Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

Snobbery is what makes the property world go round. Let's face it: how many people do you know who consider themselves inferior to their neighbours? One of the main reasons for moving, if we're honest, is to acquire a better house, with a better garden or a better outlook, in a better area.

Where I live, this snobbery manifests itself in a dogged adherence to the Victorian terraced house. Never mind that these things were thrown up in their thousands by speculative builders all over south London; as far as your average Nappy Valley buyer is concerned, they are the ne plus ultra of the bricks-and-mortar world.

I can testify to this prejudice. When I moved from a Victorian terrace to one built c1918 (wider house, sunnier garden, quieter street), the estate agent selling my house was appalled. "Surely you're not buying Edwardian," she whispered. When I moved to my current home, built in the Thirties (even wider house, even sunnier garden, even quieter street), I almost expected a card of condolence in the post.

What is this thing with Victorian houses? The bog-standard terraced versions have long, narrow halls, which, apart from being claustrophobic, are entirely unsuited to modern family life, having no space for buggies, bikes, scooters or any other form of child-related - or environmentally friendly - transport. The huge bay windows are draughty and cost a fortune to dress. The gardens are long and narrow, with a useless bit alongside the kitchen.

Compare these with, for example, my friend Kevin's house in Wimbledon Park, a Span design built in 1959 and an architectural rarity. Span was a development business set up by architects Eric Lyons and Geoffrey Townsend as a response to the need for new housing in 1950s Britain. They teamed up with the landscape designer Ivor Cunningham and produced small developments of private housing in which as much attention was paid to the exterior space as to the interior.

The aim was to provide homes at affordable prices without compromising on design or quality of life, and the results have been acclaimed by critics ever since. Only last year, Ivor Cunningham won a Housing Design Award for Mallard Place in Twickenham, the last Span development, which was completed in the early Eighties.

The philosophy behind Span is one that, today, we profess to admire. It could be said to bear many similarities to that of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. There is no place for ostentation or useless ornament. Great attention is paid to the environment - tree preservation, for example, and the scale of the buildings within the landscaping. Family life is taken into account - Span houses have reasonably sized gardens, and off-street parking as well as garages. Yet when it comes to today's buyers, these houses seem to have Cinderella status.

Kevin's house, which has five bedrooms and three bathrooms, is on the market at just under £500,000. A comparable Victorian house in the same area would cost upwards of £600,000, and you'd have to fight your neighbours for a parking space.

Jackson-Stops and Staff are selling a three-bedroomed Span house in Weybridge, Surrey, one of the most expensive areas in the UK, for £289,000. You'd be hard put to buy a three-bedroomed flat, let alone a house, for that money in many areas of London, let alone Weybridge. Yet while it languishes on the market, a three-bedroomed Victorian cottage nearby has been snapped up for 60 grand more.

You would have thought that by now - nearly 50 years after the deaths of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - the British might have got over their prejudice against modernism. We embrace 21st-century gadgets like iPods; yet when it comes to having a roof over our heads, we seem to prefer one that was built before 1901. We fail to distinguish between good and bad modern design. If we're going to be architectural snobs, let's at least be educated ones.

Kevin's house in on the market at £499,950 through Kinleigh Folkard and Hayward. For more details, call the Southfield office: 020-8871 9655