Dezeen Magazine

Deck-access housing at Park Hill

"'Housing for dirty people' is back and I welcome it"

Deck-access housing has unfairly become a symbol for urban squalor in the UK, but a new wave of architects is demonstrating its merits, writes Rory Olcayto.

As Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius convincingly argue in Tower Block, their 1994 book on post-war housing, there "has probably never been another feature in UK public housing which has been so widely criticised" as deck access to blocks of flats. Often called "streets in the sky", decks were a common means of separating pedestrians and cars in 1960s social housing projects but soon came to be seen as spirit-sapping hotbeds for anti-social behaviour. Some were even demolished within years of completion.

This negativity is so ingrained that anyone familiar with British crime dramas, from Luther to Line of Duty, will know that deck-access housing has become a shorthand for urban dystopia. Channel 4 even filmed a brutalist version of its logo floating in a run-down walkway on the Aylesbury Estate, with seemingly no regard for the residents still living in the modernist neighbourhood.

Deck-access housing has become a shorthand for urban dystopia

The British architecture profession, despite pioneering the deck-access block more than any other bar the Dutch, could be just as cruelly dismissive. Former RIBA president Lancelot Keay, a social housing pioneer in 1930s Liverpool, called it housing "for dirty people". To this day, insurers and mortgage lenders regard deck-access homes with caution and planners advise against them.

Yet some of the finest modernist housing in the UK, from Park Hill to Dawson Heights, is deck access, as are many more workaday schemes housing hundreds of thousands of people who use elevated walkways to get to and from their front doors every day without incident – and even quite enjoy doing so. This is not a story, however, that lends itself to nuance.

Opportunities to design deck-access public housing were killed off in the 1980s after a number of high-profile structural failures in the prefab design of such estates, as well as Alice Coleman's skewed 1985 report Utopia on Trial – discussed at length in a recent piece from Anna Minton – which linked them to social unrest.

So why, after a 30-year hiatus, is the typology – the once-ubiquitous solution for mid-rise mass housing in England – enjoying a comeback, with the likes of Haworth Tompkins, Apparata and RCKa leading the drive?

That is the question we have sought to answer in The Deck Access Housing Design Guide. Co-authored by Andrew Beharrell and with a foreword by Owen Hatherley (a proud deck-access dweller himself), the book includes a history of this evolving housing type, recent British and European case studies, and practical guidance produced by Pollard Thomas Edwards' knowledge hub.

The short answer is that the revival was kickstarted, somewhat surprisingly, by former mayor Boris Johnson's 2009 draft of the London Housing Design Guide. It stressed a preference for dual-aspect homes and cited deck access as a viable means of achieving this, linking the suggestion to a call for an appropriate vernacular.

Most of the architects we feature were too young to have practised in the "peak deck" era

Most of the architects we feature – Stirling Prize-winners Haworth Tompkins, Maccreanor Lavington and AHMM, finalists Mae, Hawkins\Brown and Henley Halebrown, plus a host of other civic-minded studios from Pollard Thomas Edwards and Levitt Bernstein to Collective Architecture and RCKa – were too young to have practised in the "peak deck" era of the '60s and '70s, entering a profession shaped not by the public good but by market economics.

Nostalgic for the public-spirited modernism practised by their Boomer-age mentors, this new "school" of architects took up the mayor's challenge, defining an anti-iconic housing style – the New London Vernacular (NLV). Easily adapted to deck access, NLV was pitched as a de-risked developer strategy forged in the wake of the 2008 financial crash: easier to cost, design, build and sell, and, as a result, better at providing accurate land values than the icon-led regeneration projects of the Tony Blair years.

There is a dose of policy too, in NLV's formulation. For example, the London Housing Design Guide didn't actually say "use brick" but it did, as Hatherley notes in his essay Building the Austerity City, "place great stress on that floating signifier, 'context' – which in London means bricks".

The guide also called for "tenure-blind" housing with welcoming entrances and spacious balconies, features identified by David Birkbeck and Julian Hart in a 2012 report for Urban Design London (UDL), which strove to define the emerging style. And so, while post-war deck-access housing was implemented to enable the separation of pedestrians and cars, today it's intended to provide dual-aspect homes in high-density housing and grant each home a front door.

Unlike the more dynamic continental exemplars, the British projects appear conservative at first glance. The European case studies with long decks and extensive use of timber, for example, wouldn't be allowed in the UK. But a closer look reveals considerable range: Henley Halebrown's playful bridges, arches and loggias; Matthew Lloyd Architects' new homes harmoniously blended with the historic Bourne Estate; Haworth Tompkins's brick facades for the Silchester Estate that build on the tradition of early philanthropic dwellings.

Not every British exemplar is NLV: Murray Grove, the oldest of them, is pre-fabricated high-tech, while the exposed concrete of Apparata's A House for Artists recalls James Stirling's muscular 1970s deck-access scheme in Runcorn. Our retrofits encompass a number of eras and building types: Park Hill's private sector makeover, a transformed barracks in Greenwich and a horse stables with cobbled decks reworked by Collective Architecture to provide affordable homes to rent in Glasgow.

Deck access means dual-aspect homes with cross-ventilation

Elsewhere, RCKa's timber lattice-wrapped stair tower and winter gardens in Seaford provide a strong foil to its brick-clad street elevation, while DO Architecture's stark reinvention of the Glasgow tenement ploughs its own furrow.

"Housing for dirty people" is back and I welcome it, especially when compared with alternatives like residential towers: deck access means dual-aspect homes with cross-ventilation, daylight from both sides and variety of outlook. Every home has a "fresh air" front door lending an enhanced sense of identity as well as the health benefits of increased contact with the outside world. And a well-planned scheme can yield around 300 homes per hectare too. As Hatherley writes in his foreword: "A good deck is a delight – a new way of walking through the city, a convivial and neighbourly space, a sort of second balcony shared with your neighbours."

So far, most new deck-access housing has been developed by urban affordable housing providers on relatively small plots. Large-scale housing developments are generally delivered by consortia of commercial house builders and large national housing associations at the more conservative end of the design spectrum, and many are sceptical about deck access. This will surely change in response to planning requirements for dual-aspect flats and the growth of factory-built housing. Until then, the exemplars in our deck access guide – the best in Britain and beyond today – show how it can be done.

Rory Olcayto is a writer and critic at Pollard Thomas Edwards and has written and edited multiple books on architecture. The Deck Access Housing Design Guide is published by Routledge, with a launch party taking place in London on 29 March.

The photo, showing the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, is by Jack Hobhouse.