Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/April 1885/Internal Arrangement of Town-Houses
By ROBERT W. EDIS, F. S. A.
GOOD planning means not merely the arrangement of a certain number of rooms on a certain number of floors, but careful and close attention to the general domestic requirements and arrangements of the ordinary householder, and to all smaller details which make up the comfort and convenience of the house. It means that every foot of space shall be properly laid out, that there shall be no dark corners, and no inaccessible places, and that every room, closet, and staircase shall have ample light and ventilation, and that staircases shall be conveniently arranged, easy, with broad landings, and of sufficient width to allow of passing conveniently.
Each room has to be considered, and its relative proportion and position in the plan. The dining-room, or general eating-room of a house, should be so arranged that, although above the kitchen-level, it shall not be at any unreasonable distance, whereby an extra amount of carriage of dishes and service is required.
If it be possible in an ordinary town-house of the first or second class, the dining-room should be placed at the back, as it is rarely used except at meal-times, and good outlook is not necessary; besides which, in summer-time, when it is pleasant to have windows open, if the room face a much-used thoroughfare, there is all the unpleasantness of noise of traffic and constant in-rush of dust; whereas, if placed at the back, provided always the light-area into which the room looks be of sufficient size, and lined with glazed bricks, with some slight variation in colored lines or panels, with window-boxes filled with sweet-smelling flowers or shrubs, there is freedom from noise and dust, and the comfort and quiet of the room are considerably enhanced.
Next the dining-room should, if possible, in every house, be arranged a small service-room, with a light service-lift from the basement, by which a considerable saving of labor will be gained, better service, and if, in this room, a small hot plate be fitted up, heated by gas, the plates can be brought in hot instead of half cold, as is so frequently the case. This lift should be taken down in the basement to a small china closet or pantry, close to the kitchen, but quite separate, so that it may not be made a funnel or shaft up which the smell of the kitchen can ascend. If, however, the kitchen be really properly ventilated, with plenty of fresh air inlets and extract-shaft over the fireplace—that is, immediately over the cooking portion of the kitchen—there should be no risk of smell, even if a serving-hatch is made direct into the kitchen; but it is better, if possible, to separate the two by a small lobby. If this special service-room can not be provided, a small lift may easily be arranged in the buffet, or at one end of the dining-room, and this need be only of the lightest description, so as to be easily workable by a maid-servant. To the lift, a speaking tube or electric bell, or both, should be attached, and these will not only be found convenient at meal-times, but, in sudden emergencies, when unbidden and unexpected guests arrive and stay to dinner or luncheon, will give an easy means of communication between the mistress and the cook. It is well to get a service-room on the ground floor, next to the dining-room, if possible, as this can be fitted up with sink and cupboards, all useful for washing up and storing away glass and china, and thus avoiding the risk of carrying up and down stairs. Naturally, the servant, man or woman, is anxious to save him or herself as many journeys from the basement as possible, and thus frequently he or she is inclined to overcrowd the trays, to the imminent risk of everything on them.
As a rule, a dining-room must have a central light over the table, but this should not be of such a size as to impede the view from either end, or to cause an amount of heat on the heads of those who are sitting round it. A small light, with a shade made to throw its rays direct upon the table, with—if gas be used—side-brackets next the sideboard, and on either side of the mantel-piece, so as to distribute the light all over the room, and light up the pictures or whatever else is upon the walls, is infinitely better than a great blaze over the table, neither pleasant nor comfortable to those who have to face its glare, and ofttimes unpleasant heat. To avoid all this, it is essential that pure fresh air shall be introduced and distributed over the room, to take the place of that which necessarily becomes foul and tainted by fumes of cooked meats, gas, and the straining of the cubical contents of air-supply by a larger number than usual of people using the room. If there be no means of providing fresh air, and no means of extracting foul air, it follows that, in a very short time, the good air originally contained in the room will become tainted, and at last heated and foul.
Stand on a chair in an ordinary London room, about an hour after it has been lit up and the dinner commenced, and you will then obtain for yourselves some practical knowledge of the suffocating nature of the upper stratum of air, and will not wonder that faintness, nausea, and headache, are often necessary portions of a dinner-party in an improperly ventilated room.
