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We need clearer guidance on privacy in housing schemes

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If we are to make best use of infill sites in denser areas, moderate increases in overlooking might be required, says George Morgan

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When we talk about how to build to address the housing crisis, density, heights and space standards receive a lot of attention. But we hear much less about another fundamental issue which defines the capacity of a site, as well as the quality of accommodation, which is how you deal with privacy.

A city or town fundamentally consists of lots of buildings close together, but concerns about light, air and the risk of a scandalising glimpse of flesh through a neighbour’s window have led to our planning system pushing buildings further apart.

The new Essex Design Guide celebrates the enclosed feeling of narrow streets, with houses facing each other across a pedestrian-scaled routes. Then it freaks out about overlooking at the rear and calls for separation distances between facing windows of up to 35m. This is wildly excessive but at least it’s clear.

The London Plan seeks to move away from simplistic privacy distances, but offers no real clarity in their place. Assessing privacy impacts on a case-by-case basis doesn’t give councils enough certainty early on: you need to make assumptions of where you can build up to right at the start of assessing the capacity of a site.

Advocates of low rise, high density development point to Hausmann’s Paris or West End mansion blocks as exemplars, but these depend on very tight courtyards at the rear. Would these typologies be acceptable now? In a fairly recent development on Hackney Road, Tower Hamlets insisted that occupants of courtyard-facing bedrooms be imprisoned behind angled metal louvres, lest their neighbours 8m away see in, suggesting a continuing reluctance to acknowledge the existence of curtains and blinds.

Paradoxically, in the same development, bedroom windows directly onto the access balcony were deemed acceptable with no separation at all. This kind of arrangement is happening more and more in two-bedroomed flats as a result of the requirement in planning policies for dual-aspect.

It’s great to have kitchen windows overlooking access routes. In the kitchen you’ve at least got your dressing gown on, and it’s nice to see your neighbour walk past, as she may have signed for your parcel. But bedrooms are different. To put it delicately, their programme requires a level of acoustic as well as visual privacy. (On a similar vein, does a 1m strip of low-maintenance planting really give a bedroom enough privacy from the pavement?)

By 1950 we’d already decided that bedroom windows directly onto access routes was bad typology. Maisonettes prevent this, but they are a few square metres bigger and currently, for most housing, the minimum and maximum standards have become the same thing. In London at least, planning policy has curtailed much single-aspect housing. It also needs to curtail bad kinds of dual-aspect homes.

Clearer policy is needed to balance the amenity of existing residents with the scale of the housing shortage

Clearer policy is also needed to balance the amenity of existing residents with the scale of the housing shortage. We’re moving toward a presumption in favour of small infill development, so long as loss of light and privacy is acceptable. But what is acceptable?

Croydon Council deems any increase in direct overlooking of gardens to be unacceptable, even when they’re already overlooked by numerous neighbours. For the borough’s development company Brick by Brick we’ve developed a typology for infill garage sites (pictured) where homes look into courtyards and roof terraces rather than over neighbouring gardens. Neighbours were appreciative of this, but it comes with the cost of more external wall – a challenge to viability when using high-quality materials – and results in fewer homes on the site than if a couple more bedroom windows overlooking neighbours’ gardens were acceptable. If we are to make best use of infill sites in denser areas, moderate increases in overlooking might be required.

Daylight/sunlight consultancy GIA has been working on how standards for light could be applied in a way that better reflects dense urban conditions. Similarly, for privacy, we need more detailed, nuanced policy, founded on research, that the GLA and local planning authorities can use to help us densify our cities and towns with good kinds of housing, and better balance the needs of the already-housed with the acuteness of the housing crisis.

George Morgan is an associate at Coffey Architects

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Readers' comments (1)

  • An excellent article George and one that is currently very relevant. I have just drafted a new residential design guide and am currently drafting a new backland development guide for the planning service that I work for, Leicester City Council. I appreciate that your time is precious, but I will send you both drafts for comment if that’s OK.
    Your thoughts will be very much appreciated. Both guidance documents call for reducing the minimum distance between the rear of opposing dwellings to be reduced from 21m metres down to 15 metres and the minimum distance between the rear of a dwelling and a side gable end wall to be reduced from 15 metres down to 12 metres.

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