Housing Manual 1949 (part one)

Posted on 26 December 2010 3 comments

In Britain in 1944, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Works published a Housing Manual in preparation for post-war reconstruction. The manual contained information on the planning and layout of homes and was intended for the guidance of local authorities. However, after the Second World War it was clear that the post-war conditions anticipated in the 1944 manual did not adequately address the housing needs that Britain faced. The 1944 Housing Manual was superseded just five years later by the 1949 Housing Manual. Why was a new manual needed? The 1949 manual addresses this very point:

“In the manual of 1944 emphasis was…laid primarily on the provision of three-bedroom two-storey houses.”
“The long-term housing problem calls, however, for a much greater variety of types of houses, some larger, some smaller, than the normal family houses, in order to meet in a balanced way, the varying requirements of the population as a whole.”

Who were the authors of the 1949 manual?

“The manual has been prepared with the assistance of a sub-committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee and a panel of architects appointed by the associations of local authorities…”

The 1949 manual provides guidance and examples of best practice, but it was not issued as a set of standards that had to be followed. Although there’s a lot of detail in the manual, it’s still a slim volume (less than a hundred pages).

Some of the things discussed in the manual include: site layout, density, urban and rural development, layouts for different dwellings (detached, semi-detached, terraced, flats, maisonettes). It also discusses noise, daylighting, architectural materials, construction on sloping and hilly sites and more!

“The types of accommodation illustrated are for small and large families, single persons and aged couples in a variety of plan arrangements. The size and type of dwellings suited to the needs of a particular community are best determined by the Housing Authority in light of local circumstances and their intimate knowledge of local housing conditions.”

Here’s a flavour of just how detailed the manual can be on some topics. In this example, the subject is stairs:

“The stairs should have direct light and ventilation. Where direct lighting is impracticable, as in some terrace type houses, some form of indirect lighting is essential.”
“…though it is desirable to avoid winders, this in some plans would mean a disproportionate sacrifice of space, but where provided they should be at bottom rather than at the top of the stairs.”

This might be considered too prescriptive and out-of-date today, but you have to admire how thoroughly the 1949 manual reviews every aspect of housing design. So much of design is about the small details and so much of that feels missing from housing being built today and from the recent past.

What’s remarkable about the 1949 manual is how little we seem to have moved on from its recommendations (and in some cases we seem to have moved backwards!). There are whole swathes of the manual that have lost none of their relevance.

Consider density. It’s generally accepted that a mixture of housing types not only raises the density of a development but adds variety to the landscape and can also free up space for other uses such as parks. The need to build at higher densities is an important topic in housing today. Here’s an extract from the 1949 manual discussing redevelopment of high-density urban neighbourhoods:

“Where the density is 100 to 120 habitable rooms per acre, there will be a wide choice in the type and grouping of buildings. There is no need for the mechanical repetition of four- and five-storey blocks of flats.

Where the sites are large enough, it is possible in zones of 100 to 110 density to provide, for example, approximately two-thirds of the total number of habitable rooms in three-storey blocks of terrace houses or maisonettes and flats, and the balance in eight-storey blocks for a layout having one acre of local open space per 1000 persons.

This mixed form of development makes it possible to group buildings of contrasting and varying heights, and to provide a proportion of houses or maisonettes with small gardens suitable for families with children. The high blocks are likely to be few in number but each will be the dominating element in the design for the particular group of buildings in which it is placed.

The flats should not be built round enclosed courts, since they will be noisy, prevent the free circulation of air and exclude the sun.”

Click the image below for an example high-density layout from the manual.

An example high-density layout from the 1949 housing manual
An example high-density layout from the 1949 housing manual (click for large image)

Whether or not you agree with the layout in the illustration above, the general principles – varying housing types, encouraging contrast and diversity in the landscape, and allowing for open space – have lost none of their validity. In fact, a recent report by MJP Architects called Sustainable Suburbia essentially espoused the same principles.

Below are three example floor plans from the 1949 manual. Some aspects of these plans have dated such as the outside toilet and the need for a fuel store. In all other respects, these 60-year old layouts hold up remarkably well against what’s being built today. Remember, these plans were meant for guidance and examples of good practice. If you want to compare these plans with what passes for good design today, I recommend you visit the Housing Design Awards website and judge for yourself how well the plans below stack up against award-winning designs today.

The floor plans below use the following abbreviations:

abbreviations for floor plans

Two-storey urban terraced house for five people

Two-storey urban terraced house for five people (three bedrooms). Click the image for a full-size view. Note how the south-facing windows are larger than the north-facing windows.

Two-storey urban semi-detached house for six people

Two-storey urban semi-detached house for six people (two double and two single bedrooms). Click the image for a full-size view.

Three-storey terraced house for seven people

Three-storey terraced house for seven people. Click the image for a full-size view.

The 1949 manual also discusses the design of flats in some detail and I’ll talk about that in part two of this post.


Single Aspect

1 January 2011 15:14 GMT

Those floor plans you have included above remind me very strongly of the plans here for Windmill Green by Tayler and Green:


I think it must be representative of the drawing techniques of the time that both appear so similar.

I admire what you’re doing with the Housing Manual. I bought a copy last year but didn’t get around to reading it, thanks for the reminder, you have encouraged me to dig it out and have a look.

A. Hussein blog author

1 January 2011 16:00 GMT

Thanks for your comment. There is an obituary about Herbert Tayler in The Guardian which states that his designs for a terraced development in Windmill Green, Ditchingham (1946-48) were featured in the 1949 housing manual. So you were quite correct in spotting the similarity!

Tayler passed away in 2000. Here’s the link to the obituary:


Single Aspect

1 January 2011 16:17 GMT

Thanks for the Tayler obituary link which I have now added to my article entitled “Let’s hear it for the terrace”.

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