All this can be cured by providing in, say, each corner a tube, adjusted in proportion to the size and height of the room, for the access of fresh air through gratings from the outside wall; and the current and amount of air injected, so to speak, into the room, can be easily adjusted by an ordinary butterfly valve, and all dust and soot, and other impurities kept back by a piece of fine silk or wet sponge. These tubes are often put in much too small, and the size of the outside grating is not considered; in all cases the size of the tube should be proportioned to the cubical contents of the rooms, and the external grating should be, practically, twice the area of that of the tube, as the iron-work of the grating, as a rule, diminishes its usefulness in ventilating area by about half.
If it be not possible to arrange for an extract shaft in the ceiling, a large-sized ventilator may be put in the flue over the fireplace, provided always it be fitted with talc flaps to prevent all back draught; but even the introduction of fresh air alone by some such means as those I have named will make a difference in a few minutes of many degrees in the temperature of the room.
In ordinary houses nothing has struck me as so wanting in thought as the general arrangement of the staircase. As a rule, you enter from the front door into a narrow passage-way, with perhaps an internal screen, with folding-doors which are rarely shut, and immediately opposite is the main staircase of the house, so that any one, on entering, not only commands the absolute thoroughfare of the house, but sees everybody who goes up or comes down, by which privacy is materially interfered with, and the whole house is made subject to sudden draughts of cold air, which arc driven up the-well-hole, as it is called, by the opening of the street-door.
There is no reason why the ordinary narrow entrance should not be increased two or three feet, so as to make a moderate-sized hall, in which you may have a fireplace, which will help to supply warm, fresh air all over the house, and, by a little care in planning, the first flight of stairs at least may be screened from view.
There are now very many good ventilating grates which can be so arranged as to provide, with communication from the outside, warmed fresh air, and if one of these, of sufficient size, be placed in the hall, it will not only help to ventilate it, and to lessen the evils of heated and foul air generated by the gaslight, but can be made the means of introducing warmed fresh air all over the house.
The staircase itself, whether it be of wood or stone, should never rise more than six and a half inches to each step, and, if possible, a landing or resting-place should be arranged every twelve or fifteen steps. In ordinary London houses the half-landing is sufficient, but all winders are fatal to a good staircase.
In the hall it is essential to have proper ventilation; if you shut the screen or inner hall doors, as a rule, the air becomes contaminated and heated by the gaslights, and the staircase and passages are fed with foul instead of fresh air. It is essential, therefore, that a proper supply of fresh air should be brought in independent of the door, and this can be done by means of a proper ventilating grate, or, if there is no fireplace, by a simple ventilating letter-box, or by some such arrangement as that which I have suggested for the dining-room; in fact, in every room throughout the house fresh air should be brought in, either warmed over hot-water coils, or direct through tubes communicating with the outside, or through some of the best of the now numerous ventilating grates, which are made so as to feed the house and counteract the evils caused by overcrowding, or by the products of combustion of gas or oil-lamps.
The library may be arranged as a comfortable and quiet apartment at the back, while the front space may be devoted to the morning or general reception-room, in which all the cheerfulness which the outlook into a London street allows can be obtained; but do not sacrifice the entrance and hall entirely to these rooms. Give an extra foot or two to the passage-way of the house, and you will not only make it more imposing and important, but will add materially to its comfort and convenience when you receive guests, and to its healthiness by providing a larger shaft for air circulation.
The basements of London houses are generally so badly arranged and ventilated that they add materially to their stuffiness; for, as a matter of course, all foul air is apt to fly upward, and if the basement be foul, heated, and unhealthy, it forms the practical reservoir from which the whole house derives a large amount of its general temperature and tone, and too much care can not, therefore, be taken in its proper sanitary arrangement. Above all, in new houses it is important that the whole surface of the ground shall be covered with concrete, and that proper damp courses shall be inserted in the walls to keep down all damp, with air-bricks for ventilation under all wood floors. The basements should be, in every sense, dry and sweet, and all passage-floors made absolutely damp-proof, and the latter can best be done by putting down Portland cement concrete six or eight inches thick, finished off to a fair surface so as to form an even floor, and not, as is so often done, with a thin layer or covering of finer cement over the concrete bed, which, by-and-by, is sure to peel off and leave a rugged and uneven surface.
