Edwardian morals, Thatcher and bad design – why Britain's homes are so hot | Phineas Harper (2023)

As Britons swelter in the highest temperatures on record, the UK’s substandard and overheating housing is again under the spotlight. Most British homes are unable to keep residents cool in heatwaves and are cripplingly expensive to heat in the winter. By the numbers, we have some of the worst-performing housing stock in Europe. Our homes are poorly insulated and draughty, have virtually no shading and are badly oriented. How did one of the world’s wealthiest economies end up with houses that are so unprepared for extreme weather?

For decades, the British construction industry got away with building scantily insulated, poorly oriented houses. The country was quick to industrialise, so burning cheap coal could take the edge off the coldest days, while summers were cooler than they are now. Compared with our northern and southern European neighbours, Britain’s homebuilders could effectively disregard environmental performance to prioritise other, less prosaic concerns.

British domestic architecture has also been shaped by idiosyncratic rules that contribute to its poor environmental credentials. For instance, in many parts of the UK, homes that face each other at the rear are required to be built 21 metres apart. This large distance means that instead of clustering buildings together around cool courtyards or shady streets, as is common in hotter climates, many homes in new neighbourhoods are directly exposed to the sun.

The 21-metre rule is, according to the Stirling prize-winning architect Annalie Riches, a bizarre hangover from 1902, originally intended to protect the modesty of Edwardian women. The urban designers Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker walked apart in a field until they could no longer see each other’s nipples through their shirts. The two men measured the distance between them to be 70ft (21 metres), and this became the distance that is still used today, 120 years later, to dictate how far apart many British homes should be built.

As a result, entire British neighbourhoods have been designed with more attention paid to this antiquated rule than to the risk of overheating. Many streets of houses are also designed so homes face each other, with no orientation taking account of the movement of the sun or from which direction the wind normally blows, as is common in other countries.

This style of urbanism derives from pre-modern British social conventions that prioritised the formality of street-facing front doors over considerations of comfort or environmental performance. Marianna Janowicz, an architect and founder of the feminist architecture collective Edit, says, “Many British terrace houses were designed to follow a strict social order – formal rooms were at the front while women and servants were kept from sight at the back. Propriety and social mores took precedence over comfort and efficiency.”

British homes are also on average the smallest in Europe, with tiny rooms, low ceilings and miserly amounts of floor space. The 1960s Parker Morris standard set a modest but decent minimum size for all public housing, but it was abolished in 1980 by Margaret Thatcher’s government. This led to a collapse in dwelling sizes: one 2005 study revealed that typical newly built British dwellings were barely half the size of new Greek or Danish homes.

More recently, further deregulation has seen an estimated 65,000 micro homes made by partitioning old offices and commercial buildings into flats without planning permission, leading to dwellings in some cases as small as 15 or 10 sq metres. As small spaces heat up more quickly than large ones, especially when they are overcrowded, cramped flats soon become stifling in the heat.

Another crucial victim of our falling housing standards was cross-ventilation. This is when flats are designed with windows sited on opposite sides of the property that can be opened to allow a breeze to blow through. This kind of ventilation was once a common feature of new UK domestic architecture, but over the course of four decades of deregulation it has become rare, as profiteering and spiralling land prices mean developers have cut costs by building difficult to cool, single-aspect homes. Research by the National House Building Council foundation in 2012 found there is increasing evidence that new dwellings are “at risk of overheating, especially small dwellings and flats and predominantly single-sided properties where cross ventilation is not possible”.

Deregulation, cheap fossil fuels, Edwardian moralising and the luxury of a previously mild climate have converged to leave Britain with an extremely poor general standard of housing. But that mild climate is now gone for good. The UK now urgently needs to invest in massive improvements to its housing stock in order to protect citizens, reduce energy consumption and make extreme weather bearable in the future. New construction is intensely polluting, so the way forward lies in upgrading existing buildings rather than demolishing them to start from scratch.

