Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Semi-detached houses... why?

Having grown up in a traditional 1950s 3-bed semi and lived in both terraced and detached houses as an adult, all I can ask is... why?

Terraced houses

Plus points
- lower construction costs and very efficient use of utility connections (which run along the street)
- fewer outside walls, so lower heating costs.
- back garden is a safe space. You can leave your kids to play and they can't wander out onto the street. Burglars can't wander in and pinch stuff.
- you don't need to lock your back/garden door, unless you live near the end of the row. I'm assuming a London-style arrangement where your back garden backs onto somebody else's back garden, not the strange Northern thing with a ginnel down the back.

Minus points
- you can't blast our your music and noisy neighbours on either side can make your life a misery.
- homes are narrower, so on-street parking is very limited* if you don't have a front garden/drive.
- UPDATE, Pensieve in the comments reminds us that if you want to do major garden works, you have to shlepp dirty stuff through the house.

Renovation/decoration is a break even, I like it when each one in a row of terraced houses looks slightly different  but original uniformity is quite OK.

Detached houses

Plus points
- you can blast out your music and noisy neighbours are less of an issue
- homes are wider, and more likely to have space for off-street parking in front (or even at the side).
- you can renovate/decorate as you like and it won't clash with next door. They are supposed to be individual.

Minus points
- higher construction costs and less efficient use of utility connections.
- four outside walls, so higher heating costs.
- back garden is not such a safe space, kids could wander onto the street (unless you have a lockable gate on each side). Those lockable gates aren't much use against a determined burglar.
- you have to lock the back/garden door.

So far so good, now, are semi-detached houses some sort of golden middle optimum..?

Semi-detached houses

Plus points
- lower construction and heating costs, and more efficient use of utility connections, than detached.
- good for on- or off-street parking on the whole.

Minus points
- higher construction and heating costs, and less efficient use of utility connections, than terraced.
- back garden is not a safe space. Kids can wander off and burglars can wander in.
- you have to lock your back/garden door.
- you can't blast your music loud and a noisy neighbour can make your life a misery.
- if one half has been 'renovated' and one not, it looks like crap.

The first plus point and first minus point cancel out, so all you are left with is a plus on the parking and the rest is all net negatives, worst of both worlds.

You can tell that people don't really value the space down the side of a semi-detached house that much - when people extend, they tend to extend sideways. Once everybody has done it, what you end up with is very messy terraced houses.
What have I missed? Why did we do this to ourselves?
* I accept that in inner-urban areas, off-street parking is an overall minus, cars are out of place and people should walk or take public transport. I'm talking about outer suburbs and rural areas.


Matt said...

Middle one should be "Detached Houses"?

Mark Wadsworth said...

M, oops, thanks, amended.

Staffordshire man said...

I'm half expecting Charlie Windsor to comment on this one.

Physiocrat said...

I did a study on this. The most efficient use of space is to have terrace houses between 4 metres and 6 metres wide, with deep plots. These give good separation between the backs of houses and substantial trees grow up along the boundary, which gives an attractive green environment, and an overall sense of spaciousness.

Where house plots are wider, typically 7 to 12 metres, a much higher proportion of land is given over to roads. A further disadvantage is the higher cost of infrastructure, including underground services, due to the longer runs of pipes and cables. For a given density, houses are closer together, which gives more of a sense of being in an built-up area.

Back gardens (though these are Victorian semi-detached houses, but it illustrates the principle)

Woodsy42 said...

As is often the case, whether it's Brexit or houses. The compromise fails to capitalise on the main advantages of either option while having many of the disadvantages of both. As a starter home we loved having a terraced house - as convenient, easy and cheap to run as a flat but with garden space and beter privacy. Now, after working up to one,I wouldn't want to be anywhere but a detached.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Ph, my study is here. Similar conclusion.

W42, exactly!

Bayard said...

"Why did we do this to ourselves?"

Aesthetics, prejudice and snobbery.

The first semis were posh Georgian and Victorian ones. These were built because they looked better than two small detached houses, plus, if you squinted a bit, you could ignore the fact that half the building belonged to someone else and it looked as if you lived in a bigger house than you actually did. Terraced housing, OTOH, became associated with slums. If you were going up in the world, you wanted something better than a terraced house and semis came with the association of posh, but were cheaper than a detached house.

Physiocrat said...

@Mark Wadsworth

Your study is the same as mine, only I used drawings. I did it around 1970 when the then Ministry of Housing produced a set of standard house plans with frontages ranging from 3.6 metres to 9 metres. The latter made a hopelessly inefficient use of the space, but my architect colleagues did not realise this. Housing at Washington New Town made sites look over-developed and congested, even though they were only 12 to the acre. Then they argued for building high. There were much higher residential densities in the better Victorian suburbs of Newcastle, which nevertheless look open and spacious.

