Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Higher Baby

Right now, I’m settled in a well-constructed, peaceful block which is managed humanely and efficiently rather than for profit alone. I love it here, I really do - this flat has been a refuge. Despite my affection for Nice Heights, it must be said that even here, there is one aspect of its design that is found wanting.

Nice Heights exemplifies the nature of property’s most exclusive luxury: space. Contemporary flats are tiny. It’s hard to obtain accurate figures, but urban newbuilds can be as small as 45 sq metres (I suspect the worst examples are even smaller.) Nice Heights seems fine until a few visitors arrive, and highlight the deficiency. There is no internal corridor. The bathroom door opens out onto the eating area (dining room? Don’t be daft.) When I start flat-hunting again, top of my wish list is separate rooms, and more space.

The obsession with cramming people into low-rise blocks seems to be the result of ill-founded assumptions, fatally combined with a crushing lack of ambition. Low rise? It’s just how things are. There is a solution to this problem: we must build higher.

Unfortunately, the terrible fires in South London recently have stalled a growing campaign for taller buildings. There did seem to be safety problems in those particular blocks, but even a building that touches the clouds - if properly designed - will be as safe as well… houses. Safety is often a management concern though: as I’ve said before, Dovecot Towers had no fire assembly point, and we never had a fire-drill.

Apart from that, why are we so reluctant to build higher? Surely it would eradicate the argument for the little boxes foisted upon buy-to-let tenants? There’d be fire escapes and lifts at either end, and also in the middle of the building. It’s good business to use a low rise footprint for a taller building, allowing greater space for renters, who stay longer, meaning less voids for landlords, who would also benefit.

Increased height would accommodate everything I dream of, like storage space and generously proportioned rooms - even open-plan living is fine with enough space. We’d have bedrooms large enough to double as studies, with a desk and shelves (built into in a niche?) Or perhaps a separate study, and a terrace that’s a proper outdoor room, with space to dry washing, and enjoy the view. Gardens would allow for children’s playgrounds. We’d have rented homes for life in an urban suburb in the sky, with plants creeping up the outside in a vertical garden.

The circle has turned, and vertiginous living is now entirely the domain of rich owner occupiers. The over-lords of the sky-kingdom enjoy vast eyries, peering out between the branches of imported olive groves, glancing down at the poor creatures condemned to remain in orange, low-rise hell-holes. It used to be the other way around: landless, tenant proles housed in stacks of dilapidated council blocks, the very same blocks that in some cases were refurbished to make luxury apartments. How did we get from there to here?

(NB: Regular readers might like to know, I will now be posting on different days, and slightly more often.)





la glitz said...

Hmm, cynical me isn't so convinced that we need to build higher for more space. The reason developers build ticky-tacky boxes, I am sure, is so that we tenants get itchy after six months and move on, and the landlords can hike the rent in our wake.

Since you pointed out how few windows in the Manchester newbuilds will be lit at seven in the evening, I've been doing a tot - 50% occupancy around where I live sounds about right. If the flats in our block could be knocked together, there would be a reasonable number of luxuriously large flats, which would easily meet demand.

I've nothing against high-rise - I'm just not convinced that Manchester needs any MORE flats, just liveable ones!

RenterGirl said...

I agree with you! I think these nasty low rises should and will be demolished. But what will replace them? I say: well built tall buildings that allow for enough space for ,well space. With soundproofing...and cupboards (mmm....storage...uh...)

Alex said...

You want one of these. Every flat up to the 17th floor has one of those loggias, and each block has two swimming pools.

Its architect, Harry Glück, said that he'd noticed that in every building he'd done that didn't have a swimming pool, the only things in the communal areas were the caretaker's winter tyres, so he started putting them in every project he did after that. It's owned by a co-op.

RenterGirl said...

Yep, that'll do nicely. So much time spent 'imagineering' the outside of buildings, when the interior is an after-thought. Tell me though Alex: does it have plentiful cupboards?

Paul said...

You are right: Council flats of the Fifties and Sixties are huge compared with later private developments. And housing was designed for utility. Space was valued, rather than priced.

Obsidian said...

I really don't like the large blocks, to me it's a return to the tenements of the 70's.

They started off as 'luxury social housing' and rapidly decayed into lawless pits where a persons humanity degraded into something more fitting for a Blakes 7 episode.

Then you had the tenement pubs at the bottom. I recently visited one, and it was like I'd popped into a TARDIS and gone back 20 years. The sent of decay, the dead eyes, the dearth of hope and a carpet that was a tapestry of weekend rage.

I suspect in another decade much of Manchester's, and other cities, 'luxury' newbuild flats will be problematic social housing, and in other 20 someone will inherit Fred Dibnah's job of demolishing them.

Mac in EH said...

RG, don't you think the main thing is the "philosophy", not the height of the building?

Here, in the Basque Country, there are tonnes of high rises. Some are very nice (and very expensive) and many are dire (size, quality of materials, soundproofing...)

Surely, if the way we think about -and regulate- the property market does not change, all we will get is high rises full of wee boxes (Developer: better to get 4 flats x 15 floors on a 200 m2 plot than 2 flats x 15 floors).

I get what you are saying, but height/size of developments is not an answer per se.

Standards, standards, standards!

Still a great blog.

Write on, RG!

RenterGirl said...

Obsidian: in a way you're right. Those blocks wereawful, but because they were viewed as bad, and the people were condemned to endure some of the design flaws, like walkways. The post by Alex shows what can be done.

And Mac in EH: yeah, never underestimate the greed of developers. They build and sell on, with no penalty if their eforts are uninhabitable. But to go taller for more space in a given footprint would make sense.

Thanks for reading!

Nationalist said...

The only way developers will be stopped from maximising their profit by minimising square footage is if there is a national legal minium dwelling size for all new and converted dwellings. Someone should get a lobby group started (geddit?!)

RenterGirl said...

That's bad...But also what we need. Last time I went flathunting, some of the flats were tiny. There's a minimum size for social housing, but none for private rented, or even bought to own homes.

MattW said...

A new development of flats come onto the market this spring in West Norwich so I put name down. Sounded pretty good - a mile out of the City Centre and away from the river so shouldn't be too pricey, factory conversion, private storage units in the basement for each flat, lift to all floors, decent branded integrated appliances and 1 parking space per flat.

However, the interior of the flats were pretty disappointing. Open plan kitchen (the units along one wall of the living area - not even segregated from it), bathroom door right off the living area (right beside the kitchen area in some plots! Eew!), storage heaters as opposed to central heating and laminate flooring.

So - you leave your office late in the day and traipse back to your flat. Which is furnished pretty much like your office!

RenterGirl said...

This the latest ploy: no corridors! I thought it used to be the case that bathrooms had to be separated from cooking facilities. But did I dream it? Very often, there isn't the excuse of limited space. It's greed, and a determination on the part of developers to squeeze as many flats into a block as possible. People can't live that way. How long before the kitchen is mixed with a shower room? MattW: imagine if like many other people you had jumped in and bought off plan?

MattW said...

As long as there's an extractor fan in the bathroom then its OK for bathrooms to be right next to kitchens. This excludes established properties like Victorian terraced houses, I believe.

Funnily enough, I know someone who has bought one of the larger duplex plots in this development. He should be completing this month. I still think the interiors of the flats have been compromised to a degree to cater for the Landlords rather than owner occupiers.