Housing Manual 1949 (part two)

Posted on 16 January 2011 9 comments

I’ve recently been reading a book called An introduction to urban housing design: at home in the city. The author of the book is Graham Towers, an architect and planner. What initially drew my interest to the 1949 Housing Manual was something Towers wrote about the Parker Morris report in chapter two of his book which covers housing standards. Towers acknowledges that the Parker Morris report was a high point for housing quality in relation to space standards. However, on the subject of flat design, he considers the 1949 Housing Manual to be superior.

“…the Parker Morris Report was a step backward. Flats were barely mentioned. The planning of blocks and the provision of outdoor space was not discussed…the report effectively regarded flats as stacked-up houses.”

The 1949 Housing Manual includes a chapter on the planning and design of flats and maisonettes. Here are some of the things it has to say on the subject.

The manual begins by acknowledging that:

“There is no really satisfactory substitute for a house with a garden for families with young children, but in most high-density areas the provision of a house for all such families will be impracticable.”

For families today, the desire to own a house with a garden (rather than live in an apartment) still holds strong. There are many reasons for this. One is the desire for private outdoor space for children to play in. Another is the generally negative perception of high-rise living. The many post-war, high density, high-rise housing estates and the problems that befell them have stigmatised high-rise living for many people.

I think the jury is still out on whether high-density, high-rise living will ever find much favour with the public in Britain. Will it be embraced for anything more than renting or short-term occupation? Or for occupation by singles or childless couples only? On the other hand, low- and mid-rise forms of high-density housing don’t seem to have suffered the same stigma. These forms of housing seem easier to integrate into existing urban environments than high-rise towers. I suspect that low- and mid-rise forms of housing will continue to grow in number.

Author Graham Towers in his urban housing design book also identifies flats in small blocks to be more successful than large estates:

“Most flats in successful blocks are small, recognising that flat living is more appropriate for small households rather than families with children. In their layout they generally avoid the complex networks of corridors, stairs and decks which are so often the location of abuse and crime [in larger estates]. Above all, where the large estates ignored and destroyed the traditional street, successful flats work within the urban grain. Blocks of flats are set within the existing street pattern reinforcing the perimeters to street blocks. In large developments, the blocks themselves define and form coherent urban spaces – squares, courts or closes.”

If we can’t provide family houses for everyone, we still need to improve the design of flats so they have some appeal to families and recognise that their needs are different from other household types. The 1949 manual says:

“Where families with children cannot be provided with houses, they should be offered accommodation on the lower floors of blocks of flats or maisonettes. Accommodation for aged persons should be on the ground or first floors.”

The housing manual goes on to identify the different forms of access in apartment blocks:

“The three commonest forms of access are by balcony, staircase or central corridor. Balcony access…lacks privacy, overshadows the rooms below and is noisy. All balconies should be as short as possible and no flat or maisonette should be further than 80 feet from a staircase. Habitable rooms should not overlook an access balcony.

The separate staircase is the most convenient access in all low blocks and in blocks containing large flats for families with children.”

Here are some more extracts from the manual:

“Generally room sizes in flats should be much the same as in houses for the same number of occupants.”
“Some flats designed for four persons should be planned with one double and two single bedrooms instead of two double-bedrooms, and some flats for six with two double and two single bedrooms instead of three double bedrooms. This type of plan allows for a greater flexibility in the use of rooms.”
“Each flat should have a deep balcony on the sunny side, at least partly recessed and accessible from the living room or the kitchen, or both. In family flats, a service balcony may be provided, i.e. a balcony accessible from both the kitchen and the common staircase.”

On maisonettes:

“The maisonette has been found a satisfactory compromise between the family flat and the separate house with its garden. A typical arrangement is a four-storey block of two maisonettes with access to the upper one from a balcony.”

“In four-storey blocks of maisonettes it is possible to provide each of the two maisonettes with a private garden at the front or rear of the block.

The combination of flats and maisonettes in high blocks with lifts will enable a wide range of accommodation to be provided and many interesting variations in plan and elevation will be possible.”

On landscaping:

“In high-density areas, the planting of tress on grassed and paved areas is specially important. Large tress should be planted if there is space. Otherwise use should be made of tress of light and slender growth.”

Here are some of the plans in the 1949 manual. Interestingly, there is only one example of a single-aspect flat in the plans (i.e. a flat with windows along just one side). Presumably, the authors of the 1949 Housing Manual did not consider single aspect designs as good practice to be encouraged. Therefore the only single aspect plan is for a studio flat.

It’s interesting to note that every plan includes a kitchen and bathroom with window (even for the studio flat). Quite different from most flat designs today. Also noticeable in the plans from the 1949 manual are the much nicer proportions of the rooms (the ratio of length to width). In modern flats, when living, dining and kitchen areas all become one space, the shape of the room is often long and rectangular with the windows at the narrow end of the room (for some examples, see the post New build layouts in the UK).

