In praise of deck-access

NINETEEN years ago, I designed a block of flats that were built near the Cameron Toll roundabout in Edinburgh.

Located on Peffermill Road, passers-by might be first struck by the galvanised steel frame to the block. On closer inspection, they might note too the deck access, to reach each of the apartments from the first floor up.

By ‘deck access’, I mean external stairs that lead to a landing, at each floor level, that stretches right across the side of the block.

Deck access is a design response to saving on internal stairs – which not only take up valuable space but can have a negative impact on the layout of apartments. 

But it would be fair to say it’s had something of a ‘bad rap’ these last few years, associated with anti-social behaviour, immediately outside people’s front doors and any windows looking immediately on to the landing.

In a community free of anti-social behaviour, landings served by deck access can be a pleasant gathering place of near neighbours. Or the opportunity to lean on a balustrade and watch the world go by, several feet below. Perhaps even a bit of outside space to an apartment, on which to perch a window box, bench seating or a small table and chairs.

So, you can imagine my delight when the architecture, design and interiors magazine, Dezeen, recently highlighted (here) a residential block in Spain, comprising apartments served by deck access.

Except that this block – shortlisted for the Europe-wide Mies van der Rohe Award for contemporary architecture (here) – has been mainly built not using steel but timber!

Join four of these blocks into a square or rectangle and you have formed a courtyard, in which to possibly create a community garden, seating for relaxation during the summer and a power source to light up a Christmas tree during the winter.

A vennel or two leading from the outside to the inside would not only provide a flow of fresh air into the courtyard, but, were it to be gated, would provide a degree of personal security. All apartments, including ground floor ones (assuming it’s apartments and not shops, dentists and workshops occupying the ground floor) would be accessible only from within the courtyard.

The ebb and flow of people entering and leaving the courtyard would help generate informal social interaction.

In Edinburgh, the large, essentially rectangular residential blocks in the district of Marchmont provide safe, enclosed spaces (often fairly wooded) for children (and adults too) to play and enjoy.

In the Peffermill (pictured) development, there is car parking located under the first floor town-house units. These so-called ‘undercroft’ bays would especially suffice if a car club were to operate, minimising the number of cars needed by residents. 

I’d imagine undercrofts would require to be located on the exterior of any square or rectangular block, as envisaged in any hybrid of Peffermill and Marchmont – ie part-deck access and part-courtyard setting.

If I could do Peffermill again, I’d seriously consider timber as an alternative to steel. It’s just that, back then, the structural qualities of timber weren’t as fully understood by funders and developers as they are now. Mass timber – including in cross-laminate form – is extremely strong. And we all know the environmental benefits of timber, which is a truly sustainable building material.

Of course, to build a large residential block using mainly timber in the UK – procurement issues aside – requires wholehearted approval from local authorities, mortgage lenders and insurance companies.

Mass timber is now recognised for its fire safety performance, as well as for its energy and health and well-being qualities, plus its speed of erection.

That wholehearted support is not quite there, but the battle is being won.

Gordon Duffy is principal of Edinburgh-based architecture studio, Studio DuB.

Picture credit: Studio DuB

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