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Comparison of British and American Housing

Updated on January 18, 2017
Nathanville profile image

My interest in social and cultural politics extends from my interest in genealogy and history, and how they project to today's Societies.

Street where I live in Bristol, showing typical residential city view in England.
Street where I live in Bristol, showing typical residential city view in England.

My Perception

With an interest in history I’ve always had a fascination in trying to understand how and why various social aspects of different cultures diverge and converge overtime. It’s one of my many interests, and to feed this curiosity I often read up about it from some of the more reputable web sources e.g. Wikipedia, but this tends to be a dry source of information. So to put some flesh to the bones I also like to correspond with people from different cultures across the world.

Housing is one indicator which can tell you a lot about the people of a culture, and with my interest in DIY I often watch American DIY programmes on TV, from which I gleam numerous fascinating differences in how (but not why) American homes are built and fitted-out compared with British homes.

Obviously, never having been to America I don’t have any first-hand experience of American housing, but I hope the knowledge I’ve acquired from indirect sources has given me a reasonable understanding of the subject.

If per chance I am off-beam on any aspects covered in this article I would be grateful for constructive feedback in the comments at the bottom of the page.

Confusing Things About British Homes

Timber Frame vs Brick Built

In Britain almost all homes are brick and mortar; even most new homes are constructed from brick. The standard build being a cavity wall construction; with the inner skin being built from either clay bricks or concrete blocks, and the outer skin usually made with bricks. Interior walls dividing rooms are usually brick built, even when they’re not load bearing.

A clay brick is about 8 inches long and 3 inches high, with a concrete block measuring about 18 inches long and 8 inches high. With both being about 4 inches wide. The gap between the inner and outer wall, which these days is filled with insulation is generally about 3 inches wide.

The bricks or concrete blocks on the inside are then plastered, which when dry can be painted and decorated. The outer bricks are either left visible or rendered with cement; and if rendered can be pebble dashed and optionally painted.

In the USA, from what I’ve seen on telly, especially DIY programmes, almost all American homes are timber frame and cladded with wood.

There are pros and cons in both construction methods, and I don’t know which is best.

However, the pros of a brick built home over timber frame are:-

  • It’s a more substantial solid build that can last centuries, and
  • It provides excellent support for fixtures and fittings, including shelves, mirrors and pictures.

The cons are:-

  • It can take a lot longer and more labour intensive to build with brick, and therefore more expensive, and
  • It’s more difficult and time consuming to knock down a non-structural internal brick wall e.g. for open plan.

Roofing

Almost all British homes are roofed with either clay tiles or slate; most commonly clay tiles in cities.

In watching the American DIY programmes on telly I’m fascinated to observe that almost every American home seems to be roofed with felt tiles (felt roofing shingles). Fascinated in that in Britain felt shingles are only used for light structures such as garden sheds, and never for housing. Apart from which in Britain, it would be difficult to get planning permission from the Local Council (Local Government) to use felt on house roof.

Time-lapse of New Brick Built Homes in the UK

Your Building Preference

Is Timber Frame Better?

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Interior Design and Layout

In most respects, as far as I can see there is little difference between décor, furnishings, fixtures and fittings in American and British homes. However two notable differences are bedrooms and bathrooms.

Bedrooms

I understand from watching American TV that a room is only classified as a bedroom if it has a built-in closet; whereas in Britain built-in closets are almost non-existent. The vast majority of British homes have freestanding wardrobes; although some householders do occasionally install a built-in wardrobe in an alcove in the bedroom.

Under British Building Regulations a room can only be classified as a bedroom if it’s not another utility room such as a living room, bathroom or kitchen etc., and you can fit a bed in it. If you can fit a double bed in a spare room then it’s classified as a double bedroom, whereas if it’s only large enough for a single bed then it’s a single bedroom.

The number and type of bedrooms is reflected in the price of the property; the more bedrooms a house have (especially double bedrooms) the more valuable the property is.

Bathrooms

Again, from watching TV, I get the distinct impression that in America the bathroom almost always comprises the bath, shower, toilet and sink; and that it’s standard that most bedrooms have their own en-suite bathroom. I also note that the hot and cold water is controlled from a single faucet.

For clarity, in Britain although the bathroom can include the bath, shower, toilet and sink, it’s not always necessarily the case. It’s not unusual in British homes for the toilet and the sink to be in a separate room from the bathroom. En-suite bathrooms are uncommon, most usually the toilet and bathroom (whether they are in the same room or separate rooms) are communal rooms often at the top of the stairs, or sometimes downstairs.

In our house we have the toilet, shower and sink in one room at the top of the stairs with a separate en-suite bathroom adjoining the main bedroom.

In British homes most washbasin, bath and kitchen sink tapes are still separate taps for hot and cold water; although mixer taps are becoming more popular.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Our bathroom, with no toilet as that's in a separate room.Our toilet, which includes shower and sink.
Our bathroom, with no toilet as that's in a separate room.
Our bathroom, with no toilet as that's in a separate room.
Our toilet, which includes shower and sink.
Our toilet, which includes shower and sink.

Appliances and Systems

At first glance, apart from most British homes not having big American style fridges with water and ice dispensers, there seems to be little difference. However, when you look a little closer there are a number of fundamental differences; three that stand out in my mind, these being:

  • Air conditioning
  • Heating
  • Dryers

Air Conditioning

In Britain we don’t have air conditioning (we don’t have the climate for it). If it gets hot in the summer we just open the windows.

Central Heating

In conversation with Americans I get the impression that big complex systems are used to heat the radiators in the house, and that water heating is a completely separate system? It proved difficult to understand each other because we were each trying to describe systems that the other person wasn’t familiar with.