Flats in a three-storey block

Flats in a three-storey block with floor plans for one, two, four and five persons. Click the image for a full-size view.

Maisonettes and flats in three-storey blocks

Maisonettes and flats in three-storey blocks. Click the image for a full-size view.

Flats for single persons

Flats for single persons. Click the image for a full-size view.

Finally, here’s a comparison of a one bedroom flat layout from the 1949 manual with a typical one-bed layout found in modern blocks today.

Comparison between a 1949 floor plan and a contemporary floor plan of today
Comparison between a 1949 floor plan and a contemporary floor plan of today. Click image for a larger view.

Which of these do you prefer?


Single Aspect

16 January 2011 17:39 GMT

Referring for a moment to your comparison of the 1949 and modern flat designs.

In the modern flat both the bathroom and kitchen (of the non existent type) are internal. There is only one cupboard. The bedroom is smaller than in the 1949 flat. The living room is long and narrow and will be poorly lit at the entrance end. The bathroom door opens outwards and blocks the entrance hall, as does the bedroom door for no good reason. The windows are tiny i.e. narrow. The bedroom window is appalling.

In the 1949 flat every room has natural light, the room proportions are much better, no long narrow rooms here, all the doors except the kitchen door are hung so as to preserve the privacy of the room (i.e. do not open against the wall). There is a proper hallway off which each of the rooms lead. The flat is dual aspect meaning that light and air are present on both sides of the flat.

Thank you for your continued research into modern house and flat design.

A. Hussein blog author

16 January 2011 18:24 GMT

Thanks for your comment. What a great analysis – I think you’ve perfectly summarised the difference between the two designs!

Single Aspect

16 January 2011 18:30 GMT

As always I posted the comment prematurely with one last point to make. In the 1949 flat the person at the sink is able to overlook the balcony and beyond through the window, something impossible in the modern flat and another of my many objections to these horrors.

Brian Speakes

29 June 2012 19:33 GMT

Unfortunately we appear to be building flats as described and we should go back to the 1949 layouts using modern materials technologies, insulation etc.

A. Hussein blog author

30 June 2012 13:07 GMT

Thanks for your comment. I agree that these 1949 layouts are better designed than many modern flats. These layouts seem quite adaptable too. (For example, the 1949 one bedroom flat could be turned into an open plan layout relatively easily.)

Mario Vieira

20 July 2012 14:30 GMT

Completely agree that 1949 flat is better, however one needs to understand the context in which these two apartment layouts were designed. The 1949 flat has a much wider frontage which means that in a large block you get much fewer flats along an elevation. This is clearly problematic with the pressure to increase densities today. As for the door swings, you may find this has something to do with disabled access and Lifetime Homes Standards. It is however important to understand what impact these rules have on the feel of the space.

Single Aspect

20 July 2012 17:58 GMT

Should we then sacrifice all good modern house and flat design at the altar of the disabled? I’ll all for accommodating both temporary and permanent disablement but to impose this on the rest of society at the expense of good design seems to me a step too far, and before the critics pile in I live with somebody with health problems and understand the mobility issues that result, but one adapts. To damn all new housing with the requirements of a minority is to my mind, a step too far.

A. Hussein blog author

20 July 2012 20:02 GMT

Thanks both for your comments!

Mario – you’re completely right that the wide frontage of the 1949 flat would require more space along an elevation.

I still think it’s possible to build high density developments with flats with wider frontages than new build flats today. Perhaps not quite to the density that the volume housebuilders would like, but then developers will adopt the narrowest proportions they can get away with in order to cram as many homes into an available plot of land. I think this is where national housing standards can play a part – setting a benchmark or highlighting best practice. The volume housebuilders can never be relied upon for good housing design of their own volition.

Here’s an example from another blog post of the narrow flat proportions that developers clearly think is perfectly acceptable: narrow-room-proportions.jpg

Single Aspect

21 July 2012 1:43 GMT

Mario – doors may be hung from either side of a frame and in my opinion it is preferable that we preserve the good standards from the past, established over many decades of good practice and if it is required that a door should hang against the wall for the sake of access then make it so in that particular instance but not to inflict on everybody the requirements of a few. Likewise with the bathroom door, why cannot it slide into the wall? Thus avoiding both problems of inward and outward swings?

Good design does not happen overnight, it is like evolution, it is the product of tried and failed experiments and to discard it in the name of political correctness is madness.

The 1949 flat is better in every way and can be adapted for the disabled with minor changes apart from the width of the front door which can be widened in a modern design.

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