Rethinking the value of the Maltese terraced house

Earlier this year, a court decision that revoked a permit for a five-storey block in a row of terraced houses in Santa Luċija had sparked a crucial discussion about the significance of the Maltese terraced house.

“This decision went on to highlight the value of the typical Maltese terraced house and its continued relevance for urban liveability,” says urban planner and architect Dr Antoine Zammit from Studjurban, who was also one of the authors of the Development Control Policy of 2015.

“One crucial aspect of this landmark decision shifts the perception that the only value of terraced houses lies in their potential for redevelopment into apartment blocks to one that highlights the inherent value of terraced houses in terms of their liveability,” he explains.

“It also highlights how the unity and diversity of architectural styles within a unified streetscape can contribute to the overall charm and aesthetics of the neighbourhood.”

The Maltese terraced house draws inspiration from the British “row house typology,” characterized by long and narrow plots. This architectural shift from older courtyard models to houses with backyards or front gardens provides streetscape logic, rhythm, and proportion. The height proportion of these terraced houses aligns harmoniously with the surrounding streets, allowing sunlight and natural light to penetrate the streets, creating a human-scale environment.

“Socio-economic realities, however, have changed since the 1970s and 80s and Malta‘s increased population density has been calling for a strategic approach to densification. Unfortunately, in this current social reality, the focus on the potential for redevelopment has made terraced houses financially unfeasible for prospective young families.”

“My point however, is that instead of demolishing two-storey buildings for 4-storey or higher blocks, we should be refining and optimising the terraced house typology, for instance by incorporating central courtyards or lightwells that enhance natural light and the liveability of terraced houses.”

“This is why the value of terraced houses should shift away from redevelopment potential and instead recognize their unique status as a residential typology within certain zones.”

Dr Zammit refers to how the court decision relating to Santa Luċija’s row of terraced houses is a significant and potentially game-changing ruling and aligns with the context-based approach outlined in the Development Control Policy of 2015, a policy whose aim was specifically to introduce streetscape parameters, guidance, and a context-based approach to design.

“The court decision qualifies building height limitations as the “maximum” rather than the “absolute,” diverging from previous planning decisions. Many past decisions relied on Annex 2 of DC15, which converted storey heights into metres. The elimination of semi-basements and the change to metric heights sought to restore the streets’ harmony and aesthetics.”

“Subsequent planning decisions, however, have distorted these policies, undermining the intended checks and balances,” he added.

“Context in planning is crucial. The discretionary nature of Maltese planning law, where plans and policies are not legally binding blueprints but allow deviations based on material considerations proves the importance of considering context as a material consideration, aligning with the context-based approach promoted by the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (SPED).”

Context played a pivotal role in DC15, as it sought to strike a balance between strict parameters and guidance to allow architects’ creativity and innovation.

“Unfortunately, this balance was disrupted in subsequent planning decisions, leading to the current situation,” added Dr Zammit, suggesting that it would be wise to consider a revision of Local Plans to establish designated terraced house areas, similar to Residential Priority Areas and Urban Conservation Areas.

“Terraced houses within consolidated streets hold high value, preserving the charm and aesthetics of the neighbourhood. However, when sandwiched between apartment blocks or subjected to sporadic redevelopment, their value diminishes. This may be addressed through the creation of designated terraced house areas, where development is regulated to maintain the character and integrity of such streetscapes.”

“Similar to the consideration given to scheduled buildings, context-based planning should take into account the historical, architectural, and urban characteristics of the area.”

“Preserving context in planning decisions however becomes challenging when individual commitments clash with the impact on neighbouring properties. Each street’s unique characteristics should be studied while exploring solutions that respect the existing streetscape.”

“Transition zones around urban conservation areas and the development zone’s fringes can help maintain townscape and skyline integrity.”

Balancing the interests of property owners and the preservation of the overall urban fabric remains crucial if we want to avoid the domino effect, where the demolition of one terraced house sets a precedent for further redevelopment.

Urban planning should not solely facilitate development but should also strive to enhance the quality of life and preserve urban unique character. Cities that prioritize liveability and respect their historical and cultural heritage become attractive to residents and visitors alike.

“By focusing on enhancing the streetscape, preserving the integrity of terraced houses, and considering the impact on neighbouring properties, urban planning can create sustainable and thriving communities. Within this scenario, terraced houses hold a protagonist’s role with potentially redeeming factors in years to come,” concluded Dr Zammit.

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