However, in most British homes these days we don’t have any large boxes on the outside or on the roof, we don’t have emersion tanks to keep the water hot and neither do we have cold water storage tanks in the loft anymore.

These days the most common system is the combi-boiler, which is a single small gas boiler; a bit smaller than a dishwasher. The combi-boiler doesn’t need a pilot light and doesn’t store any water. The gas is automatically ignited as soon as the central heating system comes on or you turn a hot water tap on; making it a very compact and efficient system. Central heating in British homes is predominantly gas because currently 45% of our gas comes from the North Sea, making it cheaper than electricity for heating.

Clothes Dryers

On speaking with American friends on social media they’ve all explained how in America the Dryer has to be vented, that there’s a risk of fire and it’s always in a separate room.

In contrast, in British homes the dryer is built into the washer, which is always installed in the kitchen, it doesn’t need an air vent, and there’s no undue risk of fire.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Our washing machine with built-in dryer, in the kitchen next to the cooker; and on the other side of the cooker is the dishwasher.The combi-boiler in a cupboard in our bathroom, which provides all the hot water on demand for the central heating radiators and hot water taps.
Our washing machine with built-in dryer, in the kitchen next to the cooker; and on the other side of the cooker is the dishwasher.
Our washing machine with built-in dryer, in the kitchen next to the cooker; and on the other side of the cooker is the dishwasher.
The combi-boiler in a cupboard in our bathroom, which provides all the hot water on demand for the central heating radiators and hot water taps.
The combi-boiler in a cupboard in our bathroom, which provides all the hot water on demand for the central heating radiators and hot water taps.

House Numbering

I often see on television American homes with four digit house numbers; so I assume (given how big American homes are) that most American roads are very long!

In Britain house numbers rarely pass the 1000 mark; with the normal house numbering pattern being even numbers on one side of the road and odd numbers on the other side.

To find an address in the UK, if you’re using an A to Z rather than a satnav, and you enter a road or street in the middle e.g. from a side road:-

  • Check to see which side of the road the evens and odds are on, and
  • Which direction the numbering is going e.g. up or down the road

Then walk or drive in the appropriate direction as you keep an eye on the house numbers on the appropriate side of the road.

Flats

I’ve seen on a few American TV programmes where a Flat (Apartment) is strangely numbered with a ½ e.g. 34 ½.

In Britain, where a large house has been converted into two Flats e.g. one upstairs and the other on the Ground Floor, then they are numbered A & B; the famous Sherlock Holmes address of 221B Baker Street being a prime example.

House numbering in UK much lower than the USA.
House numbering in UK much lower than the USA.

Small and Homely

There’s no doubt that American homes tend to be much bigger than British home; and over the decades British homes have got smaller.

I do watch American DIY programmes with some envy in that just the living room in an American home is often bigger than the entire ground floor in a typical British home.

However size isn’t everything and I am proud of our 1930s three bedroom semi-detached home, which we fully own having paid off the mortgage. Even our first home, a 1950s two bedroom terraced house was large enough for us to make it homely.

The cost of bricks and mortar is a factor in building smaller homes, but the prime factor is land conservation. Britain is only a small island with a large population of 64 million; albeit the population has only increased marginally in the last 50 years due to a declining birth rate.

It’s not that we don’t have the land; in spite of a large population 93% of Britain is rural. The one thing that prevents urban sprawl is the Green Belt policy; and unlike America we don’t build up because high-rise Flats (Apartments) are unpopular in Britain.

Therefore, the most common accepted alternative is to make houses smaller so more can be built on any given area of land.

Differences Between British & American Houses

Green Belt in the UK

The Green Belt is a zone of designated green land surrounding cities and large towns, specifically designed to inhibit urban sprawl by prohibiting development into the countryside.

The Green Belt is a concept, set up by the Socialist Labour government after the Second World War, which has had the full support of all governments since (regardless to their political persuasion) and has proved very effective in restricting development in the countryside.

Although it may restrain urban development, and isn’t something that’s popular with developers, it is an asset that’s treasured by most across the whole of society.

Consequently, with the Green Belt preventing urban sprawl rather than Britain becoming one big metropolis (like New York) we enjoy a green and pleasant land dotted with a few dozen modest sized cities, around 1,000 towns and about 4,000 villages all separated by countryside and all occupying less than 7% of the British landscape.

It means that for cities like Bristol (where I live), with a population of about half a million people, no one is ever more than a few miles from the countryside; something most British people take pride in.

The Green Belt Policy in the UK Explained

High Rise Flats of the 1960s

Flat is the British (English) word for ‘Apartment’.

During the 1960s Local Councils (Local Government) experimented with building high rise residential homes, but this proved a social disaster.

Few people in Britain want to live in high rise flats, so by the 1970s any concept of building upwards (towards the sky) to resolve housing shortages was abandoned; with a number of them having since been demolished to make way for more conventional two storey housing.

Demolition of High Rise Flats Built in the UK in the 1960s

UK Cities Green Skylines

Unlike the American city iconic skyline of skyscrapers, the height of buildings in British cities is more modest. So much so that when a British city is viewed from a distance the trees are often as dominant as the buildings themselves.

For example, in Bristol (where I live) the tallest building is St. Mary Redcliffe church, which was completed in the 15th century, with the tip of its spire being just 89m (292 feet) above ground level.

The short video below of Bristol (which is surrounded by Green Belt) gives a good example of how British cities blend into the surrounding countryside.

Iconic Views of Bristol

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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 6 months ago from Oklahoma

      Very interesting comparison.

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