Inventive architects such as the Pritzker prize-winning Lacaton & Vassal in France and XVW Architects in the Netherlands have shown it is possible to massively improve the environmental performance of housing without demolition. The challenge of upgrading British housing to withstand extreme weather will take investment and political will, but it is not rocket science. We simply need to borrow some ideas from across the Channel – shading, ventilation, insulation, heat-absorbing trees and the reintroduction of decent space standards for all.

  • Phineas Harper is chief executive of Open City, a charity dedicated to making architecture and cities more open, accessible and equitable


Why are British houses so hot? ›

For decades, the British construction industry got away with building scantily insulated, poorly oriented houses. The country was quick to industrialise, so burning cheap coal could take the edge off the coldest days, while summers were cooler than they are now.

Why are British houses so badly built? ›

There are a few reasons. Homes are built differently in the UK and are almost exclusively brick built. Building with bricks is far more skilled than building with wood (as is conventional in many countries.)

Why are UK homes so cold? ›

Over a third of the homes in the UK were built before 1945 and three quarters before 1980. This puts the UK at the top the rankings for the oldest building stock in Europe. Often these older homes are single dwellings with poor insulation and heating systems that consume four times as much energy.

How many homes are being built in the UK? ›

3.3 Annual figures

In the year to 30 June 2022, new build dwelling starts in England were estimated to be 180,820, a 5% increase when compared to the year to 30 June 2021. New build dwelling completions in England were estimated to be 173,530, a 5% decrease when compared to the year to 30 June 2021.

Why do Brits not have air-conditioning? ›

There are several reasons why few Brits have air-conditioning—the most obvious being the country's relatively mild weather. Average summer temperatures range between 55°F (13°C) and 75°F (24°C), and winters can last up to five months.

Are UK houses built to trap heat? ›

For generations, homes in Britain were designed to retain heat, to make cold winters bearable. Keeping them cool in the typically mild summers was an afterthought, if it was a thought at all. But in recent years, each new heat wave brings a fresh reminder that buying a fan or two simply won't always cut it.

What is the problem with houses in Britain? ›

The Housing Crisis

This acute shortage of housing, particularly social and genuinely affordable housing, has led to spiralling rents and house prices across the country. Many young people and families on low to middle incomes struggle to afford to rent or buy a decent home.

Why are Brits so obsessed with buying their own homes? ›

It's a status thing: owning your own home has long been an indicator of wealth and status, with landed gentry and estate owners forming a historic hierarchy above tenants – very 'lord of the manor'.

Why are Brits obsessed with property? ›

Property is a natural 'go to' as it's relatively easy to understand. The British are obsessed with bricks and mortar and more of us own our own home than most countries. Property is an asset we can see and touch, and an obvious asset to display wealth.

Why are British houses so poorly insulated? ›

Poor insulation is an issue with much of the older housing stock in Britain as they do not have sufficient insulation installed to eliminate draughts and stop damp emerging. Houses that were built before 1925 were constructed withsolid walls but unfortunately, these needed insulating.

Which country has the most insulated houses? ›

Which country has the best insulation? Norway with 0.9 °C and Germany with 1 °C are the countries with the lowest home temperature losses. UK homes are losing heat three times faster than houses in Norway and Germany.

Why does heat feel worse in the UK? ›

'Britain feels a lot hotter'

The UK has a higher level of humidity than the European continent and “it is harder for the human body to keep cool as your sweat doesn't evaporate as quickly.”

Why don t UK houses have garages? ›

Many folks can only park on the street. There were no provisions made for the car because many British homes were constructed before it was popular to own a car.

Why does the UK have so many brick houses? ›

The UK has a long history of using bricks and mortar in housing. Almost 80 per cent of new homes built in the UK are made from brick, with the material providing a strong sense of security, beauty, and durability for the inhabitants.