One factor in all this was and is the length of load-bearing joist timbers; about 4 metres is as long as they ought to be and even then they need cross-bracing with diamond-strutting. This generates a house about 5 metres in frontage and 8 metres deep, with two rooms per floor and half-flight staircases - in fact the standard Georgian house plan. Small additional rooms can be provided on half-landings, for example, for bathrooms, etc. It is also worth having a basement area as the ground needs to be excavated anyway for foundations. This gives additional and much needed space for storage, hobbies, shower and laundry rooms where water escape is not a problem, etc.

Modern house plans are not smart solutions to the provision of family space.

James Higham said...

Well put, must include today. And flats?

pen seive said...

Living in a terraced house, with an enclosed garden, means having to take or carry everything through the house. That lovely wooden garden table and chairs - through the house. The various parts of the garden shed or children's slide or swings - through the house. Those big, smelly, wheely bins with a week, or fortnight, worth of rubbish or grass cuttings - through the house or leave them outside the front door. Bags of compost or tubs for planting - through the house. The monthly window cleaner - either through the house or you clean the back windows yourself. With a semi, that side passage does come in handy.
As most semis come with off road parking and/or a garage, there is little hassle from not being able to park near where you live, while "allocated spaces" for new terraced houses are often ignored by visitors or other motorists looking to avoid parking fees or the 'necessity' of dropping Giles or Beyonce Rhianna, off at the nearby school. Most semis also have a front garden or small, open area which is aesthetically more pleasing than a terraced house with a front door usually opening straight onto the pavement or a concrete path with a small patch of stubbly grass either side.
I've lived in terraced and semi detached houses and much prefer the latter, purely for the convenience it brought rather than snob value. Hated living in flats - all those stairs - and never had the opportunity of living in a detached house, so can't comment on that.

Lola said...

You could add another category. Detached house by itself in the country. I have one. And not a very big one.

Lots of land
Playing the Rolling Stones at 11 upsets absolutely no-one.
No neighbours.
Do exactly as I damn well please.
Plenty of off road parking and garaging.
My wife likes it as when I go off on one about Brexit/Trump/May/Corbyn/Banks/ etc etc no-one else can hear my profanities.

Minus points
No public transport. And I mean none. So have to own a car
Hedge debris does for bike tyres
No mains drains.
No gas
Have to use oil or leccie so expensive
Chopping wood for the wood burner
Uncertain electricity. (Need to keep a generator on stand by)
get snowed in (actually a plus in my opinion)
Uncertain broad band.
Lots of maintenance required as exposed
And more mud.
Can be cold
Wet. The road outside is actually a drain for springs and the field run off.
Constant garden maintenance
Rats and other vermin - need to own at least a powerful air rifle

Intriguingly people often demonstrate some envy, but soon realise that it's actually hard work.

Physiocrat said...

@Pen Selve

Yes, that is the disadvantage of terrace houses. However, terrace houses in some parts of the country have back lanes, originally for the delivery of coal and collection of refuse. There are disadvantages, in particular, security, but they solve the access problem. Also, in some parts of the country, the main garden is at the front, with the houses set back 20 metres or so from the road, the rear garden being just a yard.

There are some excellent late 19th century examples in the Jesmond area of Newcastle.

Lola said...


Mrs VA lived in Ponteland for her young life. She / we have had friends who lived in those superb large terraces in Jesmond. They are absolute crackers.

ThomasBHall said...

Or like my house, originally detached, but now with connecting porch extensions. No sound issues, increased security, retain ability to move things into garden without going through house. ;)

Andrew S. Mooney said...

"I'm assuming a London-style arrangement where your back garden backs onto somebody else's back garden, not the strange Northern thing with a ginnel down the back."

It was more practical. That was for the communal toilet - Otherwise you faced having to walk a greater distance to reach it, and further, it was very obvious to the whole neighborhood when you were carrying a freshly steaming chamberpot. Also you could store your coal and let your kids play out there, if the ginnel featured a key and was residents only. London Terraces had a coal cellar, otherwise, as one response notes, everything comes and goes through the front door.

Semi-detached houses are a form of brand engineering/aspirational marketing. The trick is the off-street parking.

You don't potentially don't need two driveways. The driveway between two semis can be communal, as little as three metres in width, and you then have two garages feeding off it in the back. Further. because lots of these estates were built cheaply in the 1930's lots of people still didn't own a car and so the road, in a really crappy case, could be just two and half cars in width and still be gotten down if someone was parked there.

The posher rows though, always had a line of trees because they showed you prosperous - An avenue - the developer could afford to waste the additional land space that they took up. Over a large development, that adds up to potentially enough land that you have foregone an additional row of houses and gardens, so it is real money. They probably also featured covenants upon exterior decoration.