The scullery should, as a rule, form part of the kitchen, where the kitchen is not used for servants' meals and sitting-room, and not be shut off, or, if so, only by a low glass screen. It is merely a washing-up place, and should be under the immediate supervision of the cook, and not, as is so often the case, a small, dark, unpleasant, and ill-ventilated hole, in which bad smells are supposed to be allowed. It should be as fresh and as sweet as any other portion of the basement.
Line the whole of the scullery walls and, as far as possible, those of the kitchen also, with glazed tiles, so that there be no absorption and retention of the smells which must necessarily accrue with the ordinary work of this portion of the house; bring in fresh air, provide means for extraction of foul, but do not make a pestilential corner.
I can not too strongly advocate the finishing of all the walls in a basement, so far as the working portion of it, and the passages, are concerned, with glazed tiles; they are cleanly, absolutely non-absorbent, reflect and give light, are easily washed, and tend to make the house sweet and healthy. The pantries and larders should be so arranged that they have continued ingress of fresh air, and should in all cases be lined with glazed tiles or bricks, so that the emanations from the contents should not be absorbed in distempered walls.
They can easily be made fresh by bringing in outside air, by means of external gratings and tubes, and everything should be done to provide a constant draught and sweeping out of the foul air which is naturally engendered by hanging game and uncooked meat. The shelves should be of slate, or, better still, of polished marble, so as to be absolutely non-absorbent and easily cleaned.
As in all town-houses, where space is limited, a large portion of the rear offices derive their light and air from the small inclosed areas at the back, it is of the utmost importance that these areas should be lined with glazed bricks, to keep them as light and as sweet as possible, and, as the air at the bottom is likely to become stagnant and vitiated, a direct current should be insured up all these small light areas, by means of a large induct shaft built under the basement floor from the front area, so as to provide for constant circulation and change of air; this can be done at a very trifling cost, as the shaft may be formed of, say, glazed drain-pipes eighteen inches diameter, covered at each end with large open gratings made to lift up, so that the shaft may occasionally be cleared out.
In every basement a comfortable room for servants should be provided; some small sitting-room, fitted up with book-shelves and cupboards, and if possible facing the street, so that the workers of the house may have some sort of spare room in which they may be at rest from their ordinary duties; for if you want good servants you must treat them as ordinary beings like yourselves; and it is hardly fair to leave them for all hours in the heated and not always pleasant atmosphere of the working-rooms.
I can not too strongly insist upon the necessity of making those about us as comfortable as possible; for I am quite sure that, if we provide comfort and health for them, they will be much more capable of doing their daily work fairly and acting well by us. Remember always that a large proportion of their lives is spent absolutely underground, and that it is essential that they should have at least one room which shall be cheerful, well ventilated, and as pleasant as we can make it. Put yourselves in their places, and do as you would be done by, and, so far as my experience teaches me, I am morally certain that the master or mistress who provides well-lighted apartments for them to live and sleep in, will be more certain of keeping good servants, and of obtaining good work from them; if they are to be mewed up in ill-ventilated, uncomfortable, and unhealthy chambers for the greater part of their daily lives, you can hardly expect their work to be properly done; the atmosphere in which they live will enervate them, and make them comparatively useless.
The kitchen department should, as far as is consistent with proper and quick service, be shut off from the staircase of the basement, as this naturally acts as a funnel up which all smells ascend, so that, when the door at the top, which opens into the hall, is open, they escape and permeate the whole house; a swing-door can generally be arranged at the bottom of these stairs, provided with one of those patent American valve springs which close the door at once without allowing it to bang.
In every house, if possible, a small coal and luggage lift should be provided; in a new house, where there is a back staircase, it may run up in the well-hole; and in any old house it may often be arranged outside the back wall, with openings on to the various staircase landings.
If attention be paid to these smaller details in house-planning, I believe that in many cases the cost of a servant may be saved, for every one knows the daily labor in winter-time of carrying up heavy scuttles of coals and wood, and the great addition to the work of the house by having constant journeys from the basement to the second and third floors.
