Andrew Beharrell: London’s great deck access housing comeback

Andrew Beharrell: London’s great deck access housing comeback

Seeking a metaphor for the pantomime season, I recently suggested that deck access design is London’s Cinderella housing typology – underappreciated, abused and stigmatised when in reality it is beautiful, practical and has a promising future.

And Lo! A deck access council housing estate is about to star in the West End musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which made a sold-out London debut at the National Theatre last year. The walkways and flats of Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill have been recreated on stage and are central to the story of the estate’s bright beginning, its descent into decay and lawlessness, and then its gentrification.

In case you are confused, I’m talking about flats or maisonettes entered from open-air walkways, decks, galleries or balconies. Some of my posher colleagues even refer to “loggias” and “ambulatories”. The controversial phrase “streets in the sky” may have been popularised in Sheffield, where milk floats used to cruise the elevated walkways, but the post-war relaunch of “street decks” in the UK came with the 1953 competition entry for the City of London’s Golden Lane estate by architect power couple, Alison and Peter Smithson.

We could go back as far as Southwark’s galleried coaching inns, but London’s earliest surviving deck access housing is Henry Roberts’s Streatham Street in Bloomsbury, built in 1849. Roberts responded to London’s public health crisis and Dickensian poverty by designing apartments for the industrious poor which were accessed from open balconies and stairways. The thinking was that sanitary drainage, clean water and exposure to fresh air would help to ward off typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis.

While London’s upper and middle classes were being persuaded to swap houses for “mansion flats” arranged around gracious internal stairways, deck access became the default typology for new social housing through the Edwardian and inter-war periods. Exemplars include the Bourne estate near Gray’s Inn, built between 1901 and 1903, and the Ossulston estate in Somers Town, completed in 1923.

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Both were developed by the London County Council, the first in response to the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890) and the second in the post-1918 “homes for heroes” era. At a dizzying six storeys, the Ossulston brought high-rise to council housing and imported European modernism to London, as did a very different deck-access development for the artistic and cosmopolitan set: the Isokon building in Hampstead (1934), designed by Wells Coates and inhabited by Bauhaus emigres Walther Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

Today, ceck access housing is back and fast becoming the default typology for high-density low and mid-rise apartments in London. My colleague Rory Olcayto and I had no difficulty assembling 17 award-winning completed UK projects for a recent book on the typology, including ten in London. In 2023 the Apparata practice’s A House for Artists in Barking won an RIBA National Award and was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, the UK’s most prestigious architectural award.

Although most of the new projects are of “mixed tenure” – combining private market and affordable homes – the deck access revival is being led by local authorities and housing associations. Many private developers and some mortgage lenders still associate the typology with council housing and devalue it accordingly. But deck access doubters are going to have to listen up, because planning and technical regulations are making other housing typologies increasingly tricky.

Successive London Plans from Mayors of London have promoted and now mandated “dual aspect” homes – dwellings with openable windows on two or more walls – and tightened the definition to require outlook on opposing sides. The Greater London Authority’s latest housing design standards guidance, published in June 2023, says: “Covered outside decks are a healthier, safer and more convivial solution, and allow dwellings to be dual aspect.”

Previously, national government’s building regulations part O (overheating) has introduced UK-wide pressure to provide cross-ventilation. In addition, universal lift access and impending two-staircase rules threaten with extinction the “mansion block” arrangement of clustering a small number of flats around a compact stair core.

On this context, the many practical advantages of deck access are increasingly apparent. It offers a better response to climate change than other housing typologies because it tends to provide a simple easy-to-insulate envelope, cross-ventilation, daylight and sunlight from two directions and shading to counter overheating.

Deck access can also achieve high densities comparable to other mid-rise typologies and costs about the same to build, provided the deck design is kept relatively simple. There are operational savings to be had from minimising internal common parts and from efficient passive environmental performance.

Advocates of the form also point to the beneficial health effects of open-air circulation and the social potential of wide decks with generous private thresholds for sitting out and pot-gardening. These advantages need to be balanced with providing adequate privacy and security and meeting stringent technical regulations: unsecured decks with rows of front doors but minimal overlooking, plus acoustic, thermal and damp problems, didn’t work in the 1970s and will not work now.

In the mid-90s I worked with the tenants of the Lefevre Walk estate in Bow, a quarter-mile long chain of Brutalist deck access blocks alongside the A12. They liked their flats and their community, but hated the anti-social behaviour which had been allowed to infiltrate the decks. Their preferred solution was demolition.

The media is still busy promoting the association of deck access with rundown council estates. Every TV crime drama seems to feature armed police storming a drug-dealer’s deck access den, perhaps because you cannot get distant camera shots of internal corridors and lift lobbies.

The development industry is confused. Recently, I experienced a startling contrast in attitudes from two major estate agencies to two of our deck access projects in London. One property advisor told us that Stone Studios next to Hackney Wick station (main photo) was the best-selling scheme in the capital, but another told us that nobody wants to buy a deck access flat. It seems public enthusiasm for deck access homes is running ahead of the tired prejudices of some developers and their advisors.

It’s a generational thing. The combination of younger home-seekers, regulatory push and more enlightened clients mean that deck access housing is set to enjoy a new lease of life.

Andrew Beharrell is a Senior Advisor to architects Pollard Thomas Edwards and co-author with Rory Olcayto of The Deck Access Housing Design Guide. Stone Studios photo by Galit Seligmann, Bourne estate photo from London Picture Archive. This article is an adapted for Londoncentrics from an original for The Architects’ Journal. Follow Pollard Thomas Edwards on X/Twitter. Support and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE.

Categories: Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Alexandra Rook says:

    I’ve always favoured deck access since I lived in early GLC walk-up blocks in Deptford. We liked to see our neighbours pass the kitchen windows & to sit out on summer evenings, all very convivial.

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