Sunday, 11 December 2011

Old v. New

I am a really fun rentergirl to travel with. Honest. Whenever I’ve been lucky enough to holiday abroad, I ignore the constant low-level whining of expats, slap on the suncream and head straight for a research trip around the design and nature of local private rented housing. Then, later – champagne! Like I said – I am fun to be with.

Wherever I have wandered, the most desirable, the loveliest, best designed buildings, the one with queues outside for viewings when offered for rent or for sale, the structures people actually want to live in are old. In terms of domestic architecture, ie building ordinary homes, in so many ways, old is best.

There is the German term alt-bau (old build) and in Spain some of the best buildings are circa 19 C – throughout Europe in fact. The old German apartments (another city where flats dominate) are beautiful, with high ceilings, light and spacious - all the words so beloved by estate agents.

In Bilbao the beautiful old quarter has some amazing apartments. In north-eastern Spain the weather can be wet and windy, and so Victorian era designers created enclosed balconies, allowing occupants to gaze out onto the street or enjoy the river view. Many of the older flats are were designed when people had more children, and so are larger.

These places have their problems of course. Anyone currently shivering, huddled in one of those personalised fleece igloos is thinking: this flat is draughty. In Glasgow, tenements are desirable, but remember they might have housed as many as ten people, and you wonder how they coped. There was no bathroom (people used communal toilets and baths) and when refurbished the bathroom was sometimes placed in what had a been a cupboard. Apart from the waste of storage (you know me and cupboards) this causes damp.

And elsewhere? Well, people are coming to terms with terraced housing. Think about it. When families or ‘units’ are smaller – i.e. single people or childless couples, these homes are ideal. Add on a loft conversion (even a basement) and you have a brilliant place to live.

Some of the older houses in Manchester look straight out of The Munsters, albeit in a good way. Add in cavity wall insulation, double glazing (tastefully done) and you have a proper home for a family, which is what they were built for – not conversion into miserly bedsits.

Builders and architects got so many things right. We should learn from them: large homes meaning more rooms, as space is the main appeal – with generous amounts of space, even in a flat. Maybe we should build higher than before, but using a similar template for the layout.

And please, can we learn another lesson: these older homes were built and designed almost without exception to look attractive from the outside. Building new homes from land-banks will soon commence. Bricks are expensive, which is why newbuilds are cobbled together from concrete and twine (although concrete can look great but nobody bothers to me make it so.) Until then, let’s go forward and step back into the past.


Anonymous said...

I apreciate nostalgia ain't what it used to be RG, but your rose-tinted view of the past is a little myopic.

The Victorians (and earlier) built a lot of cheap crap too, but it hasn't stood the test of time - it's either fallen down, been destroyed during the war, or pulled down in post-war 'slum clearance'.

What has survived is more often than not the better built and designed buildings, and this will always be the case - you don't find huge numbers of Victorian dovecots and more than you'll find lots of today's 'executive city centre penthouse apartments' in 100 years time!

Finally, while your comments on apartments in Spain or Germany appear sensible, look at the size of those countries compared to the UK. We are a small, densely packed island, and our housing reflects this.

Tadeusz Deregowski said...

Perhaps old is merely better because the worst older buildings are demolished?

RenterGirl said...

Yes, but what has survived is great. And we need to look at why it's lasted. And anon - there are other ways of building spacious homes - build sensibly upwards, rather than having acres of space between (which German homes do not have, but oddly gaping space between the districts.)

RenterGirl said...

A cheeky SEO booster had this to say: 'As an experienced landlord and lettings agent I find both tenants and house buyers prefer older build, especially pre 1930’s properties.

As already mentioned, these properties normally have better proportioned rooms, with high cielings which promote the feeling of space.'
I've edited it. Thanks though - nice try!

Tadeusz Deregowski said...

Actually Germans live largely in suburbs or small towns- the living space taken by the average German is about two times what it was in 1945) and are highly dependent on motor transport.

There was a great show at the V.and A a few years ago showing the demographic chages in Germany and how it had affected architecture.

Desouza said...

I personally think that a lot of new build properties are actually fantastic.

A home is not just about the romance, but the practicality. Most older homes tend to cost a lot more to maintain, and heating costs can be massive.

My nice new(ish) flat costs me virtually nothing to heat and the amount of money saved is worth a month's rent each year.

Something to think about I think.

RenterGirl said...

DeSouza - if you have time go back over my posts from when I lived in a newbuild flat -*as I call them - Dovecots.) It was nearly falling down, and there were many, many design/construction/management/architecural problems inherent in the place. But it was always lovely and warm. That's because one of the few ordinances actually enforced on newbuild construction isn't space, size, quality or storage, but insulation.