Too much care can not possibly be taken in providing the necessary conveniences in the way of store-closets near to the kitchen, so as to reduce to a minimum the service and labor expenditure in the house; and in every case proper ventilation is easily obtainable by a little forethought on the part of the architect or builder, so that each closet and cupboard may be kept sweet and airy; there should be no dark corners in which dust and filth may be allowed to accumulate, but ample light and ventilation everywhere. It is easy to provide for a large fresh-air drain or channel from back to front, such as I have named, in every new house, out of which separate ducts may be taken to every cupboard or closet; and this main air shaft or duct should be continued into the back area, or lighting space for the back rooms, so that a constant draught shall be caused, and the air not allowed for a moment to stagnate.
The back areas are often of necessity made small, and if unprovided by some arrangement such as I have described, by which a constant change of air is enforced, the lower portion becomes absolutely foul and unwholesome, and any air drawn from it for ventilation is practically worse than useless.
In Professor Kerr's book on the planning of country-houses, he lays great stress on comfort as an essential element. Now, this means good constructive care in the arrangement of the different portions of the house; all proper and requisite conveniences, light, warmth, and good ventilation every where; freedom from damp and smells, no smoky chimneys, and no badly-constructed floors, through which noise from above or below may be readily heard. If these essentials are not properly looked after, the finest design, the most useful decoration, the most graceful art, all go for nothing, for common-sense people are apt to appreciate the mere material comfort and convenience of the house much more than the art-work in the external elevation, or in the internal decoration of their rooms.
I do not propose to enter upon the question of drains or sewage ventilation, as this subject has been treated by many more able lecturers than myself in these rooms, who have made it their special study, and I would only propose very briefly to refer to it. I can only insist upon every closet being thoroughly ventilated, upon all sink wastes being cut off from the main sewer, and upon all drains which must perforce be carried through the house being laid and bedded in concrete, with man-holes at each end, to sweep them clean from end to end if necessary, for proper traps cutting off all drains directly from the main sewer; that all sink-wastes empty clear over proper traps, and to avoid everywhere any connection with the main drains, whereby sewer-gas can in any way be brought into the house.
All closets and bath-rooms should, if possible, be lined with tiles or some equally non-absorbent material, for, unless this done, they soon become stuffy and unpleasant.
The drawing rooms of the house should naturally be made as cheerful as possible, and doors arranged so as to allow for the proper circulation of your guests when the rooms are crowded.
The arrangement of windows and fireplaces should be carefully studied, so as to allow of sufficient wall-space for furniture, and in these rooms bay and recessed windows and cozy nooks will help to make them more liveable and comfortable, whether for the ordinary occupants, or on occasions when you receive your friends.
As a rule, I think two fireplaces are a mistake, unless the rooms be absolutely divided by doors or portières, as, when only one fire is alight, there is a tendency for it to act as a pump, and to draw down smoke through the other.
If the room be very long, a small coil of pipes, taken off the hotwater service, may generally be arranged under the back window, over which fresh air may enter for ventilation.
Street houses are more or less, by the limited nature of the ground on which they stand, bound to be very similar in plan; but they can all be materially improved by a careful study of the wants and requirements of the ordinary householder, and by a proper regard and attention to all the smaller conveniences which practically render the house comfortable or the reverse.
As a general rule, bedrooms are often very badly arranged; either the wall-space is planned so that the bed must be placed immediately opposite the light, or in a thorough draught between the door and fireplace. I am inclined to think that the modern system of arrangement in French bedrooms might with advantage be more frequently carried out in town-houses, and that the rooms might be made suitable for the double purpose of private sitting as well as bedrooms. In a house in which there are several grown-up sons and daughters, it will be evident that some such arrangement will commend itself, so that each may have a private working-room, for writing or studying, apart from the general living-rooms of the house. The bedroom may often, therefore, be divided up so as to form at one end—that farthest from the window—recesses for bed and washing-closet, which can be screened off in the daytime by a curtain, and the rest of the room fitted up as a sitting-room, wherein the occupant may receive his or her own more intimate friends if need be.
The dressing-rooms are often made much too small. They should be of sufficient size to hold a bed if requisite, so that it may be used on occasions when, let us say, the master of the house comes home late, and does not want to disturb the wife of his bosom in the small hours of the morning; or when sickness is in the house, the room can be used for a nurse; or if the master of the house be a professional man, afflicted occasionally with sleeplessness, he would often like to take up his work, instead of tossing about for hours, or lying restless, and tortured with all the troubles which seemingly come in upon him ou such occasions.
