Tag: architecture

Book review: A house through time by David Olusoga & Melanie Backe-Hansen

olusogaI’ve recently enjoyed watching A house through time, a series presented by David Olusoga tracking the history of a single house and its inhabitants across the years. The most recent series looked at house in Bristol, the city where I was an undergraduate. A house through time by David Olusoga and Melanie Backe-Hansen is the book of the series.

Rather than focus on a single house, as the TV series does, the book is a much broader sweep which looks at the history of the domestic dwelling back to Roman times, research methods and some social history which gives the “why” behind the houses.

This is a busman’s holiday for me, a large chunk of my job over the last few years has been to build a property database to help answer buildings insurance application questions. One of these questions is the property age, and it has been the cause of greatest pain for me. A house is a good background to this type of work, it provides the type of context which can be really helpful in understanding the data I come across. The issue for me though is that A house is written for those wishing to understand their own homes, rather than work out property age for 25 million or so dwellings but this is a niche interest and shouldn’t be taken as a criticism.

The book starts with a chapter on methods: how do you find out about your house? This is supported by an extensive set of links and a bibliography which strikes the happy medium between not providing any references, and referencing alternate words. The Census, and various surveys conducted before and during World War II are core to this, although these are ostensibly about people they provide evidence that an address existed at a point in time give or take variability in addresses and levels of details in addresses. Numbering of houses, as opposed to names, only started to rise in the middle of the 18th century. Also relevant are Ordnance Survey’s historical maps.

I was a bit surprised that there was very little mention of the listed building data, English Heritage and its partner organisations in Wales and Scotland aim to list all building built in the Georgian period and before. The data provides descriptions of the listed structures, this is the entry for 10 Guinea Street, Bristol which featured in one of the TV programmes.

There then follows a set of chapters on different periods, working forward in time covering the pre-Georgian, Georgian, Victorian, Interwar and post-war periods. These are the divisions I use in my work with the insurance industry (with the addition of a modern period starting in 1980).

There are a number of themes threaded through the book, much of the technological development of home building was relatively early. After the Roman’s left Britons reverted to living in wattle-and-daub or timber buildings for 400 years. The next significant technological developments were the discovery, and widening use of the chimney in the late 14th century followed by the re-discovery of brick making in the later 15th century. After that the next clear developments in building were in prefabricated and high-rise buildings post-Second World War.

A second theme is the legislative framework in which buildings wear built, these are two-fold there are “public safety” acts which are used to try to ensure safer buildings are built, these include the laws put in place after the Great Fire and those used to address the unsanitary conditions in Victorian slums in the later 19th century. These acts often specified a limited number of “model” properties and wonder whether these can be used for dating. There were also acts relating to taxation: window and brick taxes. It is the brick taxes that led to the standardisation of bricks, originally bricks were taxed by number so people made larger bricks so as to reduce their tax bills!

It is perhaps inevitable that the Victorian period running from 1837 to 1901 takes a large chunk of the book. This was a time during which there was a great move to the cities in support of the industrial revolution and a degree of “push” with the Inclosures Acts, Slum dwelling grew common, sanitation and urban clearances were initiated to relieve the slum conditions and the suburbs grew – supported first by omnibuses and then by railways. Although overcrowding and insanitary conditions were recognised early in the Victorian period addressing them took some time, with major improvements in the sewerage system happening towards the end of the 19th century. Often “improvement” schemes were more about sweeping aside the poor with no regard as to where they might live.

Towards the end of the Victorian period the suburbs started to grow, enabled by omnibus and then rail transport. It is at this time that semi-detached properties started to become common. The early suburbs gave me the impression of more rural aspects than modern suburbs. Some of the homes built in the late 19th century are very similar to those built in great numbers between the wars. It was only after the First World War that state intervention in building homes became widespread, the green shoots of this movement started in the late 19th century.

Sadly there is little scope for me to apply these methods to my own homes, I have nearly always lived in late sixties or seventies homes oddly they have had house numbers clustered around 30. In Bristol, as a student I lived in a basement flat close to the developments by Benjamin Stickland built around 1850.

