Today's terrace house is playing it smart

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Today's terrace house is playing it smart

Postby PVC King » Sun Sep 20, 2009 10:17 am

They’ve been derided for years. We demolish them with barely the bat of an eyelid, or sell them for 50p a pop when times are tough. They’re so ubiquitous, I bet that if you looked around right now you’d spy one.

They’ve been the constant butt of jokes, the spiritual home of the pigeon-keeping, cloth-capped worker with flying ducks on his wall or the aspirational petit-bourgeoisie who cover theirs with stone cladding. But now the traditional terraced house is back, big time. In fact, some experts think these underrated national treasures are poised to come to our nation’s rescue in our time of housing need — although not in the shape we’re used to. The all-new improved terrace is no two-up, two-down. It’s coloured bright acid yellow, or checked like a Pringle sweater. It might have a living room on the top floor and a roof garden above. It might be the home of rich or poor. And there’s definitely no outdoor loo.

Take two streets. The first, in Shadwell, in the East End of London, would be prime Victorian terraced house territory — were it not for the Luftwaffe and a well-meaning if over-zealous council in the Sixties. You can still spot the odd row of 19th-century terraced houses. Mostly, though, this is council-estate land, packed with the kind of hulking grey concrete bruisers with which many councils replaced “slum” terraces 50 years ago.

These days, however, they’re replacing the failed bruisers with not-so-traditional terraces, such as the ones on James Voller Way. Mr Uddin shows me round his extended family’s rented six-bedroom, three-floor home. This is no ordinary terraced house. For a start the outside is striped in acid-yellow bands, right across his neighbours, too, the length of the street. It has massive balconies right over the pavement, where kids hang out playing Dizzee Rascal, calling down to their friends below on the street. On a sunny day such as today, Mum hangs out the washing while having a natter with Granny sitting on a rocker. It might be a Shadwell terrace c1936, were it not for the bright colours, hip-hop music, Bangladeshi community and the cars docked into the carport, niftily built into the ground floor. Inside it’s compact, for sure, but filled with light — as a result of a courtyard out back, and floor-to-ceiling windows — and cleverly planned. Every floor looks on to a courtyard, terrace or balcony. On the top, Uddin shows me the roof terrace, where his family have a makeshift barbecue and more greenery than Epping Forest: “We can grow beans and tomatoes on every floor,” he beams.

Fifty miles away in south Cambridge, off Brooklands Avenue, the terraced streets are just as leafy, though rather grander in scale. Here the four-storey, four-bedroom homes sell for nearly £1 million. And you can — almost — see why. They’re gorgeous. Outside they have walls of beautifully laid brick, and windows styled and positioned like abstract sculpture. Inside this show home there’s enough room to swing a crocodile, and all the mod cons that estate agents adore, such as wooden floors and walls of windows that slide back on to a slinky courtyard with table and chair set for an imaginary Nigella supper. “Plush”, the particulars call it. And they’re right. These aren’t terraces. They’re architecture. Last year the whole estate, Accordia, won the Stirling Prize for architecture.

“This is for the terrace,” Accordia’s architect, Peter Clegg, from Feilden Clegg Bradley, told me as he clutched his prize in October last year. “We set out to prove that the traditional home has a place in the world, that it can be so much better than the kind of rubbish that so many volume housebuilders churn out each year.”

Dominic Papa, from S333, architects of the new Shadwell terraces, agrees. He talks about a “terrace for the 21st century. We wanted to take this everyday thing and reinvent it for a whole different context — say a Bangladeshi household. We take the terrace for granted as a nation. But at our peril, because they can be an amazingly flexible kind of house.”

Too true. The terraced house is almost as old as cities themselves, and just as adaptable. You’ll find row-houses on Roman urban plans. Medieval and Tudor towns were rammed with half-timbered terraces with a shop, a pub or a bakers on the ground floor, and living quarters above. But it was the Georgians who dragged the terrace up in the world. Architects and developers such as John Wood in Bath laid row after row of terraced housing, and joined them together to create architecture. The sides of Queen Square in Bath are designed like a classical palace; The Circus mimics Roman amphitheatres.Terraced houses fell out of fashion only from the 1920s, as we abandoned sooty industrial cities for suburbia and council estates, returning to favour only in the 1960s, as the professional classes began gentrifying those shabby terraces of Notting Hill and Islington that had escaped the council bulldozer.

