Keeping fit by breathing: the social history of houses

Age and inexpert maintenance have given century-old radiators a bad reputation. But when first installed, steam heating systems represented a powerful tool to fight infectious disease. 
Photographer: Orlando/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

This may not be a compelling reason to make Firefox your browser, but it is a reason of sorts: whether or not they’re using algorithms to target me intelligently or not, their landing page has been populated with lots of cool articles recently.

For example, a recent piece on overheated New York apartments drew my eye. The late 19th century theories of infection were big on the concept of ‘bad air,’ and, until modern germ theory eventually held sway, the main way to fight infections such as tuberculosis was thought to be getting as much fresh air as possible. Many New York apartment blocks were designed in the early part of the 20th century, and heating engineers were instructed to produce steam-heating systems that would keep the place toasty on the coldest day of the year, even when the windows had been flung wide open for health reasons.

Which sounds great: but, apparently, the engineers did their job so well that these apartments are hot and stuffy almost all the time – unless you like the windows open in a Noo Yoyk blizzard. The scientists weren’t so far off, of course, as the current thinking on coronavirus spread shows: it’s the water droplets in the breath of an infected person that spreads it, rather than ‘bad air,’ but we’re still being enjoined to spend as much time out in the open rather than cooped up inside with the central heating on.

Incidentally, am I in the only family that has the phrase ‘it’s like Fresh Air Fortnight in here!’ when someone has left more windows open than the speaker feels is warranted in this Caledonian climate of ours? That phrase apparently dates back to a similar time period, when the Glasgow working class would be let out of the city to take the country air, although that may have been as much about escaping the industrial pollution  as the airborne infections.

That leads me to another (I hope) interesting discovery I made recently via a throwaway comment by David Olusoga, presenter of BBC’s excellent A House Through Time: many British cities were designed, or at least grew organically, with the prevailing wind in mind. I’d been wondering for a while why so many cities would have a posh West End and a not so posh East End: London and Glasgow were the examples that sprang to mind, but Liverpool is the same, apparently. The answer is that, following the Industrial Revolution, it was smarter to be upwind of all the smoke and dirt the city was producing than downwind of it, so that’s where the folk with money built.

Going back to houses, my interest in how a building’s design reflects social history first really got started when we bought the flat in Edinburgh, something I’ve blogged about before. It needed completely gutted, and when we lifted the floor coverings we came across a newspaper from 1959 which indicated the likely age of its construction. The newspaper itself had lots of interesting time-capsule details: I was particularly drawn to this advert, enjoining you to keep fit by breathing.

Brass knob from the original central heating system in the flat. I’m still trying to design a frame for it

However, it was the flat’s design that really interested me. There was – is –  a chimney, and, outside in the hallway, what had obviously originally been a coal bunker. In 1959, houses were still being built with a coal fire in mind – although the 1960s gas fire in the lounge, immediately condemned as unsafe by our plumber, and yet another thing I had to transport to the cowp after it had been disconnected and capped off – suggested the residents had fairly quickly moved on from coal.

It was a similar story actually with our first house in Glenrothes, in South Parks: built about the same time as the Edinburgh flat, it had a brick garden shed with integral coal bunker that you felt could have withstood a nuclear strike. And a gas fire that was condemned the minute we moved in. Speaking to friends the other day whose first house was in the next door mid-Sixties Glenrothes estate, Macedonia, by then the coal bunker had disappeared, although by then also the architects were all on acid and decided flat roofs on houses were a Good Thing in the Scottish climate.

Going back to the dawn of the Sixties, it would be another 15 years or so before British homes started getting extension phones in convenient places like living rooms and bedrooms. In the flat, there had evidently eventually been such a thing: but the original telephone point was still there in the hall, which was where teenage phone conversations still had to be had in the Seventies, I can testify. We honoured that tradition with a telephone table made by a friend’s Dad, and a ‘vintage’ phone from a saleroom (when stuff you remember growing up with becomes ‘vintage,’ it’s a worry).

But it was in the kitchen that the most radical evidence of social change from that period appeared.

Approaching Ground Zero in the kitchen

The kitchen when we took it over was vintage, but not in a good way: a hotch-potch of knackered units from the Sixties, Seventies, and not much more recently, it all needed to be stripped down to ground zero and replaced. We initially got a kitchen designer in, who wanted to extend the units all the way round the wall and take out the larder to maximise space.

Yes, that’s right, a larder! Because while the convenience of things like refrigerators had reached a lot of American homes by the late Fifties, in Austerity Britain, that was still a rarity – at least in a working-class home like this council flat. So, the old-fashioned method of keeping food cool was still standard practice, with the traditional larder stone shelf having been replaced by a concrete one.

We didn’t much like the cut of the kitchen designer’s jib, so we decided to design the kitchen ourself (5 years on, it’s functioned well, and the B & Q units have proven pretty well-made). In doing so, we designed around the larder, which became the cupboard for the central heating’s condenser boiler. Much to our plumber’s disgust, I told him the concrete shelf had to stay, which meant he had to drill through it for the pipes. Clearly not a fan of social history, then.

Other features retained included the pulley system above the kitchen sink, where clothes would have been dried on days when it was too wet to venture out to the drying green (the latter still used by the two other blocks of flats we share it with, and currently undergoing some renovation by a couple of enthusiastic neighbours). It’s a fantastic, spacious flat, which lets lots of light in – helped by another period feature, occluded glass windows in all the internal doors.

Our current Glenrothes house was built in 1975, and again the design is influenced by the times. The mid-Seventies oil crisis has persuaded the builders to put in cavity wall insultation – one of the first attempts at limiting heat loss from traditional builds. No larder by then, of course: instead, the integral garage has a utility room at the back of it, off the kitchen, designed to hold the increasing numbers of white goods a more prosperous society could afford by then.

In other words, the age of all four properties we’ve ever owned represents a 15 or so year period, when the social habits of the UK  – as reflected in those properties’ design features – changed fundamentally. Coal was replaced by gas as the means of heating the home; convenient  ways of reducing domestic duties, like fridges, freezers, washing machines and tumble dryers, suddenly came within easy reach of most people. Energy conservation became a thing.

Some folk are a bit sniffy about Sixties and Seventies housing. It’s true that neither our house nor our flat has what you’d call kerb appeal. The only thing you could say in favour of our house’s exterior harling colour, for example, is that when the many seagulls round here miss the windows and shite on the walls instead, you’d hardly notice.

However, internally, they’re well planned, spacious, easy to heat spaces that suit twenty first century living with the minimum of adjustment (extra power points for charging phones and various other devices being the main one that springs to mind). I’m convinced that, in a few years, some bigwig at Hysterical Scotland will recognise their worth and start Listing them. Then we’ll really be in trouble.

Incidentally, do please feel free to leave a comment below about your own house, and what design features stand out to you.

At this point, I’d like to have a smart segue into this week’s song. The only link really is that it’s – partly at least – about growing up in the Seventies, but it’s mainly about not wanting to fit into the box that others expect you to be in, no matter how provincial your origins might be. Exceeding your design features, maybe.

Or something. I don’t know, man, I just write this stuff down. Anyway, time I was out in the fresh air.

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