7 pros and cons of buying a semi

Symbol of middle-class aspiration, conservatism & compromised individualism, the semi-detached house is England’s modern domestic type par excellence

‘My pink half of the drainpipe keeps me safe from you’: so sang trọng the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band about the ambiguous pleasures of the semi-detached house. This type - the Doppelhaus in German, or the duplex, as it is known in much of North America - is England’s great gift to world architecture, và lớn comedy. A symbol of middle-class aspiration, conservatism & compromised individualism, it is the British modern domestic type par excellence, even though it has more frequently appeared in Tudorbethan fancy dress than high-tech garb. This may make our metropolichảy readers wince, but it is undeniable that the semày is the dream (and actual) trang chủ of vast numbers of people: it is the most comtháng dwelling in the UK, where it houses one third of the population. Why should this be? Where did the semi come from? And, in the midst of an acute housing crisis & widespread calls for ‘sustainability’, what can we - should we - vày about this bipolar beast that gobbles up space & people’s hearts along with it?


Typical interwar British semis in suburban London. Source: Tom Wilkinson

The first semis were born a world away from the bypass road with which they are associated today: some of the earliest examples were built in the countryside by 17th-century landowners wishing lớn house their labourers cheaply while making their estates look as grvà as possible. There is something in this deceptiveness, present right from its inception, that makes the semi an uncomfortable proposition lớn architectural moralists; it is mass housing in manorial masquerade, built false consciousness, feudal atavism. But why shouldn’t people live sầu as if they were better off, in a house pretending to be something it isn’t - & why not stiông chồng blackened beams on the front while you’re at it? Why not, so long as it makes you happy? But then, you may ask, is this half-happiness enough?


Source: RIBApix

John Claudius Loudon’s grvà semi-detached villa in Bayswater, London, was built in 1825 & published in his influential book The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion (1838). It disguises itself as one trang chính by tucking its two front doors down opposite sides

From its rural birthplace, the sengươi was smuggled inlớn town disguised as a Georgian villa - so although we associate Georgian design with the acme of tasteful British vernacular housing, it is also the origin of its vilified Siamese twin. But then the Georgians were great speculative sầu volume builders, so it should come as little surprise to lớn find that they invented this enduringly marketable commodity. When John Claudius Loudon published his own kiến thiết for a semày in his widely read 1838 book The Suburban Gardener, & Villa Companion, the idea spread. Loudon included neurotically detailed advice on making two more modest homes appear as one: the two front doors were hidden down opposite sides, to lớn complete the illusion of wholeness. But semis only fell subject khổng lồ widespread odium further into lớn the 19th century, as the type was adapted lớn the age of the railway and the expanded middle classes. In the London suburb of Bedford Park, much mocked at the time for its artistic pretensions, Richard Norman Shaw dressed the semày in vernacular clothes (from 1877). In doing so he prepared it for the developers of the interwar years, và their customers, the lower-middle classes. Bedford Park was also the semi’s launch pad to lớn the wider world (if we are to follow Pevsner’s argument), via Muthesius’s influential 1904 book Das englisbít Haus. Norman Shaw had solved the problem of the small, middle-class house, Muthesius averred - in his opinion the crucial issue in housing of the day. And indeed, with his light-filled bay windows & economical, repeatable, yet individual-looking types, he had helped develop a form of mass housing which eminently served the requirements of a new class.

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Source: RIBApix

Norman Shaw’s semis at Bedford Park, London, pioneered the eclectically styled, rationally planned yet economical lower-middle-class dwelling, from 1877

Across the Channel, the semi was regarded as a valid type by even the most austere Modernists. Le Corbusier’s famous house at the Weissenhofsiedlung was semi-detached, although it looks more lượt thích an escaped segment of mass housing - a polar-opposite example of the British semi’s dissembling tendencies. Gropius’s 1925 Meisterhäuser for the Bauhaus teachers were all Doppelhäuser (his own being the only single-family dwelling); Gropius took the unusual step of rotating the second dwelling, which had an identical floor plan to the first, by 90 degrees, thus returning by a circuitous route to lớn the Georgian sengươi that looks like one villa, even if his version didn’t look like much else that had come before. Further afield, several of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘American System-Built Homes’ in Milwaukee (1917) are duplexes, the only examples of the type in his oeuvre. The greater availability of space made single-family homes more affordable and more prevalent in suburban USA.


