[Footnote: From a paper read before the Birmingham Architectural Association, Jan 30, 1883]
By WILLIAM HENMAN, A.R.I.B.A.
My intention is to bring to your notice some of the many causes which result in unhealthy dwellings, particularly those of the middle classes of society. The same defects, it is true, are to be found in the palace and the mansion, and also in the artisan's cottage; but in the former cost is not so much a matter of consideration, and in the latter, the requirements and appliances being less, the evils are minimized. It is in the houses of the middle classes, I mean those of a rental at from £50 to £150 per annum, that the evils of careless building and want of sanitary precautions become most apparent. Until recently sanitary science was but little studied, and many things were done a few years since which even the self-interest of a speculative builder would not do nowadays, nor would be permitted to do by the local sanitary authority. Yet houses built in those times are still inhabited, and in many cases sickness and even death are the result. But it is with shame I must confess that, notwithstanding the advance which sanitary science has made, and the excellent appliances to be obtained, many a house is now built, not only by the speculative builder, but designed by professed architects, and in spite of sanitary authorities and their by-laws, which, in important particulars are far from perfect, are unhealthy, and cannot be truly called sweet homes.
Architects and builders have much to contend with. The perverseness of man and the powers of nature at times appear to combine for the express purpose of frustrating their endeavors to attain sanitary perfection. Successfully to combat these opposing forces, two things are above all necessary, viz 1, a more perfect insight into the laws of nature, and a judicious use of serviceable appliances on the part of the architect; and, 2, greater knowledge, care, and trustworthiness on the part of workmen employed. With the first there will be less of that blind following of what has been done before by others, and by the latter the architect who has carefully thought out the details of his sanitary work will be enabled to have his ideas carried out in an intelligent manner. Several cases have come under my notice, where, by reckless carelessness or dense ignorance on the part of workmen, dwellings which might have been sweet and comfortable if the architect's ideas and instructions had been carried out, were in course of time proved to be in an unsanitary condition.
The defects, having been covered up out sight, were only made known in some cases after illness or death had attacked members of the household.
In order that we may have thoroughly sweet homes, we must consider the localities in which they are to be situated, and the soil on which they are to rest. It is an admitted fact that certain localities are more generally healthy than others, yet circumstances often beyond their control compel men to live in those less healthy. Something may, in the course of time, be done to improve such districts by planting, subdrainage, and the like. Then, as regards the soil; our earth has been in existence many an age, generation after generation has come and passed away, leaving behind accumulations of matter on its surface, both animal and vegetable, and although natural causes are ever at the work of purification, there is no doubt such accumulations are in many cases highly injurious to health, not only in a general way, but particularly if around, and worse still, under our dwellings. However healthy a district is considered to be, it is never safe to leave the top soil inclosed within the walls of our houses; and in many cases the subsoil should be covered with a layer of cement concrete, and at times with asphalt on the concrete. For if the subsoil be damp, moisture will rise; if it be porous, offensive matter may percolate through.
It is my belief that much of the cold dampness felt in so many houses is caused by moisture rising from the ground inclosed within the outer walls. Cellars are in many cases abominations. Up the cellar steps is a favorite means of entrance for sickness and death. Light and air, which are so essential for health and life, are shut out. If cellars are necessary, they should be constructed with damp proof walls and floors; light should be freely admitted; every part must be well ventilated, and, above all, no drain of any description should be taken in. If they be constructed so that water cannot find its way through either walls or floors, where is the necessity of a drain? Surely the floors can be kept clean by the use of so small an amount of water that it would be ridiculous specially to provide a drain.
The next important but oft neglected precaution is to have a good damp course over the whole of the walls, internal as well as external. I know that for the sake of saving a few pounds (most likely that they may be frittered away in senseless, showy features) it often happens, that if even a damp course is provided in the outer walls, it is dispensed with in the interior walls. This can only be done with impunity on really dry ground, but in too many cases damp finds its way up, and, to say the least, disfigures the walls. Here I would pause to ask: What is the primary reason for building houses? I would answer that, in this country at least, it is in order to protect ourselves from wind and weather. After going to great expense and trouble to exclude cold and wet by means of walls and roofs, should we not take as much pains to prevent them using from below and attacking us in a more insidious manner? Various materials may be used as damp courses. Glazed earthenware perforated slabs are perhaps the best, when expense is no object. I generally employ a course of slates, breaking joint with a good bed of cement above and below; it answers well, and is not very expensive. If the ground is irregular, a layer of asphalt is more easily applied.