Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Bit Of A Domestic

Modern flats have something missing. In apartments across the land, from luxury to Dovecot, there’s nowhere to dry washing. Some very strange assumptions were made when designing and managing buy-to-let newbuilds. Many prohibit drying laundry on the tiny balcony. Tenants are different; they never sweat – but fragrantly, they glow.

It’s worse in developments completed more than five years ago, way before the energy price hike made everyone so keen to economise (oh and also save the environment.) It’s still assumed that we are cash-rich and time-poor, so desiccate our clothes in money-guzzling washer-driers, when actually we roast our socks over the heater, which is dangerous. Rooms are small, with airers crammed between the sofas; bad enough for solo renters - a nightmare where two or more people share.

When I worked in welfare rights, it was widely, and rightly accepted that drying laundry in the living area causes respiratory problems. In poorer rented homes, central-heating is often either absent or unaffordable. I’ve been offered badly insulated flats with just a temperamental Calor gas heater in every city I’ve visited. It’s a fire hazard, and leads to soggy clothes mouldering when the meter runs out.

In olden days, houses were sensibly fitted with drying-racks suspended from the ceiling. Nowadays, I am rendered senseless with nostalgia as I recall ‘gardens’ complete with what were known as ‘clothes-lines.’ In shared housing, laundry left to rot in the washer is a flashpoint for many a senseless killing spree.

Forward then to the recent past, when planners understood the basic human need for clean underwear. In social housing, communal drying areas were placed at the top of tower blocks, for maximum exposure to the elements, which sounds like a good idea.

But there was a major and appalling problem, worse than the obvious snag of having your lingerie snaffled and suspecting the neighbours. It was this: significant numbers of people jumped to their deaths, so the drying rooms were closed.

In case you think Nice Heights (should I call it Naice Heights?) was made in paradise by nymphs, there is one snag, which I only noticed after moving in. We have loads of cupboard space for gadgets, crockery and food, but unbelievably there is no draining board. Perhaps this is evidence of what I hoped was an urban legend. Those blokeish architects assumed that we hip urbanites wouldn’t do anything as basic as cook and eat at home, so there’d be no disgusting dirty crockery (in fact I’m amazed they supplied us with toilets, since we are too marvellous and grand for that sort of thing.) It takes days for one person to fill the dishwasher until it’s economical to use.

In upmarket flats, tenants perch on their Eames recliners counting their Alessi, and (having returned from some chi-chi new restaurant) they gaze around with satisfaction, appreciating all they have amassed. Then, as they negotiate their way delicately around the washing, which is drying, slowly and precariously, on an array of rickety clothes-horses, a thought occurs: those Mr Men knickers are starting to look a bit shabby.


Burbage said...

It's a recurrent obsession. I have an old book on architecture that belonged to my father in the '30s. A few pages are devoted to the new, modern concrete developments of flats designed for families. To make best use of the space, kitchens were kept deliberately small (little sinks, no draining boards), and the architects happily explain that there's no need for them, given the laundrettes and restaurants that will spring up in the neighbourhood. They also minimized bathroom space, explaining that, as public baths would soon be available to all, there was no need for anything more practical. The balconies were built about three-foot wide, not for people to admire the view or dry laundry, but to accommodate a single bed.

I live in a similar block at the moment, and use a laundrette on account of it. But I don't bear a grudge against the designers. It's not their fault they assumed that the quality of the ordinary life would improve. It's what politicians have been telling them for centuries.

RenterGirl said...

It'a odd in it; we have distorted notions of the future, just as we have of the past. I know what you mean, but buildings exist in 'the now' must cope with that particular 'now.' And designers and architects look beyond their own stock idea of how people live. Thanks for reading.

Nick said...

All our flats have Washer/Driers or access to a free Washer and Tumble Drier. What do you advocate as an alternative?

Flowers said...

Go back to having communal drying rooms or launderies in blocks. I see many blocks that are so well insulated and built that people dont use their heating or open windows - then dry their washing on vast amounts of airers and it causes serious problems - tenants report damp and you point out that it is condensation not damp and suggest that they turn their storage heating on and open the windows to air them once in a while - all I get told is that electricity is too expensive.

So going back to communal launderettes or laundry service would save tenants money on electricity and stop the constant rot of wet washing (I know with two kids and no dryer!) and arguing over whose turn it is to use the washer!

RenterGirl said...

Yep, space is what we need, to dry clothes safely outside. By 'free' do you pay for the electricity, Nick? And is there space for handwashing and a draining board? Oh, why must sit in the lounge, gazing at our laundry...

TimA said...

A descent minimum room size for new builds would be a good start.
But at least in new builds there might have been some thought to where drying might take place.
I live with three others in a three bedroom flat conversion. The downstairs flat get the garden so we have only inside to dry clothes. On a sunday it gets quite crowded in the living room. Not bad in the summer when it only takes a day, but in the winter its a pain.

RenterGirl said...

Perhaps we could resurrect the drying cupboard? I've seen this in older, traditional council flats, where there's a heated cupboard (powered from the boiler? Or low voltage..something...Hey I'm not a techie!) to dry washing. If you imagine it, it can be done...Tumble driers devour money and energy.

Dara said...

'In social housing, communal drying areas were placed at the top of tower blocks, for maximum exposure to the elements, which sounds like a good idea.'

Well, all of my grandparents lived in social housing flats - I don't remember this in any of them. Where and when was this out of interest?

I have a number of pictures of my grandmother many years ago on the slopstone, which stood outside the flats till very recently.

The women of the flats had a conveyer belt operation - all by hand. One would take the buttons off the clothes, another would wash, another rinse, another wash with soap, another rinse, then another through the mangle, then the iron, then another sewing the buttons on. All together outside the flats while men went to the factories and mines.

The slops of water would sluice down the stone that led to the drain - hence the slopstone.

You protest too much.

RenterGirl said...

I'm referring to blocks built in the fifties and sixties, and I know the fatal drying rooms were built in Glasgow and London (I understand they were also placed elsewhere, with similar results.)

Dara - I think you are talking about the 19 Century. Do I protest too much? Could we have this situation now? Would women take time off work to communally wash their menfolks clothes? Like they don't do that with the meagre facilities I write about here, mind you. Thanks for reading.

eag said...

For this Laundrettes were invented with their communual, steamy opportunities for community chat and friendships.If your nearest is a bus ride away forget it!
Things get worse, thought of joining a Housing Coop or setting one up, bet you have and what were the results?
Leave the sinking ship and emigrate but leave the grizzles behind.

RenterGirl said...

The washing part is easy; we all have washer/driers (driers now being prohibitively wasteful and expensive.) It's the drying that's a problem. Small flats with nowhere to hang laundry. It's a major design flaw. And launderettes are a vanishing.