28 December 2006

No flats - we're detatched

If you look at 'historic' Somerton, ie the oldest parts of the town, you find that, contrary to contemporary thinking and fashion, the buildings in old Somerton were generally terraced. A map of Somerton in the middle 1800s shows Broad St and West St built up of terraced houses and the only detached buildings being those with specific purposes, for example farm houses, churches and property for the clergy. In fact, much of Somerton's conservation area is comprised of terraced housing.

Today the demand in the housing market is for detached housing and Somerton is as good an example of this as any but, in Somerton's case, this runs completely contrary to the historic grain of the townscape. Its also useful to consider the wider impact of detached housing.

Detached housing creates urban sprawl in that the population density is low. Detached housing is costlier because it uses more land and building materials as each unit has a minimum of 4 elevations (rather than two or three with terraced housing). Most importantly, detached housing is the least energy efficient housing structure with the maximum external surface per housing unit. And of the 'detached' class of housing, the bungalow is the least energy efficient of all structures.

There is also an undeniable prejudice, outside major metropolitan areas against the construction of flats and with regard to this prejudice, Somerton subscribes fully. Flats are opposed for a variety of reasons: they aren't "in keeping"; they lower the tone; they attract undesireables. Yet, in today's world of increasing energy costs and rising housing costs, flats offer major advantages.

The construction of blocks of flats consumes less building materials in construction, for example there is only one roof and there may be 3 or 4 units below that one roof. Flats are more energy efficient as they have 2 or at most 3 exposed external surfaces therefore lose less heat to the outside world. The sharing of key elements, roof, foundations, services etc means that the unit cost is less as there are serious 'savings of scale' in construction.

For all of these reasons, flats offer the opportunity to build cheaper, more energy efficient housing which, in the rural setting, would address two key areas of demand - first time buyers and the elderly. For both these communities, flats offer lower cost of occupation yet flats are treated with suspicion in places like Somerton where they could help retain younger members of the community by offering cheaper residential options.

So why is there such a prejudice against the construction of flats? I guess that the estate agents hold the key in that they reflect the prejudices of property owners. Flats, whatever their undeniable benefits, are seen as undesirable. Detached housing, ignoring its increased construction costs, inefficiencies and appetite for land, is what sells. Sad really.

Till next time.