I think it’s fair to say that a lot of new-build housing in Britain is dominated by standardised floor plans. This is particularly true of new-build flats. For the volume homebuilders, standardised floor plans have a clear cost advantage.
Some people might argue that sites for building homes are so different from one another that standardised floor plans can’t provide the variation and flexibility needed to fit the unique characteristics of each site.
I don’t have anything against standardised floor plans and think they’re perfectly acceptable if they are of a good quality design. I also think it’s possible to produce plans for a range of housing types – flats and terraced houses, for example – that are adaptable and that can be modified to suit different site layouts.
In the Housing Design Handbook, architect David Levitt (of Levitt Bernstein Architects) says:
Going back to the GLC in the 1970s, various attempts have been made to produce ranges of standard terrace-house types based on different frontages, but none has been widely adopted. Obviously these exercises have concentrated on producing the most economical layouts within given increments of frontage. As the size of terrace houses goes up, the range of potential layouts increases and the imagination of the designer takes over.
Sadly, in the design of flats at least, the imagination of the designer takes a back seat to adhering to a mediocre floor plan.
Imagine that you’re off to view a new-build one bedroom apartment. What might you expect to see? Nine times out of ten it’s likely to be a flat laid out something like this.
Depending on the development you visit, there will be some minor differences in layout: some will have slightly better storage or more pleasant proportions. If you’re lucky, it may be dual aspect (i.e. with windows along both the front and back of the flat). But by and large this is probably the most common floor plan design for one bedroom apartments today. Is this really good enough?
I’ve written about layouts like this in previous posts and I know I’m repeating myself by complaining about them again but it’s only because so little seems to change for the better when it comes to new-build housing.
What would improve the design?
- More windows: giving the kitchen and bathroom their own windows would bring natural light and ventilation to these areas (and make the flat dual aspect).
- Better room proportions: widening the width of the living room would be another improvement: it should not be less than 3.5 metres minimum. Many apartment widths are less than this. What’s more, room width and room length need to relate comfortably to one another otherwise you end up with unpleasant, narrow rectangular proportions. If you were designing a terraced house with a frontage of, say, 4 metres you would most likely use the full-width of the house as the living room. Why treat the design of flats any differently? We shouldn’t tolerate narrow living rooms in flats any more than in houses.
- Better storage: I think it’s a reasonable assumption that most people will have a vacuum cleaner, an ironing board (and iron), laundry and linen etc. It would be nice if there was somewhere you could put this out of view.
Imagine if someone put a washing machine in your living room – you’d think it totally daft. But when you have “open plan” living with the kitchen and living room thrown together with so little thought, that’s exactly what you get: a noisy washing machine at the end of your “living room”. (And a washing machine hidden behind a kitchen cupboard door will still be noisy.)
Spot the difference
Time for a quiz. Can you spot an architect-designed floorplan from a volume housebuilder floorplan? See if you can pick out the architect-designed plan from the floorplans below. To find out the answer, click anywhere on the floor plans. But don’t click until you’ve made a guess!
If you look at the 2011 Housing Design Awards, you’ll see that an enormous amount of work has gone into the award winning schemes. Good, thoughtful work that’s very difficult to pull off successfully: masterplanning, landscaping, use of high quality materials, well-designed communal spaces, circulation spaces, and public spaces. But this is also why the apartment designs feel so disappointing after all the admirable detail and thinking surrounding other aspects of the developments.
If you watch some of the videos for the award winning sites, you’ll hear positive views from the residents who clearly like their homes. So am I being too harsh or unfair? Are designs like those above perfectly fine? Do you consider them good designs? Would you be happy to live in one of these apartments?