City of streets

Birmingham is a big city in the middle of England, most of which was built using local red bricks during the manufacturing revolution about 100 years ago. We have straight streets with lots of red terraced houses. A room at the front, a room at the back and stairs in the middle. Same upstairs. There’s a narrow wing at the back for the kitchen. If you have a third bedroom above the kitchen, then you get a tiny bathroom behind the kitchen. Your street layout determines how much land you get for your garden. If your street is narrow and there is another parallel street right behind it, there’s a six inch stone step between you and the pavement and your back garden fence stands just behind your house with a gate to an alley. You can get a lot of houses per acre this way. If your street layout is in a square of four streets, the people on the corners get a tiny garden but the ones in the middle get a long narrow strip. Sometimes in the centre of the block there is a secret shared garden.

There are a lot of subtle variations in the pattern. Sometimes the corner houses are bigger, sometimes they have a walled garden behind the street. Sometimes you see a plot where the house at the front is cut through to give access to the whole plot and the garden becomes a paved yard with a house or workshops at the back. Some streets have shallow front gardens, some none. Depending on how classy your area was 100 years ago, and the density, determines the width of your plot and therefore your house. My house is big – it’s 3.6m wide that’s twelve feet in old money.  A narrow house on a narrow street might be as little as ten feet. Three foot for the front door and five feet for the bay window. Upstairs six foot six for the bed, 18 inches for the chimney breast gives you 24 inches to walk between. Not much space by modern standards, but look at what’s included. You get two chimneys with up to four fireplaces for heating, you get high ceilings – nine or ten feet and lots of milky white daylight from the huge windows. The joinery, if it’s still there, is amazing. Panelled timber doors, ceiling mouldings and ornate roses. If you have any original skirting or dado, the profiles are beautiful. Outside the bricks are the smoothest and tallest on the front, with tiny joints and bands of what we call “specials” – fancy bricks with decorative shapes. Dentils, scallops, roses, acanthus, egg and dart, oak leaves. Sometimes these were specials produced just for a few houses. The Victorians and Edwardians might have packed them in but they gave these little houses something extra – dignity.

Author: kingsheatharchitect

I am a RIBA Chartered Architect formerly living and working in Kings Heath, Birmingham, UK.

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