The Blog

Bring back bungalows! Snobs hate them. No one builds them any more. Yet one in three still thinks they’re the best homes of all

Bungalows have been the butt of derision for decades. But the irony is that the British, in their modest, understated way, would actually prefer to live in a bungalow more than any other type of building.

Survey after survey shows that the bungalow always comes out on top. ‘The Bungalow’ even remains the third most popular name for our homes, after The Cottage and Rose Cottage. Older people are particularly keen on them — they are so much easier to clean, so much more convenient for security measures and, of course, easier to get around in, without all those stairs to negotiate. And yet no one seems to be catering for the legions of bungalow lovers. In 2009, only 300 bungalows, out of 100,000 new properties, were built in the whole country and many more were demolished. Just 2?per cent of our national housing stock is taken up by bungalows — even though 30?per cent of the nation are longing to live in one.

Now Policy Exchange, a Right-of-centre think tank much favoured by the Prime Minister, is determined to remedy the situation. In a new report, it suggests that, with an ageing population and a third of us keen to move into bungalows, they could help solve the current housing crisis.

‘Older people, currently living in large family homes, might want to downsize to a bungalow, which is smaller and easier to maintain, as well as being on one floor and offering outside space,’ says the report’s author Alex Morton.
‘There are huge numbers of spare rooms in homes older people are currently living in. What are needed are the homes that older people like and so would like to move into. But planning policy prevents these homes from being built.’

The trouble is that the Coalition, which is of course desperate to expand the number of homes in our crowded little island, insists on new developments cramming in at least 30 houses per hectare. Bungalows — spreading horizontally, eating up all that lovely space — don’t fit the bill. As a result, half of all newly built homes are one-bedroom or two-bedroom flats. If we did come to our senses and started building bungalows instead, we would be reviving a British craze that has been going strong, here and abroad, for more than three centuries.

Our taste for the bungalow began in the 17th century, when British expats in India, working for the East India Company, fell for the local one-storey thatched houses, built in the Bengali style — thus the name bungalow, derived from the Hindi word ‘bangla’, meaning Bengali. These banglas also had verandahs, itself another Hindi word, meaning balustrade or balcony. The housing style caught on quickly in colonial India, as a 1676 entry in the diary of the splendidly named Streynsham Master, working in the India Office, reveals: ‘It was thought fitt to sett up Bungales or Hovells for all such English in the Company’s service.’

Still, it took several centuries for the style to be brought back to these shores by returning colonial servants. Of course, there had been one-storey houses in Britain, ever since prehistoric man first threw a primitive roof over a few rough stone walls. But the crucial thing about the first British bungalows of the late 19th century was that they were a positive style choice from the beginning. Bungalows may have often been mocked by supposed sophisticates like Prince Charles, who has called them ‘homogenised boxes’. But the people who really matter — the people who live in them — have always loved them; in stark contrast to the high-density tower blocks that crazily misguided planners commissioned by the thousand from the Fifties onwards.

Bungalows satisfied the national desire for home ownership on a limited budget, provided a pleasant touch of exotic history and met our island taste for things with a seaside flavour: the first British bungalows were built at Westgate-on-Sea and Birchington, both on the Kent coast, in 1869. They soon became a popular form of seaside architecture all around our coast; not least because they’re less likely to block the sea view of the bungalow behind you. Even bungalows that aren’t by the sea have that same advantage over high-rise new developments — they don’t block the neighbours’ light in the way those ‘streets-in-the-sky’ do.

That original seaside connection also gave bungalows a helpful association with the Victorian faith in the health-giving properties of the seaside. The Victorian artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, came to one of those first bungalows in Birchington to recuperate from an acute kidney disease. He died in the bungalow in 1882. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fashion for bungalows took off — in 1922 housebuyers were snapping up The Daily Mail Bunglow Book in their droves. This was a collection of the best designs from that year’s Daily Mail Architects Competition for Labour-Saving Bungalows.

The bigger homes in the book offered considerable floor space, with the option of both ‘lounge-halls’ and ‘dining-lounges’ — these were the days before the lounge was a room, and a word, in its own right.
Those years between the wars were the golden days of British house-building — and British bungalow-building — in the new, spreading suburbs.
The growth of the suburbs changed the face of the country. Four million houses were built, three quarters of them private sales.
In 1914, only 10 per cent of the 7.75?million British households belonged to owner-occupiers; the rest were owned by private landlords. By 1938, there were 3.75 million owner-occupiers out of 11.75 million households.

By the time of World War II, the popularity of the bungalow had been strongly rooted in the British heart.
In 1943, the Mass Observation social report recorded the housing wishes of the British population: ‘There can be no doubt that flats are unpopular with the great majority of English people. In the present survey, for every one person who said that she would like to live in a flat, ten said that they would like to live in a small house or bungalow.’ But the very popularity of the bungalow gave rise to the snobbish dislike of them. As is so often in the case in our class-obsessed country, things that were popular among the rising lower-middle classes were attacked by their supposed social superiors. In 1927, the word ‘bungaloid’ was coined as an insult; the Daily Express talked of how ‘hideous allotments and bungaloid growth make the approaches to any city repulsive’. The new land of bungaloid suburbia — neither city nor country, but on the fringes of both — sparked a passionate snobbery.

G.K. Chesterton called bungalow-rich Surrey ‘the debatable land between London and England. It is not a county but a border; it is there that South London meets and makes war on Sussex’. The snobbery continues into the modern age, with the patronising suggestion of a connection between suburban, bungaloid values and a safe, twee, chintzy dullness.

The word became an insult in its own right — Joan Collins’s intellectually unpretentious beau, Bill Wiggins, was nicknamed Bungalow Bill because, it was said, he ‘had nothing much up top but a hell of a lot down below’.
That snobbery lives on in the current opposition by the Government, and by developers, to bungalows, the homes people actually want to live in.
The new Policy Exchange report has at last suggested that people should live how they like to live: by removing planning powers from local councils, and instead letting local homeowners vote on proposed new developments.

Given half a chance, local people wouldn’t vote for more tower blocks, packed with tiny flats, but for their favourite sort of building instead — the bungalow.
How wonderful if the Government passed the legislation that allowed this to go ahead — there’s never been a better time for the Bungalow Bill.