An introduction to housing layout: a GLC study

Posted on 29 May 2011 2 comments

Housing makes up the majority of the built environment, even in large cities, and the way housing is laid out shapes public space. The quality of our urban environment is therefore very much tied up with how well we design housing that stimulates our visual interest and provides variety and contrast in the shapes it forms and encloses.

The importance of these external aspects of housing (as opposed to internal layout) were explored in a book published in 1978 called An Introduction to Housing Layout: A GLC study. The book is based on the experience of the Greater London Council (GLC), and before it the London County Council (LCC), both of whom designed and built many housing estates.

The book deals with the following four topics:

  • organisation of space (e.g. the space between buildings)
  • access roads
  • parking
  • pedestrianisation

These aspects are analysed in terms of scale, territory, visual interest and order. In this post, I’ll look mainly at the organisation of space.

Although the book is directed primarily at architects, landscape architects and engineers, it’s written in a very clear and accessible language that makes it easy to understand (even for a layperson like me!). It’s not a text-heavy book and mostly uses drawings and photos to illustrate layout principles.

Like many guides and books on housing from the past, the Housing Layout book offers guidance that retains much of its’ relevance even today. The introduction to the book states:

“…there are some general principles governing layout of housing which derive from the habits and needs of people, which, if not universal, are certainly common to most of us in this country. For example, two requirements stand out; the need for privacy and the need for community.

The extent to which these needs are met will largely determine whether people will enjoy their environment.

But it is not enough just to speak of privacy and community in general terms; we must know how privacy can be assured by means of density, distance and geometry; how community, on the other hand, is determined by the number of houses, their relationship with one another – and so forth.

An Introduction to Housing Layout aims to throw light on these crucial matters so that designers have a framework on which to proceed.”

The book recognises that housing in cities or other densely-built areas must fit in with the existing urban fabric.

“Most land in urban areas has now been built on, in some cases several times, so that the delicate problem facing the designer is how to insert the new housing into the surrounding city fabric.

In most cases urban housing is either redevelopment or smaller-scale ‘infill’ where it is especially important to relate the new housing to the scale and character of the existing features.”

Here are some of the things the book has to say about the organisation of space.

“The spaces between buildings should stimulate the human senses. The quality of each space. whether large, small, high, low wide or narrow, has observable characteristics which can be related to human reactions and feelings.

Space can be consciously designed to produce specific feelings within the user. A large urban space tends to create a grandiose feeling, with man becoming small and insignificant – in awe of the space.

The present inclination of society appears to be toward fairly small groupings of dwellings which create a feeling of intimacy, protection and security as well as defining the residents’ territorial boundaries, thus creating defensible spaces. The people are the important element; the spaces should be scaled for their use.

The degree of enclosure created by the arrangement of buildings
"Spaces can be defined in varying degrees depending on the feeling the designer is trying to communicate." Click the image for more detail and additional examples.
Scale and proportion affect the feeling of enclosure
Building height and the width of the space between buildings can create a comfortable or uncomfortable sense of enclosure based on the proportions used. Click the image for more detail.
Scale and proportion affect the feeling of enclosure
Donnybrook Quarter in East London. Image from Flickr by Mark Hogan

The award-winning Donnybrook Quarter housing development in East London (pictured above) was designed by Peter Barber Architects and completed in 2006. It presents an interesting case study in the use of scale.

The notion of the street as a locus of interaction was an important aspect in the design of this development. The street has an intimate scale: just 7 metres wide. There’s a strong sense of enclosure. But does the building height and the width of the street create a cosy, restful impression? Or a claustrophobic one?

More information about Donnybrook Quarter can be found in this paper from Westminster University.

On contrasting spaces, the Housing Layout book states:

Continuity is important in the design of a network of spaces. Where enclosed spaces are unrelated and separated by car parks, play areas, roads etc, there is no positive contrast or continuity.

If all spaces on a particular site are designed with the same amount of enclosure and the same scale, proportions and detailing, the result can be monotonous.

contrasting adjacent spaces can be used in a variety of ways.
"The historic concept of contrasting adjacent spaces can be used in a variety of ways." Click the image for more examples and detail.
Awareness of space between buildings
A simple exercise from the book for the designer who wants to become more conscious of voids or spaces between buildings. Click the image for the exercise description.

Contrasting spaces are also important inside buildings and architects have long used them to create dramatic effects. For example, think of a theatre (or even cinema) and the way you might traverse a smaller space or corridor before entering a large auditorium where the space suddenly opens up before you to dramatic and exciting effect.

In high-density housing, these types of dramatic effect are rarely employed. Nevertheless, the contrast between spaces should still be considered by architects in the design of such housing. (I’m doubtful it ever is considered, although I appreciate it is a difficult thing to do giving the many constraints related to building homes. For an interesting example of contrasting spaces inside a home, see an earlier post about the Unité d’habitation in Marseille: a high-density housing block by Le Corbusier.)

Related reading: Essex Design Guide

Much of what is discussed in Introduction to Housing Layout can also be found in the Essex Design Guide. This is a guide to the layout of residential housing and was first published in 1973, then updated in 1997 and, most recently, in 2005.

The guide contains guidance on spatial organisation of houses, site appraisal, criteria for development sites, building form and much more. It even includes a list of recommended plant species “appropriate to the scale and colour of their place…”

The guide is well worth a read and is available for free from Essex County Council’s website: Essex Design Guide (17.5mb PDF).

A separate, companion publication, Urban Place Supplement (PDF, 1.4mb), addresses the design of compact, mixed-use, higher-density developments in urban places.



11 September 2012 5:01 GMT

i am a student of architecture and i have been given a housing design project.this review and its references have helped me a lot…thank you…

A. Hussein blog author

11 September 2012 19:28 GMT

Thanks for your comment and good luck with your studies.

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