What percentage of England is actually built on? ›

England has a land area of just over 13,046,000 hectares [footnote 1] of which 8.7% is of developed use, with 10.5% being 'built-up'. When including land designated as Green Belt, just over 37.4% of the area of England (4.9 million hectares) is protected against development by one or more natural designation.

What country has the most air conditioning? ›

Japan ranked the highest in air-conditioning penetration rate, with around 91 percent of Japanese households having some form of air-conditioning.
Share of households that have air-conditioning (AC) worldwide in 2016, by country.
CharacteristicPenetration rate
United States90%
Saudi Arabia63%
6 more rows
Mar 17, 2022

Why is there no AC in Germany? ›

Most German homes do not have air conditioning and while there are many factors to consider, primarily: air conditioning is highly inefficient; it's expensive to install and operate; it's not cost effective, and it's only really beneficial for a few weeks out of each summer.

Does the Queen have air conditioning? ›

It might be shocking for you to hear that Buckingham Palace doesn't have an air conditioning system like the one in your home. The 300+ years-old palace underwent renovations in 2019- the first to happen to many of the palace's systems since the 1950s- but still, it remains completely void of air conditioning.

Why UK houses No basement? ›

In the United Kingdom, almost all new homes built since the 1960s have no cellar or basement due to the extra cost of digging down further into the sub-soil and a requirement for much deeper foundations and waterproof tanking.

Why does it feel hotter in UK than abroad? ›

A big difference between the UK and many other climates is that the UK has humid heat rather than dry heat. Being surrounded by sea, the UK gets a lot of humidity and precipitation. With high levels of humidity, the body finds it harder to cool because sweat won't evaporate.

Do people in the UK use AC? ›

We tend to have a climate where we need heat rather than cooling, so the homes are designed around central heating. Most hotels, shops and office builds work with air conditioning but not homes. I've used AC in the UK, domestically and at work.

Why are people not selling houses UK? ›

The latest UK property market statistics reveal that if your house is not selling it's likely due to one of the following reasons: Your asking price is too high. Your property doesn't have enough kerb appeal. Your property is too cluttered (making the rooms look smaller).

Will there be a housing crash in 2022 UK? ›

The housing market will cool sharply next year after a bumpy 2022, industry experts are predicting, as the UK contends with recession and higher mortgage rates.

Are houses unaffordable in the UK? ›

In the last few years, house prices have soared and in 2022 hit 8.5 times the average UK annual salary, putting home ownership out of reach for millions of Brits. We're returning to a time when only the very rich could afford to buy their own home.

What is the biggest mistake people make when buying a home? ›

From not saving enough money to not paying enough attention to credit, to simply waiting too long to make an offer, home buying mistakes can seriously impact an otherwise exciting time in your life.

What type of person is more likely to buy a home? ›

Millennials have been the largest share of buyers since the 2014 report. Eighty-one percent of Younger Millennials and 48 percent of Older Millennials were first-time home buyers, more than other age groups.

What percentage of Brits own a house? ›

During that timeframe, the home ownership rate oscillated between approximately 63 to 73 percent of the total population.
Home ownership rate in the United Kingdom (UK) from 2007 to 2018.
CharacteristicShare of population
8 more rows
Jul 5, 2021

What do you call someone who loves everything British? ›

anglophile Add to list Share. If you're a huge fan of England, you can call yourself an Anglophile. Anglophiles love English culture, accents, food, and people.

Are Brits modest? ›

The British are famous for being understated and self-effacing. A new international survey from YouGov shows that - although they are more modest than the Americans - other populations are far less pleased with themselves.

Why are bungalows unpopular in UK? ›

The bungalow, perhaps in the countryside or by the sea, is often depicted as a retirement destination. People buy one, selling their larger family home - a phenomenon known as "downsizing". Often, older people are accused of not doing this early enough, inflating prices for families and first-time buyers.

Are British houses poorly built? ›

A big portion of the UK's housing stock consist of old and often poorly constructed buildings - especially in terms of thermal regulation. Studies show that all houses built before 1990 and 75% of those built before 2010 are inefficient, mostly because of poor insulation.

