery of affordable long-term rents’.

This usually means that any housing a hospital has no need for, is either rented out or otherwise made available to local keyworkers having first choice and ‘cascading’ down to non-local keyworkers and finally, if no-one else is keen, the general market.

(A cascade is when a property changes from one tenure e.g. key worker to another e.g. social rented due to changes in funding or a failure to sell to the designated group. e.g.*)

Apartments with this as an option wouldn’t be designed as nurses’ housing from the outset but would still comply to the spatial and amenity standards required to secure something like a 30% government grant for their construction. Those standards are higher than those for market construction.

With key worker housing there’s little money to spend on different colour renders, shuffle windows, or any of the other tropes claimed and widely believed to be evidence of design. Here’s a decent enough example by Maccreanor Lavington. Key workers get the lo-rise bit and the students get five floors of social condensing.

The 73 flats are designed to meet Code for Sustainable Homes Level 5 and the aim is to create a good piece of city -‘background’ architecture characterised by careful detailing and robust, primarily brick, materials, of a type familiar in the existing Cambridge city centre. It is central to the brief to provide high quality accommodation that establishes a sense of belonging and identity as part of the University and the wider community. A third of the accommodation will be provided around single stair cores giving access to two flats at each floor, a typology similar to the collegiate model offered in many Cambridge colleges.

I’d warm to the concept of background architecture a bit more if it didn’t imply a concept of foreground architecture. I suspect ‘Cambridge collegiate model’ is a euphemism for no elevators but nobody cares – it’s all about the bathrooms! Here’s a price list for student housing at Swansea University.

Accommodating Success 2015

It’s all coming back now. This next one was student housing for a teaching hospital so the same standards as for nurses applied. It has 4-person and 6-person apartments with own-bathrooms but a shared room for cooking and eating. See how the 4-person apartment at 3 o’clock has proportionally less living area than the 6-persons’? Cold logic. This early plan shows elevator lobbies and stairwells open to save money on maintenance and heating, and to enable entire units to be mirrored, displaced or angled about the lobbies to adjust to site conditions without plan changes. Students seem to rate the final building highly but for me the scheme never lived up to its early promise.

test plan.jpg

You’ll see no sofas in those dining-kitchens shared between six. On the roof above the lobbies are recreation rooms one for every sixty. 60.

If student/keyworker housing such as this is recognized as filling a local social housing requirement, then excess land can be sold-off for market housing to pay for the key worker housing.


And so it came to pass that different people doing different things lived in much the same buildings designed and built by the same people for different sides of the tenure divide.


• • •