Back-to-back come back

Tuesday 16 August 2016

© Peter Barber - McGrath Road, back to back housing

Design for the Berkeley Urban House © Berkeley Group

Speaking at the NLA recently, Peter Barber, overall winner of the New London Awards presented his McGrath Road project in Newham which relies the idea of back-to-back housing, a form of housing that was outlawed in the 1909 Housing Act.

Back to back housing was built across the north and midlands in the nineteenth century but was rare in London. They were cheap to build, relatively inexpensive to rent and arranged along streets and in courts. They also delivered reasonably high density.

 Barber’s designs avoid the shortcomings of the Victorians’ single outlook, unventilated units.  In Newham each house has its own bathroom, the top floor living room has a private roof terrace and its outlook is rotated so that each home is “dual aspect”.

Now, the Berkeley Group has come up with a design for the Berkeley Urban House which, by being back-to-back can provide densities of 120 dwellings per hectare in a street layout. A prototype terrace has been built at Kidbrooke Village at Blackheath. Unlike the Victorian example, the Urban House touches only at the ground level, a small courtyard on the first floor includes  a skylight which delivers daylight to the rear kitchen. An external stair from the second floor rear bedroom balcony takes you up to the rooftop garden. Berkeley will produce the houses using modern methods of construction although the brick facades give the feel of a traditional street.

In his talk Barber pointed out that the National Trust has restored a group of six houses in Birmingham as a back-to-back museum. As long ago as 2004 when he was RIBA  President, former Bristol Mayor George Ferguson was calling for the building regulations to be relaxed to allow back-to-back housing. “We are plagued with a load of regulations that are outdated and prevent an awful lot of charm that we find in old places.” Like Barber Ferguson admired the community life that the close-packed street patterns of the Victorian workers’ housing engendered.

The reinvented back-to-back is just one of the many solutions to London’s housing crisis. As the NLA’s New Ideas for Housing Competition showed last year there is no one silver bullet, but imagination, innovation and reinvention are key to delivering not just more homes but homes Londoners can afford.

Peter Murray, Chairman, NLA 


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