Why are British houses so damp and mould the times? ›

Mid-century homes are likely to have cavity walls and, if there is material in the cavities or the brick ties are not angled properly, can let damp through. Newer homes are better insulated, but condensation remains the major problem.”

Do most homes in England have air-conditioning? ›

In Britain, government estimates suggest that less than 5 percent of homes in England have AC units installed. Part of this is because, historically, there was simply far less reason to cool the air in Paris, France, than in Paris, Tex.

Which country has most beautiful houses? ›

Ten Cities And Villages With The Most Beautiful Homes In The...
  • Tuscany, Italy. ...
  • Ghent, Belgium. ...
  • Visby, Sweden. ...
  • Mykonos, Greece. ...
  • London, England. ...
  • San Francisco, USA. ...
  • Cartenga, Colombia. ...
  • Colmar, France.

Why do Japanese houses not have insulation? ›

For centuries, Japanese houses have been built with the country's sweltering, steamy summers in mind. Airflow and ventilation have, we are told, been prioritised over any kind of comfort in the colder months to prevent both the building and its occupants perishing in the humid heat.

Where is the coolest room in a house? ›

First-Floor Rooms

Rooms on the lower floor of your home should be the coolest rooms in your home compared with those on the second floor or higher. This is due to the fact that heat naturally rises. Even with air conditioning, the upper rooms in your home are likely to be warmer than the ones below.

Is America more humid than UK? ›

So I have decided to discuss the differences in the climate between the UK/BI and the Northeastern USA. So I do know that the NE USA has on average, colder and snowier winters than the UK, with hotter and more humid summers.

How do people survive the heat UK? ›

Bring everything you will need with you, such as a bottle of water, sun cream and a hat. If you have to go out in the heat, walk in the shade, apply sunscreen, and wear a hat and light clothing. Be prepared, as heatwaves can affect transport services and you might need extra water.

Is England a humid country? ›

The climate in the United Kingdom is defined as a humid temperate oceanic climate, or Cfb on the Köppen climate classification system, a classification it shares with most of north-west Europe.

What do Brits call a garage? ›

Car park – n – Parking lot or parking garage.

What do the British call a garage sale? ›

Some car boot sales in Britain run throughout the year, even in the rain, in parking lots, farm fields, and church yards. With the cost of living climbing, bagging a bargain has never been more important. Across the pond in Britain, "car boot sales" -- the UK version of yard sales -- are booming.

Why are Chinese buying houses in UK? ›

Several factors are driving renewed interest in UK homes among the international student population, including the weakened pound, post-pandemic optimism and, for buyers from Hong Kong, the fast-track residency scheme for holders of a British National (Overseas) passport.

Why do Americans not build with brick? ›

The shift away from structural brick began after World War II. Mid-century consumers wanted suburban homes that looked distinct from their urban counterparts and newer building codes no longer required brick. That, meant less demand for both the material and the masons needed to install it.

Why does the US not have concrete houses? ›

Wood Homes are Faster to Build than Concrete

Many homes have parts built in a factory, and the parts are then transported to the site and installed. Wood makes this possible. Concrete would be heavier to transport and more difficult to install once on the site.

Why are American houses made of wood not bricks? ›

According to Valdus Construction, builders have opted for wood over brick in many parts of the country because “wood is a flexible material capable of withstanding low-intensity earthquakes or light tornadoes.” The price has also driven its popularity.

What percentage of America is built on? ›

America is the third largest country in the world, but urban areas take up only 2% of its land. These maps show how it's divided up between forests, agriculture and shrubland.

Is Britain self-sufficient in anything? ›

According to Eustice the UK is: '86 per cent self-sufficient in beef, fully self-sufficient in liquid milk and produce more lamb than we consume. We are close to 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes.