Since then the fortunes of the Victorian terrace have improved — in patches. As the middle classes returned to the inner city, so architects were called upon endlessly to refashion the terraced home for “modern living” — knocking through the living room and parlour when open plan became all the rage, or adding extensions of infinite variety to magic the kitchen-dining room and back yard into the kind of stylish, casual, inside-out photo-shoot its occupants had spied in the Conran Shop. Where immigrant communities settled in the Sixties and Seventies, terraced streets got another lease on life; they were cheap, and, as with their gentrified cousins, infinitely adaptable. Families often bought several and knocked them through to create one big house for the extended family.

In the Eighties and Nineties, as our average households increased in number but decreased in size, down to the twenty or thirtysomething singleton, whole terraces of houses were subdivided into flats, becoming, in effect, apartment blocks. Elsewhere, though, the flight of the middle classes was followed by the working class, leaving great swaths of industrial towns such as Salford half-populated, with terraces infamously exchanging hands for 50p. New Labour wielded the demolition ball with its Pathfinder initiative, pledging to replace “failed” housing with mostly suburban semis to attract the middle classes back into the cities — to widespread public outcry.

“The terrace has survived by changing its shape from the inside,” says Crispin Kelly, of the developer Baylight. “Now we’re starting to think about changing the outside too, making new housing. It’s my favourite kind of home. It’s relatively high-density, but not so high as to frighten people. You can integrate gardens close at hand and, because they’re replicable, you can cut costs by making pattern-books, to build quickly, just like the Georgians did.”

It’s that method of the Georgian and Victorian developer — building quality housing to a standard template, customised here and there and saved from monotony by quirky detailing — that Kelly wants to imitate. “In recent years the Richard Rogers agenda of making our cities more dense, has taken hold,” Kelly says. With some good results — our cities are pleasanter places to be, with new life. “On the downside,” he adds, “they’ve been flooded with apartment towers full of flats for singles or couples, not families.” Kelly believes that “the terraced house — redesigned — might get families back into the city again”.

In Swindon,Kevin McCloud, the presenter of Grand Designs, is building affordable, well-designed housing with aspirations to engender community. And the house type? A terrace. The Triangle, three terraces grouped around a village green, with community allotments and car pool clubs, is awaiting planning permission.

“It’s only by getting intelligent, quality architects interested in reinventing terraced housing again that we can breathe life into it,” Kelly says. And so they have. Peter Barber’s Donnybrook Quarter in Bow, East London, with its Costa-del-Sol-style terraces of whitewashed walls and courtyards, or FAT’s Woodward Place in Ancoats, Manchester, with its brick walls in gloriously garish checked patterns, or, in South London, Bill Dunster’s zero-carbon development of terraced homes with “sky-gardens” have been the most inventive new housing of the past five years. And they have one thing in common. They’re social housing. “These days, ironically, you’ll get a better home if you live in social, rather than new-built private housing,” Kelly says. “Standards are better.”

“The key will really be if we can make terraces aspirational again,” says his fellow developer, Tom Bloxham, of Urban Splash. “The better Victorian terraces already are. That’s why they’re so popular. They’re the epitome of Britishness to me.”

Urban Splash garnered headlines and design awards in 2007 when it unveiled Chimney Pot Park in Salford, which took exactly the kind of derelict Victorian terraces blighting so many industrial cities, and turned them into affordable family homes starting at £99,500, with loft-style living space on the first floor (just like Georgian terraces) and parking in the ginnel at the back, beneath a first-floor garden (again, like Georgian terraces). It was a very public riposte to the Government’s Pathfinder — there was life in the terrace, so long as you applied a bit of intelligence.

Urban Splash is now working on Tutti Frutti in Manchester, teaming architects with lucky purchasers to create a street of terraces, each one different from its neighbour. In Stockton they’re working with the lauded architects Sergison Bates to design 150 homes as part of a huge regeneration masterplan. It’s by thinking big on projects such as this, or Barking Riverside in the Thames Gateway, in which terraced houses form a key part, that the revival of the terraced house can really take off.

“If you get the balance right between privacy and encouraging community cohesion,” Kelly says — “and it can be a very fine line between doing that well and doing it badly — then the terrace will succeed.” People escaped to suburbia for a reason. They wanted privacy. “Now so many of us want more community spirit again, and there’s nothing like the terraced house for encouraging that.”

Watch a slideshow featuring award-winning terrace housing designs at
PVC King

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