Thin on the ground
By Peter Fieldman
Published: May 20 2011 22:04 | Last updated: May 20 2011 22:04
|A typical building in Vietnam|
Vietnam is not a country that springs to mind as being at the forefront of residential or commercial building. Yet during the past 30 years the communist regime has encouraged private ownership of land and, with a rapidly expanding economy, its growing population has been able to take advantage of the opportunity to build and own property.
With limited resources, many families have been able to purchase tiny plots of land and erect three- or even five-storey homes while keeping within the narrow legal boundaries. Despite many of the homes possessing a frontage no wider than 3m (10ft), including the thickness of outside walls, they not only provide living space but include stairs, landings and ingenious roof terraces and balconies that come in a variety of designs and colours.
No traveller to Vietnam can fail to spot the strange, skinny buildings that have sprouted alongside major roads. In the historic town centres, these constructions fit snugly into the narrowest of gaps and rise above the older traditional properties. As Vietnam’s tourist industry has grown, town centre buildings have even been converted into boutique hotels.
In towns and cities, where narrow streets and buildings appear to slot together in a haphazard fashion, the skinny homes have been Vietnam’s answer to the town houses that became the rage in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a period when affluent young professionals could obtain mortgages, and developers demolished large detached houses in order to squeeze a maximum number of new terraced town houses on to the site.
Given the country’s high number of motorbike users, the ground floors of these buildings are invariably used as shops or market stalls rather than as garages or car parking spaces. What the thin buildings lack in width, they make up in depth. So much so that when standing in isolation by the roadside, the thin buildings, designed with windowless, grey concrete side walls to allow for future adjacent construction, look more like gigantic circuit-breakers. Their days, however, may be numbered.
In 2004 the Hanoi government passed a construction law stipulating that no building could take place on sites of less than 15 sq m, which by European standards would hardly be enough for a garden shed or garage. However compulsory purchase by the government of land for road widening schemes left owners with tiny, odd-shaped plots. So they continued to build on what remained of their land, resulting in thousands of illegally constructed skinny buildings across the country.
Although the authorities have promised to compensate owners who built before the 2004 law became effective, those who erected homes after the law was passed risk losing everything. The Hanoi authority’s proposals to prevent the building of narrow homes on small plots would seem to go against the concept of making home ownership affordable for the population. Land is becoming expensive and the smaller the site, the cheaper the price.
Vietnam’s property market has become more sophisticated, with developers and investors, both local and foreign, acquiring sites for high-rise apartment blocks with western names such as Mulberry Lane, Park City, Sky Tower or Morning Plaza. Top prices range from $1,000-$3,000 per sq m in the capital and Ho Chi Minh City.
However, to reduce speculation and ensure an available stock of affordable housing for the less well-off, the government exercises control over land sales in designated areas. The price for new affordable apartments, depending on the location, varies from $30,000-$100,000 (developers continue to list sale prices in US dollars despite a government ban).
Nevertheless, the government, which says the skinny homes are unsafe and unattractive, is determined to demolish those built near major roads, with more than 500 earmarked for demolition this year.
Of course, skinny homes are not unique to Vietnam. For many people around the world, living in a compact, narrow space has become a way of life. In the US, where land is plentiful, a considerable percentage of the population chooses to live in mobile homes. Tiny village cottages in Spain, France and Italy are sought-after as holiday homes. In London, Paris and Amsterdam, houseboats are popular.
It requires a great deal of ingenuity and creativity to design habitable buildings on narrow plots of land, skills that are epitomised by one particular building in the heart of Hanoi’s old town: a fully functioning art gallery that is just 2m wide. There are, of course, obvious drawbacks to Vietnam’s skinny buildings but it would be a shame if these strange and distinctive constructions become obsolete.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.