I live in a seven-storey late-Victorian mansion block of 42 flats in central London. When built in the 1890s, critics fretted about the appearance (“like a spinning mill”) and “monstrous” height of these blocks – the latter point is now laughable as the buildings are dwarfed by nearby skyscrapers. Aesthetics aside, the flats have offered some key advantages over the past few months: the high ceilings, big windows and thick, near soundproof walls meant that my partner, teenage children and I could all work peacefully in separate rooms during lockdown. This is in contrast to friends, particularly in North American cities, who live in open-plan constructs that offer little privacy, no matter how large or luxurious.
A UCL survey released this week of 2,500 UK households contacted during the country’s lockdown, found that people living in housing built in the past 10 years were more likely to report feeling uncomfortable, whereas those in pre-1919 developments were most likely to be comfortable. The report suggests that housing has become steadily less suitable over the past century. “We need to learn from the stress test that lockdown has given our homes,” says its lead author, Matthew Carmona of UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning. “We have let design standards drop and people tend to be less satisfied in new housing. This might be, in part, down to a lack of clear national space standards over past decades, leading to homes that are too small.”
The report also confirms the value of room divisions and “good environmental conditions: fresh air, daylight into the home and good noise insulation were widely seen as fundamental”. Victorian architecture might fairly be criticised as bulky and overly trussed-up with decorative flourishes – but it’s quite nice to live in.