Families and flexibility over time in housing design

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Ages through the Terrace looks at how changing family relationships have informed more or less flexibly designed homes

Cambridge Heath (now Mare Street), floor plans, 2017.
Cambridge Heath (now Mare Street), floor plans, 2017.

Ruth Pearn 
Ages Through the Terrace: The evolving impact of age on social and spatial relations in the home 
University of Westminster
Tutor: Harry Charrington


Ruth Pearn’s dissertation examines changing perceptions of age over time and the role of age as a factor influencing the spatial organisation of the home.

She chose the subject in response to the recent resurgence in multi-generational living driven by a shortage of affordable housing and care provision. This, along with changes to the traditional post-war nuclear family structure, is creating new, sometimes challenging, dynamics for domestic organisation. 

‘Today, our domestic architecture increasingly fails to support the new experiences of social groups, particularly young adults and the elderly,’ she says.

Her dissertation demonstrates how attitudes to age have changed historically. This is amplified by her research into three family terraced dwellings close to each other in Hackney, east London, built in the 1790s, 1870s and 1970s. These were chosen as times when new ideas on ageing, childhood, and adulthood respectively were emerging. Each case study tells the story of the spatial arrangement of a middle class home in the context of societal norms of the time. For example, the late 18th century house focuses on the extended nature of the family, which included a live-in maid and apprentice, and in particular an older widowed mother. We learn about the relative status of the elderly, and discusses whether/how widows were able to retain some autonomy over their personal space and possessions.

A case study of a Victorian terrace examines the increase in the prescribed uses of rooms including the provision of a nursery. The most recent case study is of a three bedroom house originally built for key workers in the 1970s, with two single rooms for teenagers in addition to the main bedroom. Their bedrooms are discussed as places of sanctuary away from the open plan living area.

As well as the historical analysis, Pearn analysed their contemporary spatial arrangements and uses. The newest property, for example, now includes two grown up children in the small bedrooms, while the Georgian house has adapted to different uses and configurations over time but is currently returned to a single house, with the occupants considering how to make provision for the possibility of grown up children returning home. The Victorian property has been divided into flats.

  • Cambridge Heath (now Mare Street), 2017.
    Cambridge Heath (now Mare Street), 2017.
  • Christchurch Estate, 1972. Photograph by Richard Einzig (Architects’ Journal, 07.02.1979).
    Christchurch Estate, 1972. Photograph by Richard Einzig (Architects’ Journal, 07.02.1979).
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Her conclusion is that flexibility and ease of adaptability is the way forward to producing housing suitable for today’s changing ways of living. This includes provision for a more multi-generational way of living.

‘The key message in terms of architecture is quite clear – not prescribing or predetermining how spaces might be used,’ she says, adding that homes need to be able to shrink and swell according to changing need. 

Georgian terraces, with their spaces based on classical proportions, have been particularly good at adapting, whereas what she describes as today’s ‘more functionalist’ housing often proves too rigid.

‘In Georgian London, high mortality and migration led to diverse and changeable households. Our homes today are becoming similarly unpredictable as people are choosing to live in different ways and the understanding of family is more fluid’. 

She adds that new forms of housing are needed.

‘In Britain, there’s a cultural notion that adulthood is achieved by owning your own home. While ideas are starting to shift, the housing market has been slow to diversify in response.’ 


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RIBA DISSERTATION MEDAL JUDGES
Chair: Dr Harriet Harriss, Dean of the Pratt School of Architecture in Brooklyn, New York. 
Nick Axel, Deputy editor of e-flux Architecture
Professor Shawn Rickenbacker, Professor of architecture at the City College of New York, and director of the J Max Bond Center
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