The nurseries of a house should be cheerful, well lighted, and well ventilated, and made to open into each other, so that at night-time the door may be left open, and the air space made as large as possible. A small pantry or scullery should be fitted up on the same floor, with sink and ample closets or cupboards for crockery and toys, and, if possible, a water-closet and bath-room close adjoining.
The servants' rooms should be made as healthy and convenient as any other rooms in the house, well lighted, and, being in part in the roof, care should be taken in all new houses to protect them from undue heat and cold by means of boarding and slates, by overlaying the former with battens, on which the slates are hung, so that, as far as practicable, the rooms may not be rendered hot and close in summer, or icy cold in winter. All these precautions can easily be taken in the building of a new house without any great additional cost, and will amply repay the extra outlay by the increased comfort and healthiness of the house.
Somewhere on the top floor a lumber-room should be provided, lighted from the roof, and this should be boarded all round, so as to prevent the damage which is often caused in plastered rooms by the boxes being placed roughly against the walls. A cistern-room is also essential in every well-found house, boarded in to keep it clean and free from dust and filth, which would be sure to foul the water; to plighted, so as to enable the cisterns to be examined and frequently cleaned out, and from this room access might be had to the outside of the roof.
As far as practicable, all water-pipes, hot and cold, should be run up together, properly labeled and easy to be got at, in a chase or recess which should be cased over and closed with screws. The hotwater pipes, if properly felted in, would contain a sufficient amount of heat, long after the kitchen fire is out, to keep the space, even if next to an outside wall, well above freezing-point.
The bell-wires should all be laid in zinc tubing, the gas-pipes always iron, and not what is called composition, and in no case should any pipe of any kind be rendered inaccessible by being buried in some remote corner, or in the plaster-work of the rooms. The ordinary plumber and gas-fitter takes no heed of how his pipes go, and what happens to them after he has fixed them in their places; his anxiety seems to be to carry them by the shortest possible way to the points at which they are to be used, and, unless carefully looked after, you may be tolerably certain that they will be so hidden away that, in case of accident, you will have to pull up half the floors of your house, or knock about a good many of your walls, to discover any leakage, especially if it be in a gas-pipe.
Fire risk rarely enters the head of any builder, and he is content to leave the upper floors to be cut off by the burning of the wooden attic stairs, and allow the occupants to be slowly grilled or suffocated, that is, so far as any means of escape shall have been provided by him. In all high street houses ready access should be made at various points in the attic story to the roof, and iron ladders fixed against the party walls, so as to enable the occupants to get readily away. This has its objections, of course, as enabling thieves to pass from an empty house to any of those in the same block; but good trap-doors, well bolted and lined with iron, would practically keep them out, or at least they would make noise enough in their attempt to open them to make themselves heard when the house was occupied by the family.
Speaking-tubes should be put up in every house, or at all events one communicating on every floor, for it is quite easy to establish a simple code of signals by which one whistle calls the down-stairs servants, and two for those on the nursery-floors. In this manner the constant running up and down stairs to answer bells, and then to bring what is wanted perhaps up many flights of stairs, is avoided.
As Emerson says truly, in one of his essays: "Take off all the roofs from street to street, and we shall seldom find the temple of any higher god than prudence. The progress of domestic living has been in cleanliness, in ventilation, in health, in decorum, in countless means and acts of comfort, in the concentration of all the utilities of every clime in each house. . . . The houses of the rich are confectioners' shops, where we get sweetmeats and wine; the houses of the poor are imitations of these to the extent of their ability." Avoid all such imitations; let our houses be fitted for every-day wants, for every-day requirements; let them above all be clean, be comfortable, be healthy; let there be no unfound skeletons, no tangles that are not unraveled; open up the doors, let light and air in upon the skeletons, search them out; make the houses you live in pure from end to end, and depend upon it you will have less disease of mind or body, less worry, less enervation, unless you agree with the Scriptural statement that "Ahithophel set his house in order and hanged himself." One would have expected him to hang himself because his house was not set in order.
Remember always that the healthiness, the comfort, and the pleasant and artistic arrangement of your houses mean the healthiness, the education, and the bodily and mental soundness of your children.—From a Lecture before the Society of Arts.