In defence of the Maltese terraced house

Urban planner and Studjurban founder and architect Antoine Zammit, one of the authors of the 2015 development control policy, delves into the implications of a landmark court decision to revoke a permit for a 5-storey block in a row of terraced houses in Santa Lucija

Urban planner Antoine Zammit wants to change the perception that the only value terraced houses in towns like Santa Luċija, San Gwann, Pembroke, Imtarfa and Ta’ Xbiex have is in their potential for redevelopment into apartment blocks.

Zammit does not romanticise the terraced house, but recognises its value in terms of liveability. The Maltese terraced house was influenced by the British “row house typology” formed by sequential plots, which are typically long and narrow. In local architecture this signified a shift from the courtyard model of older houses, to ones having a back yard, sometimes with a front garden, depending on how the surrounding streets were defined from a town planning point of view. Numerous houses built as part of the Home Ownership Schemes (HOS) and Building Development Areas (BDA) schemes, were built according to this model which prevailed from the 1960s until the 1990s.

The main merit of these rows of terraced houses, according to Zammit, lies in their “streetscape logic, rhythm, and proportion” especially in the proportion of height that works well with the proportion of the street, allowing sunlight penetration and natural light into the street. They are also characterised by a proportion that works well with the human scale and that humans can relate to.

So, there is merit in having a unified streetscape, characterised by a ‘diversity in unity’ – in which diverse architectural styles and aesthetics follow an overriding logic which ties them together.

Antoine Zammit
Antoine Zammit

Reinventing the terraced house

Zammit acknowledges that socio-economic realities have changed since the 1970s and 80s. The traditional family model is changing, and it is good to develop housing typologies that reflect such realities for an island which today has a greater population density.

But while increased density comes with positive consequences in terms of economies of scale for such services such as making a mass transport system more viable, densification must be studied strategically. “Some areas should therefore be densified more than others,” Zammit says, adding that densification “should not automatically mean the demolition of two-storey buildings to four-storey plus setback blocks.”

In this context, the terraced house remains an important typology which should not be obliterated but one which can be adjusted. “One may still carry out refinements and optimisations to the terraced house typology – for instance, numerous terraced houses would benefit more from a nice central courtyard/lightwell that draws natural light into the centre of the property, than have a back yard which barely contributes to this and results in rooms that are almost constantly dependent on artificial light.”

But unfortunately in this new social reality the terraced house has been treated as a site for development and its value has been based primarily on this potential, making it too expensive for prospective young families.

Game-changing sentence

Zammit considers a recent court sentence revoking the permit for a five-storey block in a row of terraced houses in Santa Luċija as “a very significant decision and potentially a game-changer.”

For sure it reinforces the context-based approach that was envisaged in the DC15, a document to which Zammit had contributed along other architects. “When we were tasked with authoring this document, we wished it to be more than simply a revision of the previous DC07. We wished it to be an opportunity to introduce much-needed streetscape parameters and guidance and a context-based approach to design.”

Crucially, according to Zammit, the court decision “qualifies building height limitation to be the ‘maximum’ rather than the ‘absolute’, despite numerous planning decisions having always gone for the latter.”

Many previous decisions were based on building heights established in Annex 2 of DC15, which translated storey heights in the local plan to a height in metres. The local plans had already allowed 2-storey houses to be redeveloped into three-storeys-plus-basement and, even worse, three floors plus-semi-basement properties.

In this sense one of the positive impacts of DC15 was the elimination of semi-basements which were allowed in local plans. “The semi-basement killed our streets. It broke the horizontal rhythm and logic and created very poor-quality sunken spaces, often lacking adequate light and ventilation.”

DC15 aimed to reinstate the street by changing the semi-basement into a proper ground floor.

Moreover, the change to metric heights did not change density. “If three floors-plus-semi-basement gave you four units, the four full floors also gave you that, so it was an equivalent density.”

The problem according to Zammit was the subsequent lowering of the internal height of each floor in the sanitary law, and “the bending and twisting of policies” in matters like the allowance to set-back parapet walls, that were never intended to be. Subsequent planning decisions rendered parts of the policies, intended as “checks and balances” to the Annex 2, irrelevant as “one may today quote the physical commitment that has been granted previously on site rather than the policy.”

Context is key

Zammit explains that Maltese planning law is based on a discretionary system – meaning that plans and policies are not legally binding blueprints, but one may deviate from them as long as there are material considerations taken by the decision makers. “Context should be one such material consideration, even more so when considering the context-based approach that the most important national planning document, the SPED, promotes,” he says.

Context was also one of the pillars of DC15, a document meant to regulate and guide urban developments. “We had a mix of policies and design guidance to create a balance between strict parameters from which one could not deviate and guidance that allowed more than one solution, so as not to limit architects’ creativity and innovation.”

