Bungalows: For sociable, stylish living – think laterally

Flat, boring and cheap? No way, says Helen Brown, who finds that the layout of one-storey homes are often ideal for modern lifestyles – and big parties
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The Independent Online

With long, strong lines that press firmly into the solid earth of Essex, this £650,000 home is absolutely perfect for its location in Albany Road, West Bergholt, near Colchester. One could read the scene like a hymn to the suburban sublime: a strip of blue sky, a grey roof, white walls, a green lawn, and a smooth grey pavement. Yet this harmonious home doesn't at all square with the popular idea of a "bungalow" – a word that conjures a mind's-eye image of a cheaply-built 1960s house thrown up for elderly people who've been forced by age or infirmity to surrender style to horizontally-arranged comfort, with cheap yellow bricks, plastic clapboard and a jarring disregard for symmetry.

This bungalow, on the other hand, is anything but an eyesore: indeed, it is a perfect complement to its surroundings. "Sorry to keep you standing on the street," says owner Janus van Helfteren, "but I wanted to nip in round the side to let you through the front door. That way you get the full impression." He makes a sweeping gesture towards a lounge with a high ceiling, with views out through wide patio windows, across a lush mature garden, over a pond and hedge, to fields and the rural horizon beyond. "It's a great house for parties and gatherings," says van Helfteren. "When you come in you can stand on these steps, get your bearings, have a look down and see who's here." He ushers me into the bespoke, open-plan kitchen, where we lean on the counter. "People would always come in and stand here," he says, "and my mother would be behind there, always busy preparing something."

The house was built for van Helfteren's parents, a photographer and his wife, in 1963-1964 by local architect Bryan Thomas who van Helfteren recalls as "a slow-moving, laconic, bearded man with a very dry sense of humour". We walk through the long, low house, peeking in at the bathroom with daydreamer's skylight, passing four smallish bedrooms and into a conservatory. Was it always his parents' intention to built a one-storey home? "I don't think so," he says. "I believe it was to do with planning permission, so the house didn't block the view for those higher up the hill".

Nevertheless, Albany Road shows that bungalows can be attractive, and that, at best, there is something wonderfully open about having your feet on the ground at all times. There's none of that upstairs-downstairs, private-public division that can occur in other types of homes.

Oddly enough, according to a 2005 survey by Halifax, bungalows (which make up only 2 per cent of UK housing stock) are Britain's happiest homes. When the UK's largest mortgage lender questioned 2,000 households on issues ranging from security to decor, they found that modest single-storey homes "breed more contentment" than any other type of dwelling, including traditional village houses, loft apartments and Victorian terraces.

Interestingly, these happy bungalows didn't have the square footage to rival other types of home, suggesting that perhaps light, easy maintenance and access to a private garden might have a more positive effect on our mental health than the space we so often crave.

The history of the word "bungalow" in English can be dated back to 1659. It's an Anglicisation of the Hindi word "Bangala", meaning Bengali, and used to mean a small one-storey house with a thatched-roof and wide veranda. The first bungalow in Britain was built by a Colonel Bragg, who, returning from India, built a lodge with Indian features in Norwood, London, in the 1860s and called it "The Bungalow". Van Helfteren's house is actually a "chalet bungalow", a cover-all term for a predominantly one-storey home with a bit of upstairs space. In the 1970s his mother popped in a master bedroom and bathroom on the first floor overlooking the garden – and at the top of the stairs there's a nice bit of painted glass, that it turns out was done by Damon Albarn's mother, and as a boy, the Blur singer also came round and sang carols in the lounge.

The house, says van Helfteren, has "always been a very social place" where every corner has a story. He describes long evenings when he was young spent debating art, history and Franco with the Spanish students who came to stay, and he believes that the house encourages conversation and thought. "I think that if you live in a house that's really well designed, it seeps into your way of life by osmosis," says Helfteren who, like his father, is a photographer and who believes that his artistic "eye" owes a debt to the confident lines of his childhood home.

Once bitten, it is easy to get the bungalow bug, yet there still seems to be a problem with the "B" word. A trawl through property websites reveals lots of homes called "bungalows" that tend to be attached to homes under the £500,000 mark. Meanwhile, there seems to be a different marketing strategy for low-level homes costing more than half-a-million pounds, which tend to be sold as "single-storey homes", while at the top end of the market punters are offered the lure of "lateral living".

But there isn't a problem with the lack of an upstairs – far from it, in fact. Upon talking to estate agents I learn that – perhaps because of our ageing population – bungalows are now the most sought-after properties in the UK and that the demand has increased their value, often commanding a premium of as much as 20 percent over other homes in the same area. No wonder that developers are cashing in on what has become a lucrative market. Countryside Properties, for example, is refurbishing 71 mock-tudor one- to two-bedroom single-storey homes in Mill Hill, north London, which were originally built in the 1930s. Bordered by green-belt land to the north and south, and priced from just £310,000, they would seem to promise an affordable life for the retiree who intends to downshift without a stairlift.

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