How we really live in our homes

A few weeks ago, a complete stranger asked if he could put closed-circuit TV cameras inside my house. Ordinarily, I would reject that kind of offer, but Don Ferguson turned out to represent Ikea, the Swedish supplier of fixtures and fittings — and meatballs — and he claimed that it might be to my advantage. By installing cameras for a week, he could show me where I make the best use of the space in my relatively small London house, and where I could do better.

I’ll be honest, Don had captured my attention. Because, like many people, I do sometimes feel that I lack space. Britain has the smallest houses in western Europe — the average new home has shrunk to just 818 sq ft — and people living in cities have less room than others. Perhaps because of this, we spend £246m a year renting external storage for the stuff we can’t accommodate in our own homes. Yet it seems we waste as much as 30% of the precious space we do have.

According to Ikea’s research, the areas most likely to go unused in a typical British home are the loft (38%), under the stairs (13%), in the eaves (10%), in the hallways (9%) and on the landings (9%). Chez Flintoff, however, those spaces are well taken care of: our loft and eaves are packed tight, we have a cupboard under the stairs, and a few years ago I built bookshelves on one of the landings. Could Ikea really help us?

Not entirely convinced, we let a couple of men come round and set up four cameras linked to two laptops — bits of equipment that seemed to have been bodged together using parts from a Wii or Xbox. The cameras were mounted on walls to capture every possible angle in the kitchen and the adjacent sitting room. They recognised our movement and rendered us as stick figures — with different colours for me, my wife, Harriet, our daughter, Nancy, and as many as three additional visitors.

My family had misgivings about the cameras going in, but Oliver, one of the men who installed the equipment, assured us that there would be no photographs. Ikea would see only the stick figures, so we needn’t worry if we forgot about the cameras and wandered around less than fully dressed. He told me about an even more awkward installation — an investigation into the way people across Europe use their bathrooms.

“It turned out that the Germans sit on the loo for longer than anybody else,” he said, “and they really use their bidets.” (The Italians spend longer than others looking at themselves in the mirror.) By comparison, we had it easy. So the cameras were installed, and for a day or so their presence affected the way we behaved in the house: Nancy stood in front of them and danced a devil of a lot.

What else was I expecting to find out? First, how much time I really spend playing the piano. I practise most days, but sometimes only for a couple of minutes. Is the piano a waste of space? Second, how much we watch the TV. Much less than in the past, I suspected. Third, how often we use the sofa: we usually sit on the floor. Fourth, will anybody sit in the armchair at the far end of the room? Fifth, does anybody ever go near the bookshelves that cover so much of our wall space? Sixth, how often do we walk through the kitchen into the conservatory? And seventh, does anybody except me ever wash up dirty dishes?

Ikea’s computers crunched all the data and created line drawings of each room, with colour-coded towers marking the places we occupied most. The taller the tower, the more time we spent. It looked rather as if the skyscrapers of Manhattan had been grafted onto a sketch of our house.

“We think you need a dishwasher,” Don said. But I have a dishwasher, I answered. Without missing a beat, he said: “We think you could use it a bit more.” It turns out I spend fully 30% of my time in the kitchen, 24% of which seems to be at the sink. I felt obliged to explain: I don’t see the point of a dishwasher if you have to rinse plates before using it, then dry them again afterwards.

The graphic also showed a lot of skyscrapers around the kitchen table. Don’s verdict? “You spend a lot of time together there. You seem to be a close family.” (I glowed when he said this.)

We also spent a lot of time being close in front of the television — an unusually large amount of time, because that week we happened to have borrowed the box set of Star Wars. We watched it sitting on the floor (as we generally watch TV), but to my surprise the sofa was also covered in skyscraper symbols. How come? I struggled to explain this, until I recalled that Nancy often sits there when she’s playing with the iPad. So the sofa can stay. The piano, too, was used just about enough to remain.

The armchair at the end of the room, however, had not been used once. This confirmed it as a waste of space — the point of the exercise, after all. Staring at the graphic, I agreed with Don that there were areas we seemed to use less than others. Then I thought: hang on! Is this all about efficiency? Isn’t wasted space, and a sense of openness, a desirable luxury? Don’t we all yearn to live in something more like a palace? Where would Nancy dance, wildly, if we were to bifurcate the room with Ikea’s Expedit shelving unit (“which doubles as a room divider and can be accessed from both sides”)?

Don pointed out politely that I had myself complained about having too much stuff, and that finding a place to put it all might open up the luxurious open space I yearn for.

So what could I do? Don’s excitement was palpable. He pointed out that I could get rid of the TV table and hang the TV on the wall. That way, people could make more use of the shelves behind it. Another suggestion was that we might get rid of all our novels, because nobody seemed to go near the shelves. We could put them all on a Kindle.

On balance, it taught me a lot about how we behave at home. For instance, it provided ammo for my argument that we go to bed too late: fully 20% of the time we spent in the living room was between the hours of 11pm and 5am. We’re going to do something to fix that — and I’m going to start using the dishwasher.

1142 words. First published 15 September 2013. © Times Newspapers Ltd.