Why is it so hard to build in the UK? ›

There's an ongoing land shortage in the UK, which is making developers like us spend an inordinate amount of time searching for suitable building plots. There are many reasons this is happening. But in protecting our countryside and heritage, are we stifling development and the construction sector?

How does England heat their houses? ›

Gas has been dominant

Studies show that the majority of people in the UK use gas central heating to stay warm during the winter. 84% of domestic properties in the UK are connected to the gas grid, but four million of them are off-grid and rely on alternative fuels for cooking and heating.

Why are London houses so hot? ›

Many new buildings have windows that barely open, causing the space to have very little ventilation. If you can open a window, the cross breeze might be so minimal it doesn't make much impact. Plus, things like noise and pollution can get into an apartment.

How do British houses cool down? ›

Take action in hot weather

Open windows (when it is safe to do so) when the air feels cooler outside than inside, for example, at night. Try to get air flowing through the home. Check that central heating is turned off. Turn off lights and electrical equipment that is not in use.

Why is housing market so hot right now UK? ›

Increased demand for properties in urban locations since the start of the year has been the main factor behind house price inflation in 2022, according to Halifax, the UK's biggest mortgage lender. House prices in major cities have soared by around 9.2% up to September this year, according to the latest Halifax data.

Why does heat feel worse in England? ›

'Britain feels a lot hotter'

The UK has a higher level of humidity than the European continent and “it is harder for the human body to keep cool as your sweat doesn't evaporate as quickly.”

How do most Americans heat their homes? ›

According to the most recent census, 48 percent of the country relies on gas for home heating. Coming in second were homes that relied on electricity, which was at 38.9 percent. And only 0.2 percent of homes in the United States rely on solar energy.

Do people in England have air-conditioning? ›

This interval may be reduced to 15 years by 2100 due to climate change. What concerns me is that most homes in the UK don't have air conditioning. A 2008 report found that only 0.5% of UK homes had air conditioning.

Why doesn t Europe have air-conditioning? ›

Why are Air Conditioners so rare in Europe? The three major reasons are cultural, territorial and climatic characteristics. Up until the ''Heatwaves'' started, most of Europe's climate was mild with very little humidity. Europe only really experienced ''hot weather'' for about Two Months.

How many UK homes are not insulated? ›

Data shows that from 2008 to 2019 the most common insulation measure was full double glazing – by 2020, 86.7 per cent of houses in the UK were thus equipped. Also by 2020, however, only 49 per cent of dwellings had cavity or solid wall insulation, with loft insulation found in just over 39 per cent of housing.

Why is my bedroom hotter than the rest of the house UK? ›

Your Air Vents are Closed or Obstructed

If you have closed your air vents, or your vents are obstructed by furniture or upholstery, proper airflow is being disrupted. This can most certainly cause some rooms in your home to be hotter than others, while placing extra strain on your HVAC system.

What are three ways to cool houses naturally? ›

8 Ways to Naturally Cool Your Home
  • Keep an Open Mind to Open Windows. ...
  • Become a Fan of Fans. ...
  • Bring the Swamp Indoors. ...
  • Lock Out the Heat. ...
  • Stay Out of the Kitchen. ...
  • Stay in the Shade. ...
  • Use Cooling Curtains. ...
  • Treat Your Roof to Some Cooler Coloration.
Aug 15, 2015

Are houses overpriced right now UK? ›

High inflation has caused interest rates to rise and this is set to continue, which is slowing the housing market down. Asking prices increased 0.9% in January 2023, taking the average price to £362,438, according to property website Rightmove. However, demand from home buyers is down 36% compared to January last year.

Is the UK housing boom over? ›

Prices have risen every year since 2012, when they dropped by 1.1%, according to data from Nationwide, a major mortgage lender. Now, that boom is over.

Will UK house prices go down in 2023? ›

For the UK, house prices are expected to fall 3.5% in 2023, after rising around 9.5% in 2022. Across Europe, S&P predicted that the housing market is likely to sag but not shake at its foundations, despite higher mortgage rates.

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