Unfortunately, design guidance has often been seen as secondary and, therefore, unnecessary. Projects have rarely been properly assessed, and decided upon, in terms of their aesthetics and even less so in terms of their street context. Height limitation has been interpreted as an automatic given. “What’s worse, the summary procedure that has approved the absolute majority of such ‘small’ pencil developments of up to 16 units, are assessed through a checklist approach, strictly according to policy adherence, with even less time devoted to design assessment,” Zammit says.

The impact on property values

For sure the court decision has implication in the financial values of terraced houses, now based on the potential to develop apartment blocks. But according to Zammit terraced houses should still have a high (financial) value.

“The value, however, should steer away from being one calculated based on redevelopment into apartments and instead the value is in the fact that the zone has a special status as one characterised by this typology.”

But the value of a terraced house depends on the context where it is located. “A terraced house in a row of terraced houses wherein the street is consolidated has a high value; one that is wedged in between apartment blocks with blank walls on either side will lose such value.”

It is for this reason that Zammit is proposing that there should be designated terraced house areas, in those places where we can still have them, in the same way that we have Residential Priority Areas for villas and bungalows, and Urban Conservation Areas.

This can be done either through a proper revision of the local plans, but also through other means. He points out that the recent approach to consider buildings within the radius of a scheduled building or monument differently, even if within ‘the scheme’, has probably been one of the more effective planning measures that has managed to curb newer developments in such settings. The same approach could be adopted with such designated areas.

Moreover, from a property valuation point of view, terraced houses should be valued based on their context and different scenarios could be considered – as terraced houses in their own right within current parameters, as terraced houses where potential extensions can be allowed, and as terraced houses which can be redeveloped.

“Certainly, if the street has not had any redevelopments, then the emphasis should be on the first and second scenarios. If the terraced house is wedged between higher commitments, then the third scenario prevails. But there could also be ‘in-between’ scenarios.”

The risk of a domino effect

Developers often make an argument that once the context has changed following the approval of one or two applications for apartment blocks on the same street, a contextual approach would demand approving other application to fill the gaps.

Zammit acknowledges that this regard to existing commitments is one of the main policies in DC15, but thinks it is being misinterpreted when used to justify a project’s low-quality design and aesthetics, describing it as a really low point. “Where you draw the line is always tricky, indeed.”

For while it might be fairly straightforward to safeguard the context in streets that have not yet experienced commitments – as was the case in Santa Lucija – it is trickier when there are sporadic ones within a street. “Does one redevelopment in a street constitute a commitment to redevelop all the rest? Do two commitments at a distance from one another automatically allow the ‘in-between’ to be committed, but not the rest? Does one ‘step down’ from a higher commitment to mitigate the blank wall that has been created and demand a side set-back not to create a new blank wall and limit the extent to the redevelopment? So yes, this can easily become a domino effect.”

The width of the street

One major consideration in such decisions according to Zammit should be the street width. If the street is wide, and has a good height-to-width ratio, then even the maximum height established in the local plan might work well as this could still allow “good sunlight penetration”, respect the human scale, and thus the development will still be well proportioned.

But in other cases involving narrower streets lower heights have to be considered. This should be an opportunity to start a new language and logic within the street using redevelopments. “Some streets might work well if the two-storey proportion is retained and the first new floor is immediately set back, to retain the 2-storey line in the street.”

In this sense each street should really be studied on its own merits. Again, this was always the spirit of DC15 when talking about context.

Another solution should be the creation of transition zones around urban conservation areas and at the edge of the development zone. “We are ending up with high edges at the development fringes that mask the internal workings of our towns and villages. The whole rationale of a townscape and its skyline is being eradicated.”

Liveable cities

Ultimately for Zammit planning is not there to facilitate development. “It is there to balance development, in tandem with other equally important considerations. This is why we talk about spatial, or strategic, planning.”

At the basis of this is an improved quality of life.  Zammit says liveable environments are ones that respect the existing urban and architectural context as well as residents, and seek to enrich and ameliorate it. “The cities that stand the test of time, that rank high in terms of liveability scores and indices, that attract the best brains and the top investors, are the ones that manage to implement such environments, to truly have a long-term resilience and robustness, not just physical and infrastructural but also human.”

Zammit has had a crucial role in developing a new undergraduate course in spatial planning at the University of Malta that will see 10 Planning Authority employees graduating this year after a first part-time run of the course. He is also collaborating with 10 other departments and institutes within the University to really encapsulate “the multi-disciplinary and complex web of spatial planning”.

The course will open full-time this October and Zammit hopes it will encourage “forward-thinking students” to challenge the status quo by making a positive change. It is also high time that “we accredit planning professionals and recognise their professional status”.

Overall, a newfound approach is needed for planning. “Cities are constantly reinventing themselves and rethinking their strategies – be it in terms of development, or mobility, or green infrastructure and we cannot shy away from this or expect that parameters established in different times and contexts must necessarily remain or are still applicable. It is never too late to do that.”