It is no exaggeration to say that having a balcony changed my life: it arrived with my second flat and like a good friend, I have come to know and love it slowly, understanding its quirks, its good and bad points. I think I could now design the perfect balcony for a London flat, but of course there are so many variables. Here are my top ten balcony thoughts (which will be meat and drink to architect readers):
Should the balcony look at the view, or bask in the sun? Should it in fact be a winter garden, enclosed by glazed screens (far more useful in Helsinki e.g.)? Or even a bay window? My semi-recessed balcony very seldom gets rained on – useful not to have to duck in during a shower, and drainage is not an issue.
Sitting four people around a table with easy access to the chairs is probably the guiding principle for a minimum balcony (not quite possible on mine!) Dimensions are more important than area. Continuous balconies make sense: they provide shading, are easy to use, have no awkward corners on elevation. Expensive? Worth it, if they are doing multiple jobs (e.g. shading, climbing plants)
Many balconies fail because their doors compromise the space: internal opening or sliding doors are often the best. The door(s) can be on the short side too, leaving more options for furniture positioning.
Us Brits struggle with the principle of taking leisure time in a public space (even though almost all first floor house windows overlook neighbouring back gardens). So the perfect British balcony needs to be recessed either fully or partially into the building line, and preferably separated from the neighbouring balcony: not requiring one of those flimsy partitions which developers struggle with.
Here comes my pet hate: glass or metal rod balustrades. Here’s why: the balcony does not feel private or enclosing. People put cheap bamboo behind them and they then look messy. If people store stuff on their balcony, it is not hidden. Glass needs a lot of cleaning. Patch fittings look cheap and ugly. The same applies to floor to ceiling glazing in flats by the way: pointless. Rant over.
Screens and awnings are worth considering, even in the UK, so that users can adjust the heat and light on their balcony during the day. Winter gardens and balconies are supposed to be unheated but sometimes small heaters make their way into these spaces – impossible to police. Children use balconies freely for play on the continent – less accepted in the UK.
Built-in planters on a balcony nudge people into gardening and food growing and should be standard in my view. Our continental cousins appear to be far better at this than we are, and it’s not just the weather. Balcony plants are like front gardens: they’re both for you and for public amenity: so there’s a duty to have a go! I can report that you can’t kill a geranium.
My other pet hate: terrible downpipes on elevation just to drain balconies. Even good architects get this very wrong. The majority of water being drained must be from plants rather than rain in my experience.
Upper floor dwellers hate ground floor private gardens (mandated by planning for new builds). If the ground floor resident can’t garden, for whatever good reason (disability e.g.), then the other 75% are forced to have a poor outlook. Give balconies to ground floor flats too: I personally like this democracy. There’s also more space for a communal garden (which children really benefit from socially).
Many of you will have seen the floating balcony I experienced in Copenhagen. Not many opportunities for this, but it’s a reminder to think creatively about this life-enhancing item.
Only a third of Londoners live in purpose-built flats so this is the likely amount of households (just over a million) who have this amenity. They are now mandated through the London Housing Design Guide so will feature more as time goes by. I rarely see people using their balconies in London, even at my estate where they are almost perfectly designed. So Very British.