Source: Frank van Leersum

Le Corbusier’s house at the 1927 Werkbund Exhibition in Weissenhof, Stuttgart puts a very different spin on the semi: instead of aping a single family trang chính, it pretends to lớn be an escaped segment of mass housing. It also pretends to be concrete when it is in fact stuccoed brick

Meanwhile in Britain the oto spread the suburbs ever further from the city, & with them marched the semis. These came in a variety of Shavian Artsy-Craftsy styles. ‘All over the country the lademo and most scientific methods are being utilised khổng lồ turn out a stream of old oak beams, leaded window panes & small discs of bottle-glass, all structural devices which our ancestors lost no time in abandoning as soon as an increase in wealth & knowledge enabled them khổng lồ vì chưng so.’ This is of course the voice of Osbert Lancaster, the funniest critic of the sengươi (‘bypass variegated’ as he called it) và the most self-revealing, for it is often the fear of the established, educated & embattled middle class that speaks in their ridicule of the aesthetic preferences of the rising lower-middle. Lancaster was, to be fair, explicitly arguing from a Modernist position of truth-to-materials; nevertheless he was equally scathing about Modernist houses, of which there were an increasing number in Britain at that time. Well-known pioneering settlements such as Thomas Tait’s houses for Crittall employees at Silver End (1927-28) and the Bata factory estate in East Tilbury (1932-35) included several Trắng, cuboid semis. These are unusual in that they attempt to lớn adapt the type - which caters lớn the same Modernist desires for light và air as Zeilenbauten - to the needs of the proletariat, rather than the petit bourgeoisie, by clothing the sengươi in workers’ overalls. A similar union was attempted in the khung of Herbert Welch’s ‘suntrap semis’ on the Portsdown Estate at Edgware (1932), albeit to different ends. These houses, with their hipped roofs plonked onkhổng lồ Deteo bodies, were intended by the developer khổng lồ emtoàn thân the values of Modernism, but with public appeal, và their visual distinction from the Tait or Bata houses can be attributed to the fact that they were commissioned by a speculative builder và not a paternalistic industriacác mục. More aesthetically satisfying compromises have sầu since been found along the road khổng lồ Postmodernism: in Eric Lyons’ many estates for Span Developments, for instance.

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Eric Lyons’ semis for Span Devevlopments remade the type for the 1970s, here at New Ash Green in Kent. Source: RIBApix

The semi continues to appeal, both to volume builders and to more autonomous architects, such as Stephen Taylor (AR May 2014). Most importantly, it still appeals to the public. There are countless people who can’t or don’t want to lớn pay for a freestanding trang chính, & yet wish to lớn partake of the very real material advantages of semis over terraced houses or flats: they offer access lớn their (usually larger) gardens without having to lớn pass through the house (this space also comes in handy for parking or lean-khổng lồ garages), & they have natural light on three sides. They are easily modified, and therefore offer the satisfaction that comes from having visibly made your house your own. But although semis cater lớn our individualism, there is something questionable about the way they occupy space; their effects on planning (few developers are as sensitive to this issue as Eric Lyons); and their energy-inefficiency. The latter problem is not intractable &, periodically, sensitive attempts have sầu been made lớn rework the sengươi for current needs, for instance, Sergison Bates’ winning entry for a competition held by a housing association to lớn kiến thiết a prototype for mass production. Nevertheless, as the housing crisis deepens, higher-density types than the sengươi are necessary if we are khổng lồ house growing urban populations within the extant perimeters of our cities.


Source: RIBA Library Drawings Collection

Span Developments, headed by Eric Lyons, built a number of residential estates around Britain after the war, such as New Ash Green in Kent (1966-71). These were sensitively laid out lớn provide private gardens that open up into car-không lấy phí communal spaces, offering a halfway trang chủ between Modernist communality và British reserve.

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The cleavage of the semày exposes the tension at the heart of housing, which is at once commodity và dream; an ontological need for dwelling-in-the-world, & an excuse to lớn go shopping at IKEA. It expresses both the desire for individual freedom, ostensibly protected by the privacy of the family circle, và the inescapability of socio-economic bonds; we may dream of castles in the sky, but baông xã down on earth we can only afford half a plot carved out by a volume builder next to lớn a roaring motorway. Nietzsbít called wit ‘the epitaph of an emotion’, & perhaps that’s where the genuine humorousness of the semi is located: it expresses with painful clarity the irreconcilability of dream life và real life under present conditions.

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