Front-to-back flats

“Blocks planned on an east/west axis contain through flats so that each of the tenants have a southern outlook for their living rooms while some of the bedrooms face north; where such blocks occur on the southern perimeter of the scheme flats have been planned so that tenants, if they prefer, can have living rooms facing northwards over the gardens.”

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Architects “Barbican Redevelopment” April 1959

Front-to-back flats are found in terrace blocks on an east-west axis. Terraces on an east-west axis means blocks like Defoe, Speed, Thomas More and Andrewes Houses, where the ends of the terrace are on an east to west line.

The overriding factor for internal design was achieving maximum sunshine for living areas. As Chamberlin Powell and Bon said in their 1959 report to the City Corporation:

“Wherever possible, flats, maisonettes and houses are planned to catch the sun during at least part of the day. They are also designed so that they enjoy a good prospect from the living room windows.”

Since the terraces have windows along the long sides, the windows in terraces on an east-west axis are necessarily facing only north or south. As between north and south, most of a day’s sunlight will fall on the south side of the block. So it would have been unfair to have some flats facing only south, and hogging all the sunlight, and some flats facing only north, where it would be like living on the far side of the Moon. (You can tell the difference by comparing window box growth – luxuriant on the south face of these blocks, sad and sparse on the north side.) So most of the flats in east-west terraces are ‘front-to-back flats’, usually extending 18.3 meters from one side of the building to the other, with the living rooms facing south, and the bedrooms facing north.

In Defoe and Speed Houses, the living room windows not only catch the sunlight but also give a view over the gardens below (Thomas More Garden for Defoe House and Speed Garden for Speed House.) It is different for Thomas More House and Andrewes House, whose views  over the gardens (in the case of Thomas More House) and lake (in the case of Andrewes House) are from the north facing windows. Chamberlin Powell and Bon anticipated that some occupiers might prefer the garden or lake view over sunshine.

“Blocks planned on an east/west axis contain through flats so that each of the tenants have a southern outlook for their living rooms. While some of the bedrooms face north, where such blocks occur on the southern perimeter of the scheme, flats have been planned so that tenants, if they prefer, can have living rooms facing northwards over the gardens.”

Most of the day’s sunshine falls on the south side, which is the living area, but some early morning sunshine falls on the north especially in the Summer. In fact, all year round my south-facing living room seems to be flooded with sunlight. I quite often have to pull down the blinds, even in the winter, to be able to sit comfortably at my desk near the window. Certainly in the summer, but even in the winter if I’m being particularly lazy, I can be woken up by the sunshine coming into my bedroom windows on the north side, although a bit of that is probably reflected off Shakespeare Tower.

Upper storeys of east-west terraces contain 2-room studio flats with vaulted roofs. A section in the centre of the vault is cut out to provide clerestory lighting in the centre of the flat.

Since each flat on each floor runs front to back, stairs and lifts have to be fitted into a space between each set of flats. So, in an east-west terrace each segment of the terrace has its own lift and staircase which serve two facing flats per floor. This design means that lift maintenance costs are greater per flat in east-west terraces than in north-south terraces because flats in north-south terraces flats face one way or the other (east or west), rather than going right through the block, and they have central corridors for access, so they only need lifts at each end of the block.

In tower blocks and in some terrace blocks with a central corridor, if the lift breaks down there is always another lift to use. Chamberlin Powell and Bon provided a semi-solution for flats in east-west terraces, so that rather than toiling up many flights of stairs, you could at least skip down a few flights instead.

“Where flats have been planned with access in pairs, that is where lift and stair serve only two flats per floor, connections to the next lift and stair are provided via the roof, to enable tenants to make use of their ‘neighbours’ lift and walk down to their flats, instead of having to climb up in the case of breakdown or maintenance service.”