Building Study: Signal Townhouses, Greenwich, by AHMM

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The stereotype of back-to-back housing as cramped and poorly lit is overturned by a thoughtfully designed scheme

There can be few more historically reviled building types than back-to-back housing. Even today, over a century after the 1909 Housing Act that effectively banned their construction, back-to-back housing is still synonymous with many of the social and public health ills that afflicted large swathes of 19th- and early 20th-century urban Britain. 

Poor ventilation, limited daylight, cramped space, low-quality, non-existent amenity space and substandard accommodation were just some of this housing type’s drawbacks. These all helped ingrain stubborn social prejudices that negatively associated such homes with the slums and rookeries of the poor, factory-working underclass. Their location barely helped in this regard: while the East End of London had its fair share of back-to-backs, they tended to be concentrated in the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North of England. 

However, back-to-backs did offer two singular advantages. They delivered relatively high densities and they were cheaper to build than traditional terraces. This is exactly why back-to-back housing has of late been making something of a quiet, tentative comeback. 

Over the last decade Urban Splash has applied a modernised form of the typology to its 1,700‑unit New Islington development in Manchester. And in Newham, east London, Peter Barber Architects’ superb McGrath Road scheme from 2016 brilliantly recalibrates negative perceptions of back-to-backs by enigmatically embellishing them with sculptural arches and crafted brickwork. 

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