The following text was circulated among construction companies, housing associations and local authorities between 2012 and 2013



Could the return of back-to-back dwellings help solve the housing shortage?



Recent press reports on the continued shortage of affordable housing have prompted the circulation of an idea to help kick-start the housing market.


In trying to plot a course out of this crisis, commentators usually look back to the 1930s when a house-building boom fuelled phenomenal growth in our economy by 20% in the space of four years. A staggering 293,000 houses were built in the financial year 1934-5. By contrast, only 106,000 houses were built in 2011.  Of course, it was easier to build back then in the days before Town and Country planning and Green Belt legislation. Moreover, the banks were prepared to lend and there was less debt about. Today, we are faced with a shortage of land, a shortage of affordable mortgages, and a mountain of private and public debt which makes it difficult to replicate the pre-war boom in housing construction.


What we need is a plan to build loads of new ultra-cheap housing which will open up the market to first time buyers and thereby kick-start the housing market. Radically low unit cost could be achieved by using designs which are sparing in both land and materials.  


One of the answers might be a return to back-to-back housing. Back-to-backs are simply terrace housing with just one front elevation.  There are no windows, door or aspect to the rear of such a property because there is another dwelling built immediately to the back of it, sharing the same back wall; such properties have three party walls.


While the Victorian authorities did not like back-to-back housing, considering such dwellings lacking in satisfactory ventilation and sanitation, they were very popular with builders and landlords because they were cheap to build, and also with those who lived in them because they were easy to heat. While most of the back-to-backs were swept away during post-war slum clearances, some examples survive up North.


Could the concept merit a 21st Century makeover? New developments in construction technology (such as sun tubes), a better understanding of ventilation & heating and the introduction of new building materials over the decades surely warrant a rethink of back-to-back housing, especially given that:

  • Conventional housing design requires a front and rear elevation and this is costly in terms of land and building materials;
  • Building land is now in short supply, especially in urban areas where “brown field” sites are often small, irregular-shaped parcels of land that do not lend themselves to mass construction and low unit cost achieved by economy of scale;
  • Two centuries of mass house building have been very wasteful in terms of land use and design. Quite apart from the burden of mortgages or rental payments, too many of us sit in sprawling properties we can no longer afford to heat or maintain. Moreover, precious building land has been squandered in the provision of large gardens front and rear, which require more tending than most of us can manage.   


Back-to-back housing could provide a cheap solution for first time buyers and new social housing stock. Moreover, the concept would better lend itself for the exploitation of small brown field sites. It ought to be possible to shoehorn a two-storey two-bedroom house with galley kitchen, lounge, stairs, landing and bathroom onto a 29 square metre plot. Even allowing for an access road and an additional 40 sq metres for a front garden/yard, you could fit 95 back-to-back dwellings into one hectare, compared with today’s average urban housing density of 47.


While attractive and practical back-to-backs could be built in a traditional architectural style, some new thinking could yield even more impressive results. For example, more contemporary design and materials might allow for an additional small flight of stairs up the back wall on the first floor to enable use of the roof space as a living area/bedroom. Alternatively, a more radical layout could provide an open-air patio/roof garden on the second floor, thereby obviating the need for a front yard/garden, with a glass-roofed atrium on the second floor to cast light down the back of the building to create more light and more efficient heating for all floors. This format would allow for the building of 150 houses per hectare, including access road.


One final thought. Bungalows are the dwellings of choice for old people and yet few of them are being built (Just 300 in 2009!) because bungalows take up even more land space than conventional housing. So, why not one/two bedroom back-to- back bungalows?


If you think the idea has merit, perhaps you could pass it on to one of your design teams to investigate.


In any event, I wish you and your colleagues well for the future and hope that you will eventually overcome the current difficulties and succeed in building adequate housing to rent or buy. As the writer Sydney Smith said, “A comfortable house is a great source of happiness. It ranks immediately after health and a good conscience”  


DWG 2012                   





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© David Green