Skip to content

The Boarding House

Post date:

Boarding houses are dwellings that can be lived in either as houses or hotels and it seems like they’re due for a comeback now that much of our existing house and apartment stock is either fully or partially rented out short-term to persons not a part of the owner’s household.

Property and investments have now surpassed paid employment as the primary generator of personal wealth, so we can’t expect this trend to end soon. They seem like the perfect product as there’s definitely a demand for boarding houses and for making money off them.

Pay-per-stay lodging arrangements means we have apartment buildings unofficially morphing into hotels but apartment buildings and hotels both require considerable investment in the building stock. Airb’n’b is successful because it enables anyone to micro-feudalise space of any type or size.

The top-end of the market is saturated with short-term accommodation curated to create the impression of being a welcome guest in someone’s home. I hear there’s a Netflix show called Stay Here.

Whatever floats one’s houseboat is fine at the top end of the market. Houses have always been available for short-term rental but when the term is as short as one night we’re talking hotels. A dwelling may be a house typologically and curated as if it were someone’s home but can still be occupied as if it were a hotel.

The “bed and breakfast” has always been around in some form and, even for typologically identical dwellings, its experience as a short-term stay is somewhere between full houseness and full hotelness. Some owners run very tight ships while others pride themselves on informality.  For breakfast, some offer organic bacon and eggs on artisan bread, handmade jam, a choice of fresh juices, herbal teas and ethically sourced coffee. Others might not.

When London councils use beds and breakfast to provide emergency housing, the bed and breakfast is being used as a low-cost hotel in place of low-cost housing. But people at the the sharp end of housing demand aren’t looking for low-cost staycations with breakfast thrown in. They want accommodation whatever its typology and will occupy it as short-term lets that are renewable. Until they’re not anymore.

Becoming “a lodger” is another informal tenancy option and this type of arrangement is also not new. A lodger pays for a room in a house, some degree of use of the kitchen and bathroom and perhaps also the living areas. In the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for a lodger to eat meals along with owners at the same time and table. There was no contract, payment was in cash and, more often than not, undeclared. These quasi-household arrangements were mutually beneficial and could last several years. Nobody minded there being only one bathroom because one bathroom was all houses had.

“Taking in a lodger” was accepted as a necessary thing to do to “make ends meet” as “letting strangers into one’s home” was not something people did through choice. But what of the lodger? Lodgers gained a reputation for either being a shifty bunch with pasts and intentions unknown, or social failures with lives on the skids.

No such stigma was attached to boarding houses run by companies for their workers.


This 1905 Western Pennsylvania boarding house is worker housing offering full board to miners for a charge presumably deducted from their salaries. It’s a communal house for people bound by an employer rather than family.

Communal houses also existed in pre-Soviet Russia in response to housing shortages and it was not uncommon to find an extended family occupying a single room. These photographs give some idea of what the living was like but the plan is also revealing.

Not too much later came the Soviet communal house proposals and, though the occupants were likely to have been linked by an employer, this new pattern of occupancy was seen appropriate for the new society in which primary loyalties were now to the State. One of the reasons the communal house never became the norm was resistance [at the top] to doing away with the notion of the family as the basic unit for housing society even though (or perhaps because) overcrowding meant that was not always the reality.

The Return of the Boarding House

Fast forward a century and the Air b’n’b and pay-per-stay architecture and disenchantment with the carrots of “starter homes” and “property ladder” all suggest a demand for new types of housing to facilitate yet unknown types of tenure and occupation. The detached house or conventional apartment designed for a nuclear family no longer cuts it. And hotels don’t either. There’s a whole range of human experience not being accommodated, even conceptually. This next project is designated a boarding house.

Apartments are perhaps 20 sq.m. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s as decent as it is. The images are from Item 1 – 2 Frederick Street, Wollongong (DA-2018-313) on the council website.