I found A house really readable, it would be a great starting point if you were looking into the history of your own house or were just interested to understand how the domestic built environment came into being in the United Kingdom.

Book review: The Book of the Edwardian & Interwar House by Richard Russell Lawrence

edwardiandI’m currently working on providing some data for domestic properties, mainly for the purpose of making the process of getting a buildings insurance quote easier. One of the parameters the insurance industry is interested in is the age of a home.

And so I came to The Book of the Edwardian & Interwar House by Richard Russell Lawrence. I picked the book up partly out of curiosity but I also hoped to pick up some ideas as to how I might date a house based on the information to hand.

The book starts with some general comments about the period and what had gone before, leading to a discussion of Edwardian architecture. This is followed by a similar discussion of interwar architecture. The book finishes with a whole load of short chapters on individual elements of the home, bricks, tiles, lighting, wireless and telephone and so forth. As well as simple domestic architecture there is some discussion of high end homes of the period.

The second half of the 19th century saw the expansion of British cities, driven by industrialisation and enabled by the growing railway system and, for the capital, the London Underground. This led to the building of an awful lot of terraced houses at high densities, generally to be rented to workers. The 1877 Model Bye-laws Act and the 1878 Building Act set some requirements on how houses could be built in terms of their size, distance from facing houses and sanitary facilities.

This situation continued into the beginning of the 20th century, with a growing middle class looking for better homes than the terraces offered. The First World War brought house building to a complete stop, after the war there was a housing shortage of something like 850000 properties and a fear in government that there would be fighting on the streets if “Homes Fit for Heroes” were not supplied. The Interwar period saw a huge increase in home ownership, the building of 4 million homes (the majority semi-detached) and the first council houses. Public housing was built following the specifications of the Tudor Walters Report (1918), which specified a minimum size of 760 square feet, a maximum density of 12 houses per acre and preferred wider houses, semi-detached or in short terraces. Private housing sought to differentiate in stall from public housing but could scarcely offer poorer specifications.

This is interesting because sizes and spacings of buildings can be determined from the Ordnance Survey’s mapping data.

Earlier regulations, following the Great Fire of London, had banned the building of timber-framed houses in cities and windows had to be recessed in their openings for similar reasons. This, and details such as how bricks are laid, can give further information on building age but they are not readily amenable to automation or determinable from public data.

Gross style seems to be of relatively little help when dating buildings, many Edwardian and Interwar houses were built in neo-Georgian style which as the name implies can look very Georgian. Also popular was Tudorbethan which emulated an old English style with mock, black wooden beams painted or nailed to a white exterior. Chester’s city centre is rife with an elaborate form of this style, mainly built in the Edwardian or very late Victorian period, although there are some examples of the genuine article.

Internally, the period saw the evolution of the kitchen, scullery and kitchenette as new-fangled gas and electric ovens replaced old ranges. There was also a discussion as to whether buildings for workers should have a separate parlour and living room. I’m well aware that my grandparents generation would often reserve a room for “best”, which as family did not get invited into.

It struck me as I read The Book that houses I would have been fairly confident were post-Second World War I now suspect are interwar. It surprised me that modest houses started to get a garage as an option as early as the 1930s, the big increase in car ownership had started before the First World War, a bit earlier than I expected.

I learnt some new useful vocabulary, a “catslide” roof is one on a two storey house which terminates at the top of the first storey. A “hipped” is one that has slopes on more that two sides, rather than having gable ends (previously I’d have called this a “roof”).

This is something of a coffee-table book, with lots of photographs, I found the text in the early part more readable than the long litany of descriptions of individual architectural details. I have a few ideas to try out on the dating of houses.

Pevsner Architectural Guide – Liverpool by Joseph Sharples

Pevsner-LiverpoolI reach Pevsner’s Architectural Guide – Liverpool (additional material Joseph Sharples) by a somewhat winding route: I take the Merseyrail train to Liverpool; my normal route is changed and I must walk across the city; it turns out the buildings are spectacular; I take photos and then I want to know what I have photoed. This is where the Pevsner Guide enters the picture.