CEM Joad in "The Horrors of the Countryside" hated semis because of the type of people who lived in them. Not truly successful but certainly snobs.

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, the FBRI, in other words.

Ph, I set up a spreadsheet which did the drawings for me.

JH, flats are a different topic.

PS, shlepping muddy stuff through the house is annoying, but how often do you do it?

As to the front garden vs no front garden debate, that is a separate debate. You can't just say "terraced houses have no front gardens", that might be true as a generalisation but is not inherent. Plenty of terraced houses near me have front gardens/off street parking.

L, again, separate topic. Some people like inner urban, some like suburbs, some like countryside. So I don't envy your choice and you don't envy mine. Glad you like the Stones though!

TBH, your house is a proper detached that has morphed into 'linked detached' over the decades, there's a lot to be said for that layout.

ASM, that deserves a fuller response, but it's my dinner time now :-)

Lola said...

MW I was really making the point that 'country cottage living' is not the ivory soap deal that the chocolate box tops would have you believe. And re-inforcing the various points about urban convenience.

Mark Wadsworth said...

L, for sure. I was in the countryside once for a few hours and scurried straight back to the 'burbs and haven't left since.

Mark Wadsworth said...

ASM, my full reply:

1. The ginnel for toilets and coal deliveries. Might have made sense in a historical context but I'm looking at this from today's point of view.

2. Semi's are weird aspirational marketing, agreed.

3. Off-street parking. For sure, planners and builders up to the 1940s couldn't have been expected to foresee mass car ownership.

4. Shared drive way with garages at the back. Terrible idea, makes the back garden a stupid shape and leads to tussles over the driveway, who maintains it, what if you neighbour leaves his car in our way etc?

5. Lines of trees far from the houses is a great idea. I did a post on that. But the best place for them (again with the benefit of hindsight) is along the line where the back gardens meet, like in Physiocrat's linked picture.

6. CEM Joad, same point as 2. But looking down on people in semi's is an even worse form of snobbery.

Physiocrat said...

I had a house with no front garden but the ground floor was raised so that the bottom of the window was above people's heads, which gave good privacy. There is a lot to be said for having a front basement area, which gives you a distance from the pavement and avoids a problem of damp in the basement, which occurs when the pavement abuts the front of the house.

That leads to the design of the houses on the right, dating from 1850.

L fairfax said...

A semi was a good compromise in the past if you can't afford a detached and want to play piano or guitar. Of course with modern materials it should not be a problem with new terraced houses.

Mark Wadsworth said...

LF, I am judging existing housing by today's standards. The fact the noise insulation could be improved is irrelevant, the point is, it wasn't.

Matt said...

@ Lola

I live in the country with all the issues you outline:

Public Transport: I have two busses per day at the stop 0.5 miles away. Both are circular and the second comes 2 hours after the first. That makes it impossible to leave on the first, do anything and then get it back.

No mains drains: Septic tank - check.

No gas: Oil is not as expensive as you might imagine. The boiler tends to be more expensive but the oil itself less so.

Uncertain electricity: A power cut at least one a month on average.

Get snowed in: We were stuck for a week at a time twice last winter.

Uncertain broadband: This has been okay, but is only 18M/1.5M on FTTC!

Lots of maintenance required: Not so much.

Mud: Yes. Cars never clean.

Cold: 20 inch thick stone walls hold heat quite well.

Wet: Yes, springs abound where we are and the (unmade) lane suffers as a consequence.

Constant garden maintenance: No worse than any other house with comparable garden.

Rats: Nope. Weasels and foxes but they don't cause any issues.

Wouldn't swap for the big bad noisy busy city life :-)

Mark Wadsworth said...

L & M, that's the beauty of the system, every household makes their own trade-off between convenience/amenities and space. You prefer space to convenience; people in city centre flats prefer convenience to space. My wife and I are suburban/outer-suburban people, we've enough enough space and enough amenities. There's no right or wrong answer.

Anomalous Cowshed said...

"when people extend, they tend to extend sideways."

That might be down to the fact that if you attempt to extend forward, including bay windows, you do tend to excite the local planners into a state technically known as "batshit insane". They really don't like it.

Anyway, I would suggest that the word you were actually looking for was "backwards".

Mark Wadsworth said...

AC, no, I mean sideways. I don't count a conservatory or kitchen extensions as a proper extension.

Extending forwards is ugly (I am with the planners on this); it is fairly pointless/expensive; and would use up previous off-street parking/front garden.

Extending backwards just gives you long, dark rooms. Doing a loft conversion is usually best bang for buck and unobtrusive, after that, sideways is best.