Contemporary flat design in the UK

Posted on 11 March 2008 2 comments

A recent edition of The Architect’s Journal (28 Feb 2008) featured an interesting article on flat design in the UK. It noted that many new apartment blocks contain only studios, or 1 or 2 bedroom apartments which become a magnet for buy-to-let investors.

This is a concern because the future of housing in the UK is high-density (which doesn’t necessarily mean high-rise towers) and there’s an obvious need to make apartments more appealing not just to singles and couples, but families too. Of course, so much depends on the design of the apartments.

Attitudes to apartment living are very different on the continent it seems. There doesn’t appear to be an aversion to apartment living for families compared to the UK and it’s not unusual to find apartments with three or more bedrooms designed for family living.

Here’s an example of a studio flat that was recently advertised in the London Metro newspaper. Although it’s obviously not designed for families, it nevertheless illustrates how to make an apartment as unappealing as possible to everyone but the buy-to-let investor.

studio flat priced at £185,000

I’ve written about the layout of this flat in a previous post on new build layouts. There’s barely any room for storage, no room for a washing machine. In fact, there doesn’t appear to be room for both a bed and a sofa, so I presume a combined sofa bed is the only practical alternative. But just look at the price! Who is this flat for? Certainly not a first-time buyer. No-one with any sense would buy this flat for themselves at such a ridiculous price. Note too how the advert mentions a residents’ only gym: a superfluous facility that means – whether you use the gym or not – you’ll be paying for its upkeep through a higher service charge.

Is flat design in the UK improving? It doesn’t seem like it is. The article in the Architect’s Journal contained a number of flat layouts from the past to the present as well as future developments. The majority of the new developments had, unsurprisingly, windowless bathrooms and kitchens. Many seemed to follow the same layout template: bedroom and living area to the front of the property (near the windows), bathroom and kitchen away from any windows. I don’t mind design cut from a template if it’s a decent design, but most of the examples were disappointing.

I know I seem to be obsessed with windowless bathrooms and kitchens; and I’ve convinced myself that I will never buy a property that features them, but am I being unrealistic or unreasonable?

There were two floor plans in the article that I liked - neither of them were from recent developments. One was from the Highpoint One block of flats in London by the Russian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin. The other was for the Byker Wall development in Newcastle by the Anglo-Swedish architect Ralph Erskine. Unfortunately, it was difficult to make out the detail in many of the layouts in the journal because the images were quite small or poorly reproduced.

Highpoint one (Highgate, London)

Highpoint One is a de-luxe seven-storey, modernist housing block with sixty-four apartments. It was completed in 1935. Below is the layout for an entire floor.

Highpoint one - layout for an entire floor
Highpoint One floor plan. Click for larger view.

The criss-cross or cruciform shape of the building gave Lubetkin scope to let ample light flow into the apartments, even the hallways.

Byker wall (Newcastle)

The Byker Wall housing development was built between 1969 and 1982. Here’s a nice layout for a one bedroom flat drawn by Erskine.

Floor plan for a one bed flat in Byker Wall

Although I like these layouts, I realise that homes don’t sit in isolation. The materials and ‘finish’ of the property affect its appeal, but so does the property’s relationship to other homes, to other buildings, and the landscape outside. Both Highpoint and Byker Wall have their admirers and critics and one can’t judge a housing development solely on the floor plans. Nevertheless, the flat layouts above by Lubetkin and Erskine have an appeal that many recent housing developments simply can’t match.



10 November 2010 04:05 GMT

I was fortunate enough to have a tour of the Byker Wall a few years ago and what struck me most was how neatly proportioned the flats were, small but neat and comfortable. Very cosy too, due to the communal heating system. And of course one factor that is generally overlooked by spec developers – a strong sense of community.

It is often said that buildings like the Byker Wall are listed by the architectural elite who would never live there themselves, but I must say I’d be more than happy to take one of those flats, they were wonderful. In fact I believe one I was shown belonged to a lecturer of architecture at Newcastle University.

A. Hussein blog author

10 November 2010 19:38 GMT

Thanks for your comment. One thing I liked from the Byker Wall floorplan is that the kitchen and bathroom both have their own windows (a rarity in many new build flats today), and that there’s some dedicated storage space too (something also lacking in many new builds).

It’s also nice to see a separate kitchen rather than the current practice in many new builds of simply throwing a bunch of kitchen cabinets at the back of the living room and calling it open plan living!

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