The design of high-rise flats: 1958 housing guide

Posted on 20 February 2011 2 comments

During the 1950s and 60s, there was a growing interest in high-rise, high-density housing as a solution to Britain’s housing problems and the need to build more new homes. The 1956 Housing Act also provided subsidies to Local Councils that encouraged the development of high-rise housing: the higher the block, the greater the subsidy. In 1958, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government published a guide to the design of high-rise housing called Flats and Houses, 1958: Design and Economy.

The 1958 guide contains example floor plans for residential tower blocks together with detailed costings (which are now obviously out-of-date). Interestingly, the guide acknowledges that:

“…the achievement of a low overall average cost per dwelling in a layout at high density depends upon keeping to a minimum the proportion of high building.”

Today, it’s much more widely understood that high density housing doesn’t inevitably equate to high-rise living and that low- and mid-rise forms of housing can match and exceed the densities of high-rise residential blocks (and cost less). Of course, all of this is dependent on the layout and size of a site.

Landscaping and high-rise residential developments
Landscaping is of particular importance with high-rise residential developments. As the caption for this photo from the 1958 guide states “The large tree brings the tall building into scale with it's surroundings. Ackroydon Estate, Princes Way, Wandsworth.”

By the end of the 1960s, high-rise living had fallen out of favour with the British public. Here, for example, is what the RIBA Book of British Housing (2008) has to say on the subject:

“Initially, high rise was accepted as people enjoyed modern facilities within the home for the first time. However, few people warmed to the modernist images. The rejection was heightened by the sheer size and scale of many of the schemes. There were also serious problems of noise transmission between dwellings. People felt isolated and flats above ground level were clearly unsuitable for families with children.”
“The unpopularity of high-rise development at the end of the 1960s lead to a change in direction. Housing forms were sought that accommodated families at ground level in dwellings with gardens, with other dwellings above. Some solutions were ingenious but the over-complex forms required more sophisticated maintenance techniques which local authorities had difficulty in providing.”

Here are some scans of the example floor plans from the 1958 guide.


11 storey tower block, 2 stairs, 2 lifts, 4 flats per floor

11 storey tower block, 2 stairs, 2 lifts, 4 flats per floor

The cruciform shape of this layout is something rarely seen in tower-block designs today, but it gives each flat plenty of natural light and even the common hall benefits from daylighting and cross-ventilation. However, the cruciform shape requires a larger amount of external walling in comparison to rectangular building shapes and thus a higher cost.

Click the image for a more detailed floor plan.


11 storey tower block with enclosed common hall access, 2 stairs, 2 lifts,  4 flats per floor

11 storey tower block with enclosed common hall access, 2 stairs, 2 lifts, 4 flats per floor

The 1958 guide states that this layout is cheaper to build than the cruciform design as much less external walling is required and the common access space is smaller.

Click the image for a more detailed floor plan.


11 storey tower block with enclosed common hall access, 2 stairs, 2 lifts,  4 flats per floor

11 storey tower block with enclosed common hall access, 2 stairs, 2 lifts, 4 flats per floor

The 1958 guide states that this layout is cheaper to build than the cruciform design as much less external walling is required and the common access space is smaller.

Click the image for a more detailed floor plan.


On the whole, I find the layouts above to be well-designed, although the flat layouts from the 1949 Housing Manual are superior in my view. Placing each flat on a corner of the tower block means that some cross-ventilation is possible in each flat and that none of the flats will be purely north-facing.

As always, it’s instructive to compare these designs, published over 50 years ago, with what’s built today; and to wonder why these layouts (which were certainly designed with economy of construction in mind) are better than the layouts in many recently built residential blocks.

2 comments

Single Aspect

20 February 2011 19:12 GMT

On the subject of high rise blocks being subsidised the higher they went (from 1956) I recently discovered the reason. From The Five Giants by Nicholas Timmins p.184

“Since construction, in practice, costs more as you go higher, the result has been that flats in low blocks have been more heavily subsidised in relation to costs than flats in high blocks. Apart from being inequitable, this has unintentionally influenced local authorities to concentrate on building blocks of three, four and five storeys, which, I believe, many honourable members will agree are most monotonous.”
Duncan Sandys MP

Thank you for another good article on public housing.

A. Hussein blog author

20 February 2011 19:49 GMT

Thanks for the quote. I presume there was a strong belief in the 1950s that high-rise housing would provide a greater number of homes in more compact space than building low- or mid-rise housing blocks and that was seen as something to be encouraged.

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