I am a really fun rentergirl to travel with. Honest. Whenever I’ve been lucky enough to holiday abroad, I ignore the constant low-level whining of expats, slap on the suncream and head straight for a research trip around the design and nature of local private rented housing. Then, later – champagne! Like I said – I am fun to be with.
Wherever I have wandered, the most desirable, the loveliest, best designed buildings, the one with queues outside for viewings when offered for rent or for sale, the structures people actually want to live in are old. In terms of domestic architecture, ie building ordinary homes, in so many ways, old is best.
There is the German term alt-bau (old build) and in Spain some of the best buildings are circa 19 C – throughout Europe in fact. The old German apartments (another city where flats dominate) are beautiful, with high ceilings, light and spacious - all the words so beloved by estate agents.
In Bilbao the beautiful old quarter has some amazing apartments. In north-eastern Spain the weather can be wet and windy, and so Victorian era designers created enclosed balconies, allowing occupants to gaze out onto the street or enjoy the river view. Many of the older flats are were designed when people had more children, and so are larger.
These places have their problems of course. Anyone currently shivering, huddled in one of those personalised fleece igloos is thinking: this flat is draughty. In Glasgow, tenements are desirable, but remember they might have housed as many as ten people, and you wonder how they coped. There was no bathroom (people used communal toilets and baths) and when refurbished the bathroom was sometimes placed in what had a been a cupboard. Apart from the waste of storage (you know me and cupboards) this causes damp.
And elsewhere? Well, people are coming to terms with terraced housing. Think about it. When families or ‘units’ are smaller – i.e. single people or childless couples, these homes are ideal. Add on a loft conversion (even a basement) and you have a brilliant place to live.
Some of the older houses in Manchester look straight out of The Munsters, albeit in a good way. Add in cavity wall insulation, double glazing (tastefully done) and you have a proper home for a family, which is what they were built for – not conversion into miserly bedsits.
Builders and architects got so many things right. We should learn from them: large homes meaning more rooms, as space is the main appeal – with generous amounts of space, even in a flat. Maybe we should build higher than before, but using a similar template for the layout.
And please, can we learn another lesson: these older homes were built and designed almost without exception to look attractive from the outside. Building new homes from land-banks will soon commence. Bricks are expensive, which is why newbuilds are cobbled together from concrete and twine (although concrete can look great but nobody bothers to me make it so.) Until then, let’s go forward and step back into the past.