The trouble with terraced housing

Posted on 25 August 2008 3 comments

In a previous post I looked at contemporary flat design in the UK and wasn’t very impressed. Now, it’s time to take a look at contemporary terraced homes.

Terraced homes can generally be built on less land than an equivalent number of detached or semi-detached homes. This makes them suitable for high density developments or for developments that need to limit urban sprawl. But it also makes terraced homes less appealing to the public if the perception is that the houses are small and cramped. Of course this doesn’t have to be the case.

For example, on a limited plot of land that requires a certain number of dwellings, the most obvious solution is to build upwards. For terraced homes, this means three- or even four-storey houses. These are not popular with everyone, but rooms spread comfortably over three floors seem infinitely preferable to an equivalent number of rooms crammed onto two floors.

The terraced house shares a party wall with its neighbour – a feature that many people find unappealing (although it also has the possible advantage of making it easier or more economical to build an energy-efficient house compared to a detached property). Proximity to one’s neighbours is for many people a disadvantage of terraced homes. We like some sense of space or distance from our neighbours but many terraced homes stand up poorly when measured against noise and privacy criteria.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post on noise problems that I believe the walls between houses should be completely soundproof. This would certainly add to the cost of the house build, but not I believe, prohibitively. And it is an essential requirement for a terraced house when you consider how stressful noise from neighbours can become.

What about the back garden? Here it’s impossible to have complete privacy or to block out noise. The garden will be overlooked by neighbours on either side of the house and the house opposite (if the house runs back-to-back with another house).

Side-by-side back gardens in the Coin Street housing development in London.
Too close for comfort? The award-winning Coin Street development in London. Picture copyright: Philip Vile / Haworth Tompkins

Living so close to neighbours in a terraced development means being mindful of the noise we make in the garden and through open windows and being mindful of the impact our activities will have on others. No-one likes noisy neighbours; this is why it’s so important to design a terraced house so occupants can be free to do as they please in their homes without being fearful of disturbing others with the noise they make.

Should we build terraced homes that insulate or shield us as much as possible from our neighbours? How can we do this without making our home or garden appear like a fortress? Striking the right balance between these concerns is extremely difficult when designing a terraced house. The reality is that we can’t choose our neighbours and we don’t know how considerate or inconsiderate they may be. (I’m all too familiar with inconsiderate neighbours unfortunately!)

One approach to the design of a terraced house is to shape it like a (deformed) letter L:

pattern of terraced house shapes

A shape like this will add to the cost of building the house compared to a straightforward rectangular shape and the rear extrusion occupies valuable garden space. But it also gives some privacy where the house meets the garden (and possibly some sound insulation from the neighbours). I hope to flesh out the design and details of house like this in a future post.

Last year, The Architect’s Journal published a feature titled Contemporary Terraced Housing Types (18.10.07 edition). Most of the layouts were disappointing and unappealing. The majority had windowless bathrooms. But here’s one design I did like by Architect’s AOC (Agents of Change): Crown Terrace in Elephant & Castle, London.

Floor plan for a terraced house by AOC in Elephant & Castle, London
Floor plan for a terraced house in Crown Terrace in Elephant and Castle, London

Here’s what Christopher Alexander has to say in his book A Pattern Language about row houses.

“…row houses in their conventional form have problems of their own…The houses have a short frontage and a long depth and share the party wall along their long side.

Because of the long party wall, many of the rooms are poorly lit. The houses lack privacy – there is nowhere in the houses or their yards that is very far from a party wall.

The small yards…are at the short ends of the house, so that only a small part of the indoor space can be adjacent to the garden.

These problems of row houses can be solved by making the houses long and thin.

…The house can take on a variety of shapes.”

pattern of varied terrace shapes

This is an appealing solution, but will long, thin homes (i.e. homes with wider frontages) require more land? Alexander proposes that row houses are placed along pedestrian paths that run at right angles to local roads and parking lots. It’s an interesting idea but it’s also a topography that we’re largely unfamiliar with in the UK, but that’s not to say it couldn’t work. As ever, housing solutions need to adapt to the landscape in which they’re built and these landscapes can vary enormously from one location to another.

3 comments

John Chamberlain

02 December 2011 01:54 GMT

Missed this in 2008, but nice to see reference to Alexander in this article. However, it fails to make sense of the diversiy of housing form and the alternative to terrace formats. Recently with Kevin McCloud’s Swindon terrace housing espousing the Victorian ideal and trying to attribute the social adhesion we have seemingly lost with other forms. Ordinary housing he calls it.

Have a look at housing done in the late sixties and seventies in Bristol,Cotham Hill, dense patio housing , now really overgrown and attractive. Economic also and puts the car in its correct relationship to the front door. Lots of other formats and patio concepts imported from the Scandinavians...Utzons patio housing and a whole lot of prefabricated stuff using high density patio forms. Theres a list I shall have to research which I was interested in at the time and followed through with designs in Portugal. Look at the SARL experiments and Siza´s stuff in Evora Portugal and his Italian stuff and Dutch work.

I think we have made the interior formats to rigid and should be spaces with more ambiguity less closed circualtion space and so many doors...fire and H&S etc has killed any innovation in the plan formats.

Interestingly, now we are looking at freeing up plans and fixed uses...all very restricted by the fact that space standards for UK housing are have atrophied in realtionship with Europe.

See RIBA reports on space standards...costs and public housing ideas are antagonistic and the prfit motive highly geared to the trditional.

West

28 May 2012 02:33 GMT

I’ve lived in a terraced house in San Francisco for 8 years and couldn’t imaging being spread out. The “Party Wall” is not a problem, yeah neighbors can be annoying, but the benefit of having so much so close far out weighs the annoyance of a close neighbor.

Having small frontage also allows one to have a highly stylized exterior which can add to the beauty of the street. This is something contemporary loft and apartment complex/high density buildings lack. Also, Instead of wasting resources maintaining a large front yard, or keeping up all the exterior walls, only dealing with light shafts and the front and back of a house minimize up keep.

I find it funny that anyone would “find trouble with terraced housing” when so much of the united states is looking for environments like this, proof by the amount of people moving to urban areas, and the ridiculous price of terraced homes (most of which are historic now because the style disappeared). Its unfortunate that real estate developers build ugly high density apartment complexes, instead of terraced housing.

They should look at places like Chester, England where terraced tudor buildings of the 16th century were constructed so that at street level businesses receive and processed goods, which were sold in shops located above and accessed by a veranda that spanned the entire street. Above the shops are single and double family homes. The entire building was owned by one or two families.

I would love if anyone could point out successful developments that create communities where the individuals living in them are also given the means to employ themselves.

A. Hussein blog author

28 May 2012 20:03 GMT

Thanks for your comment. I agree that terraced homes are an ideal housing type for high density neighbourhoods.

The design of terraced homes varies considerably and I think there are legitimate concerns about noise, privacy, natural light and space. However, all the problems I mentioned with terraced housing in this article are problems of design and construction that can easily be overcome.

It seems that terraced housing coupled with low-rise blocks of flats provide an ideal mix of variety and density in residential neighbourhoods.

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