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Housing goes back to back-to-back

[FIRST LOOK] Ollier Smurthwaite says 71-home scheme in central Manchester solves problems that blighted former terrace model

Ollier Smurthwaite Architects claims to have brought back the ‘unfairly tarnished’ back-to-back terrace with this 71-home scheme near Manchester city centre.

Built on an empty plot on Ellesmere Street close to the Castlefield Conservation Area, the 6,100m² design features a perimeter block, with three and four-storey townhouses surrounding two courtyards.

Developed for DE Trafford Estates, the family home-led scheme is expected to start on site in February 2013. It replaces proposals for a 198-flat scheme by Roger Stephenson Architects.

Practice co-founder Matt Ollier said: ‘The back-to-back house has been overlooked as an alternative to urban housing for too long. [The model] was the most economical way to accommodate the influx of people drawn from the countryside to power Britain’s industry. However, the houses were often built quickly and at a low standard with no gas, electricity or drainage.


‘This house type has remained unfairly tarnished. But advances in Building Regulations remove problems previously associated with them. Extending accommodation over four floors reduces the building footprint and increases density and insulating party walls gives a U-value of zero on three sides.’

Comment: Neil Deely

The scheme is a courageous attempt to bring family housing back to central Manchester, on a plot just south of Glenn Howells’ Timber Wharf. It is a response to the over-supply of apartments to the market in the decade before the recession commenced.

So, the ‘back-to-back’ makes its return to the inner city after a long absence. Notable examples include schemes by Peter Barber’s studio and parts of Borneo-Sporenburg in Amsterdam. Traditionally used for its economy of construction and high-density, for all its perceived failings - lack of cross ventilation and sunlight - back-to-back building does provide a strong communal street frontage.


At Ellesmere Road, the back-to-back plan has been singularly and unstintingly used to surround two communal car courts. It would be interesting to know whether more dual aspect homes could have been delivered through a greater variety of unit types. This is particularly true given that most private amenity space is on fourth and fifth floor rooftops, making dual aspect maisonettes more easily incorporated.

We have seen too many joyless, soulless, catalogue houses with mean space standards and even poorer architecture. Despite the design challenges the scheme presents, it is refreshing to see a client break with convention and engage an able, young practice to take a fresh approach.

Neil Deely, director of Metropolitan Workshop, member of CABE’s National Design Review Panel and the London Legacy Development Corporation Quality Review Panel

Readers' comments (1)

  • Having turned this site plan around several times, I can only assume that some houses will be north facing? Is this acceptable? It isn't to CABE elsewhere or to the GLA in London. Maybe the designers can explain.

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