Selected Texts by AOC
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Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
Learning From The Semi
"Homes for people. Normal, good, solid homes", requested a Southwark resident at a consultation event AOC recently attended. Looking at new urban housing in the UK it is easy to understand why they felt the need to make this request. The last decade has seen countless high rise blocks of single aspect, one-bed flats springing up around transport interchanges. Considered a sound investment they are rarely described as normal, solid or good.

There are few homes more normal in the UK than the suburban semi-detached house. The age of many suggests a certain solidity and any internet property search will confirm its continued desirability. Acknowledging the limitations of its density and subsequent sustainability is there anything new urban housing can learn from the traditional suburban semi?

The suburban semi is a spatially generous home. Beyond the basic collection of naturally lit rooms it inevitably has a number of leftover spaces: the airing cupboard, the attic, the cupboard under the stairs.

Tight spaces that lack a dedicated function their specific forms actively encourage uses which do not lend themselves to more rectilinear rooms. This spatial generosity continues outside with a range of amenity spaces. Traditionally described as merely the garden these spaces can accommodate all manner of needs, from a self-sufficient vegetable patch to a family cricket wicket. New housing must incorporate a similar range, if not a similar amount, of useful leftover and amenity spaces, avoiding the single-minded meanness of contemporary room schedules.

The simple construction of the semi allows it to evolve over time. The relatively low-tech building reduces the need for building professionals to maintain or change the building encouraging the owner to adapt the home to fit. This has the practical benefit of both allowing inexpensive, regular maintenance and actively encouraging adaptation of the building, allowing it to change in response to the residents' shifting requirements.

Higher densities are associated with more complex construction, professional maintenance and a lack of adaptation. Opportunities for simpler construction should be maximised in housing allowing residents to do-it-themselves, improving the useful life of the building.

The success of the BBC sitcom the Good Life relied upon the oppositional aspirations of its protaganists, the Goods and the Leadbetters. Each was able to adapt the same basic semi to meet their different needs - functional, social and aesthetic. As an easily adaptable structure the semi offers residents the opportunity to express their personal tastes and aspirations. Self-expression in the semi is not limited to merely changing rooms. High-rise housing rarely allows this private expression of taste to influence the public appearance, yet this is a matter of choice not necessity. By allowing the variety of personally adapted homes to affect the civic realm new housing will both empower its residents and enrich the neighbourhood.

Like all homes the semi-detached suburban home is a compromise, yet much of our new urban housing seems compromised in every aspect. At a time when the suburbs are under attach from the urbs it seems appropriate we should learn from this generous, loose-fit, adaptive suburban model to understand how people actually live. Only then might we be able to design normal, good, solid urban homes in which people might choose to live.
   
Published by Geoff Shearcroft
Architecture Today
February, 2008

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