One person's little gem is another's house of horror

The building of one-storey homes has fallen to its lowest level in years. It's partly down to a lack of space, but is it also a victory for prejudice?
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The Independent Online

For: Andrew Martin

The building of bungalows in Britain has almost ground to a halt. The National House Building Council says that bungalows are "on life support" as are – according to popular prejudice – most of their occupants, who are seen as elderly Philistines taking up more than their fair share of land.

I live in one of the few bungalows in north London. Our house is painted white and surrounded by a pretty garden. It's a one-off, and people in conventional houses in our street don't mind it because it's on a hill and they can see a rather interesting vista over the roof – it's as if you're waiting for the film to start in the cinema, and someone small sits down in front of you. But our bungalow does bring out the fierce modernist in apparently middlebrow visitors. Even the estate agent said: "It's not going to win any awards for architecture," and when it was apparent that we liked it, he seemed indignant: "Frankly," he said, "it's the ugliest house I have ever seen."

It has one long central corridor. "It's like a ship," people say, appalled, "or a train." Well, I like ships and trains. I also like the light, the greenery outside every window, and the absence of one of those dead, dusty staircases – dusty because very few people know how to vacuum a stair riser. Ironically, I do, but then I once wrote a book about housekeeping. It's no coincidence that ghosts are often seen on stairs, or landings. Stairs are the place where most domestic deaths and serious injuries occur. About 1,000 people die from falling down stairs every year.

Most people who sneer at our house live on top of someone, or someone lives on top of them – perhaps their own children. I have teenage sons. Their bedrooms are at the opposite end of the bungalow to mine, so I am living the dream of every father of teenagers. People aren't meant to live on top of each other, and only the best-constructed mansion flats provide effective sound insulation. I once lived in a first-floor flat. The man above was an elderly bachelor (if you catch my drift) who was very pleasant and discreet, but the sound insulation was so bad that I could hear him every time he ironed his clothes, which he spent a hell of a lot of time doing, and of course it was quite impossible to complain about it.

Les Dawson used to tell a joke about people who lived in Lytham (the posh end of Blackpool). "When they play bingo, they don't shout 'House!', they shout 'Bungalow!'" In answer to the No 1 psychological problem of Britain: people living literally or metaphorically on top of one another, and getting on each other's tits, I shout: "Bungalow!"

Against: Matthew Bell

Picture a British bungalow. Not exactly pretty, is it? Whatever the advantages of living on one floor, the stairless home has hardly contributed to the aesthetics of domestic architecture. With their grey, pebbledash walls and over-sized windows – inevitably shrouded in net curtain – British bungalows stare blankly, like dead televisions.

Notice we are talking only of the British variety. In a hot country, to live on one floor makes perfect sense. You want to stay close to the ground – and you don't want to sweat up and down stairs. No wonder "bungalow", like some of the best words in English – cummerbund, juggernaut – comes from India. It is a bastardisation of "Bengali", meaning a house in the Bengali style. But unlike curry, it hasn't imported well.

In countries such as Jamaica or Mexico, the low-rise hacienda is a stylish proposition, with its veranda and white clapboard cladding. But it's not hot enough to have a rocking chair culture here: we need conservatories, to capture the little sun we get. Indeed, a common complaint from British bungalow-dwellers is that they are hard to heat. With all those outside walls, that's no surprise.

The real problem is that bungalows are a waste of space. In landmasses such as America, a sprawling ranch makes sense. On an over-populated island such as Britain, to build a house of one floor is just selfish and rude. Few English words so accurately describe what they represent. A fusion of "bungling" and "low", bungalows were the product of a post-war complacency. They sprouted across the countryside when land was cheap, with each house giving on to the road. This makes the land behind inaccessible for development. The village where I grew up was spoiled with a development like this. The odd thing is how many of them have loft conversions. Where's the logic in buying a bungalow just to turn it into a house?

Of course, there are those for whom living on one floor is a practical necessity. The think tank Policy Exchange says we should build more, to encourage older people to leave their homes and free up the housing market. But there are more efficient ways to live laterally. It's called a block of flats. Since the invention of the lift, there's no excuse not to build up.

In London's ludicrous property market, the most desirable homes are lateral conversions. The rich don't want stairs, and pay millions for a set of rooms spread over one floor. It's true that in a townhouse you spend much of your life climbing stairs, though there's something comforting about going upstairs to bed.

Whatever your preferences, the fact is that Britain has a housing crisis. Clearly, we need to make better use of the space we've got. So, yes, by all means build more bungalows. As long as they're stacked up one on top of the other.