As a typology, it’s nothing new. It could be conventional self-catering holiday apartments or a trendy microflat development. It’s not last-year’s co-living because the apartments, though small, have their own bathroom and kitchen alcove. And it’s not last-year’s co-housing because there aren’t any ties bringing these people together in the same place. But nor is it a hotel as residents do their own cleaning. I wouldn’t have thought people would be responsible for their own meals in a boarding house but Attachment 6 [p.93] says they can.


The ground level communal living room and on-site manager are required by the planning conditions for boarding houses [on p.10-11 of the document].

The live-in caretaker also makes it a boarding house, along with house rules that include

  • a ban on smoking inside,
  • drinking alcohol outside between 10pm and 10am,
  • disturbing neighbours and
  • having overnight visitors.


  • sign up for a minimum of three months, and
  • are prohibited from using illegal drugs,
  • having pets and
  • burning candles or incense.

Strangely, these rules are more stringent than those of any market housing. I suspect the building is built and managed to provide some of the services local councils used to provide. And that the rules are necessary to comply with the conditions of some subsidy, tax break or funding. Low-paid workers are the expected tenants and will pay AUS$200 (€127/US$145/GB£111) per week. Australia’s lists one one-bedroom apartment for AUS$140 p.w. but the average is around AUS$300 for a one-bed and AUS$400 for a two.

Construction is straightforward and finishes absent or minimal. Access corridors are open. The price difference between these micro-apartments and 1-bed rental apartments already on the market seems largely proportional to floor area, suggesting that design and construction are incapable of further reduction, though materials may be.

Spatially, the rooms are 16-18 sq.m and look a lot like hotel rooms.

The problem remains. How are people who will never be able to purchase a home expected to live? There’s not many options. AUS$200/€127/US$145/GB£111 is what this new minimum way of living costs for now. Some way down the line, the kitchenettes will be replaced by a communal kitchen or possibly a canteen, and then the bathrooms will become shared. The resulting building and how it is lived in will resemble student accommodation circa 1946

but with a room area to GFA ratio approximating early 20th century prototypes.

A vertical communal house with a canteen at street level would be the same building as a residential hotel or, on a smaller scale, a pub [c.f. Home Improvement] and even as far as meals being provided to residents and sold to non-residents. It’s little wonder these buildings convert so easily into apartments.

No matter how similar an apartment building may be to a hotel building, our only modes of occupying it are as a house or as a hotel and, as in MONOPOLY, a preponderance of hotels means it’s close to the end of the game. [c.f. Houses or Hotels] The boarding house is an inbetween type of occupancy. I can imagine a building or apartment with eight to ten bedrooms, perhaps with en-suites, but with breakfasts and dinners available as part of the deal in a communal dining room adjacent to a communal living area. This is a new type of occupation that we don’t have a word for yet but boarding house is the closest one we have. This gap in our concepts also shows with there being no word for the person or persons who would run such a house(hold). They’re not concierges although they would probably receive packages and deliveries for others. They’re not caretakers although they would probably clean and manage communal areas. They’re more than cooks and housekeepers but less than parents and mothers. Were they to clean individual rooms or do laundry as an extra, then the rooms would be serviced rooms within a co-housing situation and a miniature of the serviced apartments currently proliferating within apartment blocks.

If ever a new building typology perfectly adapted to this type of occupancy were to emerge, individual boarding houses would have to differentiate themselves by their cooking.



  • Or we could build some social housing. (I’m increasingly tempted to comment this on all your posts compromising with tiny houses/dorms/whatever we’re pretending to do this week to avoid addressing the problem.)

    • I couldn’t agree more Yorks. As I see it, the problem is that even if there was the political will to do it, we wouldn’t be able to replicate the level of “luxury” that it was possible to build in decades past. Something’s got to give and, unless you live in Belgium, Denmark or Switzerland, it’s probably given already and there aren’t going to be many alternatives. It’s not the 1960s anymore and if I write about tiny houses or dorms or boarding houses it’s only because I’m not optimistic and don’t like surprises. I think it’s the job of architects to come up with solutions to contemporary social problems rather than develop and exploit some new niche market. It’s a matter of attitude, but I’m worried that sooner or later we won’t even have the words and language to tell the difference anymore. Cheers, Graham.