Sir Nickolaus Pevsner was a German born art historian who moved to the UK in 1933, he felt that the academic study of architecture in Britain was lacking, and furthermore there were was no convenient source of information on the many and wondrous buildings of the country. In 1945 he proposed a series of books: Buildings of England to address this lack. The series ultimately ran to 46 volumes, 32 written by Pevsner, a further 10 which he co-authored and 4 written by others.

This Guide – Liverpool is a city specific reworking of the original guides. The book is large-pocket sized, well produced with a fair number of images. It starts with an overview of the history of Liverpool. I have to admit, shame-faced, that I was woefully ignorant of the city I now work in. For nearly 10 years I have lived just down the line in Chester, and yet I had visited Liverpool a handful of times, in the evening for works dinners. My perceptions of Liverpool are coloured by the time I grew up, in the 1980s, when Liverpool was host to riots in the Toxteth area of the city, mass unemployment and far-left politics. Walking around now what I see is completely at odds with my perceptions, you can see in my earlier post. To add some decoration to this post, below is the Royal Liver Building, one of the Three Graces, built on the waterfront at the beginning of the 20th century.

Royal Liver Building, corrected

Royal Liver Building, wide angle view with perspective “correction” applied

And St George’s Hall:

St George's Hall

St George’s Hall

Liverpool has long been Britain’s second port and probably has a strong claim for second city status (both following London). Initially it grew through exporting Cheshire salt, than as part of the triangle route carrying slaves, then as a point of exit for Britain’s manufactured goods and finally as a passenger terminus. Liverpool is not blessed with the best of conditions for shipping, this meant it was an early pioneer of gated docks. This was significant engineering work, only possible through the collective action of the city Corporation. It’s worth noting that one of the first railways in Britain was between Liverpool and Manchester, providing a link between the manufacturing centre and the port. Liverpool remained preeminent until the sixties when British manufacturing declined, and shipping became containerized, much reducing the labour required. It had no “second fiddle” so with the loss of shipping it went into rapid decline.

Nowadays Liverpool is making a resurgence, the fine buildings from its early high water mark are joined by some excellent new ones.

After a historical overview the Guide covers six major buildings / areas of the city: the Town Hall (dating to mid 18th century and the oldest major building in the city), St George’s Hall and the Plateau (up by Liverpool Lime Street Station); the William Brown Street Group and St. John’s Gardens; Pier Head where the outstanding Three Graces are to be found and finally the two cathedrals (Anglican and Catholic) both built in the 20th century. The majority of the buildings date from the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century, the burgeoning wealth of the city having little time for preserving the relatively meagre past. The city suffered significant bombing during the Second World War, as a result of its importance as a port.

After the major buildings the remainder of the the Guide is broken down into a set of 10 walks around the central area of the city, spanning a few miles with an interlude covering the city centre. I’d spotted the grand building of the Marks & Spencer store in the centre of town on my previous perambulations, it is in fact Compton House (see below) built as one of the earliest department stores in 1867.


35 Church Street, Marks and Spencer

Compton House, Church Street


As a bonus the book finishes with three short pieces from areas outside the city: Speke Hall, Port Sunlight and Hamilton Square.

The Pevsner Guides are not really designed to be read sitting on the train, as I did, they are to be held as you walk around with a map. Despite the relatively large number of photos it doesn’t feel like enough, I was frustrated by reading the words but not being able to see the buildings. I think a few more walks with the camera are in order.

The Guide is a staccato recounting of what you can see, listing locations, architectural features, architects and the occasion blunt opinion, this is his comment on the re-development of the Prince’s Dock:

“The results so far, though, are inadequate. The architecture is both bland and overly fussy”

It feels like an excellent opportunity for a smartphone app. The current publishers seem a bit bewildered by this newfangled app world and have produced a digital companion in the form of a glossary of architectural terms. Elsewhere someone is selling a database of all of the Pevsner entries, the Guide is a database rendered in prose form.

It seems the components are there for a Pevsner App, who is with me in making it happen?


Here‘s a Google Map of the Major Buildings from the Guide.