Sunday 13 September 1998
To our European cousins, the idea that we Britons - ancient or modern - have always lived in rows of indistinguishable houses is as much of a stereotype as warm beer, driving on the left and not speaking to someone until you've been introduced.
Quite why our townscapes should be this way - and why they are so different from those of most other European countries - is due to a number of factors, most of them socio-economic rather than architectural.
The legal complexities of land ownership have also played their part. All these issues are explored in depth in an excellent book called, simply, The English Terraced House, by Stefan Muthesius, which continues to sell 16 years after being first published. It makes a great present for anyone who lives in a terraced house.
But the problem with a row of houses that all look the same is that when one owner makes changes, it can spoil the effect for everybody else. Hence the visual shock in a Victorian terrace when one house has replacement uPVC windows, mock leaded lights or - horror of horrors - stone cladding.
Our Euro-neighbours don't have this problem. Most streets in France and Germany contain a mix of houses of different styles and periods, built from a variety of local materials, that impart individuality as well as a bit of regional character. One reason for this variety - and I imply no criticism of the stalwart barons of the British construction industry - is that these homes were not built by Mr Wimpey or Mr Barratt. They were not even built by Herr Schmidt or Monsieur Brun; they were built by their owners; people who thought about their design and had an interest in them. And that's got to give a house character, hasn't it?
Thankfully, part of the creeping Europeanisation of Britain is the realisation that it doesn't have to be like this. There is nothing to stop you or me from buying a plot of land, engaging an architect, getting planning consent, and building the house of our dreams. A growing number of people are doing just that. While there is some way to go before we catch up with the Germans - 60 per cent of whom build their own homes - there are still enough people who "self build" to support a thriving market in materials and services. Like all trends, this one has spawned its own national show, which is being held next week in London's Alexandra Palace.
The National Self Build Homes Show is at Alexandra Palace, London N22, from Thursday to Sunday. There are 50 pairs of free tickets (normally pounds 7.50 each) for readers calling 0171-865 9042.
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