Are standardised floor plans a good thing in housing?

Posted on 11 September 2011 5 comments

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of new-build housing in Britain is dominated by standardised floor plans. This is particularly true of new-build flats. For the volume homebuilders, standardised floor plans have a clear cost advantage.

Some people might argue that sites for building homes are so different from one another that standardised floor plans can’t provide the variation and flexibility needed to fit the unique characteristics of each site.

I don’t have anything against standardised floor plans and think they’re perfectly acceptable if they are of a good quality design. I also think it’s possible to produce plans for a range of housing types – flats and terraced houses, for example – that are adaptable and that can be modified to suit different site layouts.

In the Housing Design Handbook, architect David Levitt (of Levitt Bernstein Architects) says:

“Going back to the GLC in the 1970s, various attempts have been made to produce ranges of standard terrace-house types based on different frontages, but none has been widely adopted. Obviously these exercises have concentrated on producing the most economical layouts within given increments of frontage. As the size of terrace houses goes up, the range of potential layouts increases and the imagination of the designer takes over.”

Sadly, in the design of flats at least, the imagination of the designer takes a back seat to adhering to a mediocre floor plan.

If you were about to view a new-build one bedroom apartment, what might you expect to see? Nine times out of ten it’s likely to be a flat laid out something like this.

A typical one-bedroom apartment layout
A typical one-bedroom apartment layout

Depending on the development you visit, there will be some minor differences in layout: some will have slightly better storage or more pleasant proportions. If you’re lucky, it may be dual aspect (i.e. with windows along both the front and back of the flat). But by and large this is probably the most common floor plan design for one bedroom apartments today. Is this really good enough?

I’ve written about layouts like this in previous posts and I know I’m repeating myself by complaining about them again but it’s only because so little seems to change for the better when it comes to new-build housing.

What would improve the design?

  • More windoes: giving the kitchen and bathroom their own windows would bring natural light and ventilation to these areas (and make the flat dual aspect).
  • Better room proportions: widening the width of the living room would be another improvement: it should not be less than 3.5 metres minimum. Many apartment widths are less than this. What’s more, room width and room length need to relate comfortably to one another otherwise you end up with unpleasant, narrow rectangular proportions. If you were designing a terraced house with a frontage of, say, 4 metres you would most likely use the full-width of the house as the living room. Why treat the design of flats any differently? We shouldn’t tolerate narrow living rooms in flats any more than in houses.
  • Better storage: I think it’s a reasonable assumption that most people will have a vacuum cleaner, an ironing board (and iron), laundry and linen etc. It would be nice if there was somewhere you could put this out of view.

Imagine if someone put a washing machine in your living room – you’d think it totally daft. But when you have “open plan” living with the kitchen and living room thrown together with so little thought, that’s exactly what you get: a noisy washing machine at the end of your “living room”. (And a washing machine hidden behind a kitchen cupboard door will still be noisy.)

Spot the difference

Time for a quiz. Can you spot an architect-designed floor plan from a volume housebuilder floor plan? See if you can pick out the architect-designed plan from the floor plans below. To find out the answer, click anywhere on the floor plans. (But don’t click until you’ve made a guess!)

Typical one-bedroom apartment layouts

Is it fair to judge a housing development solely on the floor plans? No. And it would be wrong of me to say nothing about how these flats sit in their surroundings.

If you look at the 2011 Housing Design Awards, you’ll see that an enormous amount of work has gone into the award winning schemes. Good, thoughtful work that’s very difficult to pull off successfully: masterplanning, landscaping, use of high quality materials, well-designed communal spaces, circulation spaces, and public spaces. But this is also why the apartment designs feel so disappointing after all the admirable detail and thinking surrounding other aspects of the developments.

If you watch some of the videos for the award winning sites, you’ll hear positive views from the residents who clearly like their homes. So am I being too harsh or unfair? Are designs like those above perfectly fine? Do you consider them good designs? Would you be happy to live in one of these apartments?


Single Aspect

11 September 2011 18:41 GMT

Every time I think modern flat design can’t get any worse I see another post from you and this time it’s because these dreadful things are winning awards! Let’s remind ourselves that the same organisation awarding these dreadful schemes prizes, was just two years ago proclaiming some good housing in Norfolk as worthy of an award long after they’d been built. Good quality terraced homes.

When I see this sort of drop in standards I’m left wondering what the judges have done with their critical faculties in the months since.

Here’s one I visited recently in Kidbrooke where a large rectangular living room has a “kitchen” dumped in the corner

You state above that “Imagine if someone put a washing machine in your living room – you’d think it totally daft.” Well in the Kidbrooke flat of course they can’t have a washing machine in the living room (apparently they can have a kitchen in the living room though), so they’ve put it in a cupboard halfway along the hall. Just behind that door on the left.

Are you and I the only two people in the UK who think this way? I sometimes think so.

A. Hussein blog author

11 September 2011 18:56 GMT

Thanks for your comment. I too wonder sometimes what the criteria is for judging these awards. Based on some of the HDA winners for example, north-facing single aspect flats are perfectly fine!

You make a very good point about the historic winners. Compare Windmill Green with a terrace house built today and I think most would choose the historic winner as far superior.

Thanks for those photos of the Kidbrooke development. It really does look like they’ve simply taken a corner of the living room and lined it with kitchen cabinets!

Single Aspect

11 September 19:31 GMT

It’s beyond parody. The tap folds over into the sink so that you can open the window. Otherwise they would clash.

Nicolas Pierret

19 September 2011 5:02 GMT

Maybe architects are no longer making (or thinking/exploring) residential architecture, because they are bored of these schemes! Could be a vicious circle! The last reply made me laugh! It is typical of our society: if we have a problem, let’s find a technical solution, but don’t imagine thinking about changing the way you designed what caused the problem!

Single Aspect

19 September 2011 13:04 GMT

Tell that to Berkeley Homes, they “designed” a line of units into a living room and put the sink under the window thus causing the clash. They have an ensuite off the main bedroom that is larger than most peoples household bathrooms, a space which if more intelligently used might well have been a separate kitchen rather than the result I saw.

We as a society are going backwards in terms of intelligent house and flat design and I don’t know where the problem lies, don’t new architects study their predecessors’ plans and visit existing housing?

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