Do we need to re-think the design of terraced houses?

Posted on 4 September 2011 4 comments

The need to build houses economically and at high density has led many architects to re-consider the layout of the terraced house. For example, in Britain in the 1950s, three architects – Stanley Amis, William Howell and Gilliam Howell – designed six terraced houses in Hampstead in London with a very narrow frontage of just 3.65 metres each.

Terraced houses in Hampstead, London.
Terraced houses in Hampstead, London. Image from Google Street View

You can find floor plans for the houses on the excellent Modern Architecture London blog. The houses were influenced by the design of Le Corbusiers’s housing block in Marseille which featured apartments with a width of just 3.66 metres.

The narrower the frontage of a house, the greater the constraints in the layout of the house. In the Housing Design Handbook, architect David Levitt (of Levitt Bernstein Architects) says:

“…the tendency to raise densities has increasingly collided with demands for much greater accessibility. Houses designed 30 years ago with frontages as narrow as 3.6 metres and no provision for wheelchair access would not meet current standards.”
“Very narrow frontages, such as 3.6 metres, can only work if there is no separate circulation, particularly from the front door to the centre of the house, so the entire width of the house can represent the width of a living room or double bedroom, and all ground-floor rooms are interconnected so that the stair rises directly from the living space.”

The pressure to build at high density and to fit as many homes as possible onto plots of land means architects have to think harder about maximising “usable space” in and around the home. What does this mean in practice? It could mean eliminating circulation space such as hallways if this frees up more useful space for other purposes.

Many modern homes have very small or non-existent front gardens. But front gardens aren’t just “unusable” space. They play an important role because they act as a buffer between the public realm of the street and the private realm of the home. Similarly, hallways provide a transition from the public space outside the home and the privacy of the rooms inside the home (they also act as a “meet-and-greet” space for visitors).

When architecture firm Peter Barber Architects designed the award-winning Donnybrook Quarter housing development in East London, they placed the houses across an intimate pedestrian-scale street. The design encourages (one might even argue forces) residents to get to know one another.

Terraced houses in Hampstead, London.
Donnybrook Quarter in East London (completed in 2006). Photo from Peter Barber Architects.

The street is a public space, but it has a semi-private feel due to its intimate scale. It encourages “eyes on the street” but also a feeling of “defensible space” i.e. a sense of ownership or territorialism towards the street by the residents.

The design for Donnybrook Quarter emerged from talking to people in the area about what they wanted from their environment. They wanted:

  • clear street layouts without back alleys or blind corners
  • their own front door, preferably on the street
  • to avoid communal staircases or lifts

The ground floor dwellings open straight onto the street and there are no hallways. Not everyone will feel comfortable with these design decisions. There are, of course, plenty of Victorian terraces where the front door opens directly onto the street. Nevertheless, I think most people would prefer some distance between their homes and the pavement or footpath outside.

Ground floor plans for Donnybrook Quarter.
Ground floor plans for Donnybrook Quarter. The staircase at the side of each ground floor dwelling leads to a upper floor maisonette. This gives both ground floor and upper floor dwellings their own street entrance.

Interestingly, a 1970s GLC book about housing layout states there are two universal needs for any housing developement: the need for community and the need for privacy. You can see how the Donnybrook development tries to articulate these needs. Has it succeeded? Only the residents can tell us.

Architecture firm Proctor and Matthews designed a series of terraced homes in two, three and four bedroom layouts for a development in Newhall near Harlow. These houses do not feature the traditional front garden, but the terraced houses include an entrance canopy that provides something of a transition between public and private space.

Housing in South Chase, Newhall by Proctor and Matthews Architects
Housing in South Chase, Newhall by Proctor and Matthews Architects

Below is a layout for a three bedroom property. According to architect Andrew Matthews, placing the stairs in the centre of the plan turns it into a piece of furniture. The space below the stairs becomes a breakfast bar. Click the image below for a larger view and more photos of the interiors.

Ground floor plans for Donnybrook Quarter.
Housing in South Chase, Newhall. Images from Proctor and Mathews Architects. Click image for more photos.

There is no traditional hallway in this floorplan but one side of the stairs acts as circulation space while the other becomes the kitchen. It’s a clever use of space although it won’t appeal to everyone. It does make the kitchen feel rather small too. Would it be better for the kitchen to overlook the courtyard? It may reduce the amount of light, but it feels like a better position (to me at least).


Paul Dutton

5 September 2011 20:39 GMT

I’m a big fan of compact street based living. I think these designs are thought provoking and show how we could look to be building. The internal court yard is a nice feature. Though the Amis, Howel & Howel terraces are my favourite. They provide a much more flexible use of space. I think the battle to dissuade people from their mechanical boxes is too great and any future housing does need to take a parking into consideration. Though I’m a bicycle person!

A. Hussein blog author

5 September 2011 22:09 GMT

Thanks for your comment. I’m also a fan of compact street-based living which must surely be the future of high-density housing in Britain (and indeed for cities across the globe). I’m not completely sure about Donnybrook Quarter though – the street feels a little too compact for my liking.

We definitely need more imaginative thinking in the design of homes. We certainly won’t get it from the volume housebuilders!

John Chamberlain

2 December 2011 02:27 GMT

Just a note. The Barber scheme was talked about as foreign to UK housing ideals and too white!

The lack of a lobby space in the street access to units also referes to older social housing norms where ther kitchen or living had direct street access...a European characteristic of smaller community housing...again this had some negative comment.

Mathews house defines in part what I consider lacking in many house formats….some ambiguity in corridors for example. A bit wider and with bookshelves you could use this space for study instead of being just corridor...

Barbers street is far better than the Victorian counterpart surely, sufficiently wide and distancing the two sides...also providing bay windows to get an angle down the street, Barbers scheme deserved all the positive comments and award.

Have a look at Mclouds Triangle housing in comparison, to see how getting the car involved makes the spaces inpersonal and hard-edged. However, also look at the Pinehill Drive Housing association scheme in Swindon for a direct comparison with what most people think is an ideal...certainly the mass housing lobby which has not changed in years.

A. Hussein blog author

2 December 2011 20:17 GMT

Thanks for your comment. The street in Donnybrook Quarter is 7 metres wide. I think, given a choice, people prefer longer views out of their windows. And 7 metres feels too tight an enclosure (to me at least, but perhaps the residents feel otherwise).

Another recent housing development, Claredale Street in East London, also features a pedestrianised street where the width of the street feels more comfortable (see the separate post with pictures).

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