Squeeze me baby

Working, as I do, with Edwardian and Victorian terraces, I see a lot of subtle variations in the typology of these houses, but the overriding concern for their original designers is this: how to get as much house as possible into a plot that is between 10 and 15 feet wide – that’s about 3.0 to 4.5m. This beautiful but tiny house is one of a set of four, facing onto Kings Heath park. They have a front room, back room and stairs in the middle. The stairs are super steep, so they finish with a landing at the first floor about 18″ (about 450mm) short of the party wall (brown plan). In front and to the left is another super steep winder stair turning all the way up and back into the attic (blue plan). Because the stair run is greater than the width of the house, the designer has found some extra space: The attic stairs go over onto the neighbour’s side of the house. The designer has split the space between the double chimneys between the houses, with the garden half going to this house and the front half going to the neighbour. This is the most dense and critical part of the house plan and the walls, steps, doors and turns are all squeezed super tight. Not that they feel intruded upon, like a door too narrow for the body, but the elements are compact and without any wasted inches. The edges of the first floor landing are bounded by the Bedroom 1 door, the top riser, the Bedroom 2 door at an angle, the first tread to the attic and 18″ width of the wall carrying the neighbour’s stairs. In Bedroom 1, the wall runs level with the chimney breast – because behind it are the neighbour’s attic stairs. If you check back to the Ground Floor plan, you will see that we are above the alley, so this wall can run all the way down to the ground.

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A terraced house is a house that is directly joined to another house on each side. Or rather you could say that it shares two of its walls with its neighbours. These walls are the party walls and they form the sides of the house – as if each house owns half the wall on each side. Terraced houses are built in groups – long or short rows of house fronts, with entrance doors and windows, with party walls in between, under a long strip of roof. The terrace is a typology, a pattern. Each dwelling is a part of that pattern and the terraces make streets, which make blocks which make a city of streets.

Just as the house, and the terrace, has a front, facing the street, with or without a garden, each house has a back, with windows and a door and a garden. Sometimes (over in B12) the garden is just a tiny yard, but often you have a long narrow garden. Because the terrace front is a continuous wall, to get into the garden, there is usually a passage door every two houses Behind this door is a narrow alley cutting through the terrace block. The passage is a right of way for both parties and leads to a pair of private gates facing each other at a steep angle which lead into the private gardens. If the passage door is every fourth house, those without gates of their own have a right of way through their neighbour’s garden. The passage is nearly always 3′ wide and because of this width at the ground floor, the parties each get an extra 18″ in the floor above the passage as a result. Sometimes the chimneys are on the passage side, floating above the passage and stepping apart as they go down through the house and into the sitting room below.

These passage doors are, to me at least, pretty interesting. Because they are owned by both sides, they deserve a special status as a communal door, but they only lead into the garden, so they are not as important – as a feature for architectural expression – as the entrance doors to the dwellings. So sometimes they are fancy like a front door, expressing security and status. At other times they are a garden gate, like the door to a shed. As they are shared between the two dwellings, the materials of which the dwellings are made meet at the top of the door. The passage door is a shared door and it’s centre line is a boundary. Half the arch is red, half the arch is white.

The Joy of Gables

You have walls, you have a roof. In this town you get a lot of roof, with dark blue Welsh slates that shine black in the rain. At the top of the roof is the ridge, where you might see terracotta ridge tiles with patterned profiles – I like the ones with the little holes. Where it reaches down to the wall you have the eaves. Here you find the gutter, sometimes fixed to a board (fancy) or carried on little iron brackets stuck into the brick joints (not so fancy). The top courses of bricks usually reach out by a few inches at the eaves, if it’s at the front of the house they might be fancy specials with beautiful patterns. Nice details. But if you go to the end of the terrace, or the side of the house, it’s all different. The wall goes up and up into the sky all the way to the ridge – it’s not a squat little wall any more, it’s a super wall, pointing up into heaven. That’s the gable – the triangle of wall that shoots up the side of the building and supports the roof beams.

Sometimes you see gables that are very modest – mouldings or pediments only carry a little way around the corner from the street elevation (you see can see that in Malvern, where they have the brown stone) or one of my favourites, the faded painted trade sign. Paint, hardware, ironmongery. Sometimes they just stand there silently. But these are not the ones I’m here to talk about.

Some buildings have a gable front by nature. These are buildings that have narrow frontages and deep plans. The roof has to span across the narrowest width to reduce the height of the roof, the amount of roofing material and the length and outwards thrust of the rafters. These are the timbers that run from the ridge board down to the eaves and there are lots of them. Churches, Greek temples, Netherlands merchant’s houses all show serious gable. These gables are  a celebration of the building, a place to put your best decoration to the street, they show status, power, money and act out the importance of the building to the community, whether the facades are open or closed.

But it is the sky profile that makes it work. The gable is up there, above the neighbours, seen from further away and cutting up into the sky. In the city of streets houses that don’t need gables take the pattern and add it to the roof to break the sky profile of the terrace. A second ridge board strikes out away from the rafters to create a new little roof – or big roof – and a street front gable springs up to reach it. It marks out the house as an individual in the row, makes it taller on the street front and adds to the status of the house. A row of little triangles makes those houses a bit more special, and when the light is right you get a saw tooth shadow cast onto the street below. I want you to look out for this.

For the big fancy houses, gables are a major feature, with black timbers over white render making V’s or grids, and big boards. If you look carefully these gables start from the ground as the brick line takes a step forward to create a deep or shallow projecting bay. This gives you a return coming back from the sides of the gable so that it casts a shadow back onto the house and so that the valley between the main roof and gable roof is away from the frontage. Surrounded by streets of horizontal volumes, these gables make a feature of tall and vertical. In Moseley village, the gables are very tall and they make the public street space special. Go down the wake green road and you will see some added on gables that are asymmetrical and run nearly down to the ground. The tall side shelters the principal windows, the low side creates the entrance porch. That’s the magic of gables.