semi-detached, duplex and other houses

In the comments to the last post, I promised a posting on housing here we go!

In his book The English: Portrait of a People, Jeremy Paxman quotes from (an English translation of) Hermann Muthesius' Das englische Haus (1904-1905):
There is nothing as unique in English architecture as the development of the house . . . no nation is more committed to its development, because no nation has identified itself more with the house.
Paxman (and he is not alone in this) attributes English interest in house and home to the English sense of privacy:
Because the English dream is privacy without loneliness, everyone wants a house. Given a choice between their own back garden and life in a communal living project where they might share the benefits of a common swimming pool or playground, most will choose their own plot of ground. In France, Germany and Italy, about half the new homes being built in the 1990s were apartments. In England, the best estimate was about 15 per cent. It reflects a belief that at the end of the day, instead of sitting on the street chatting, the English would rather go home and slam the door.
The English passion for houses, and insistence on owning rather than renting them, is often remarked upon by European observers, but there's something of a family resemblance between English and American attitudes about optimal housing situations. A major difference between them, however, is that the US has a lot more space in which to fulfil(l) the dream of every nuclear family having their own house with their own siz(e)able (BrE) garden/(AmE) yard. England has one of the highest population densities in Europe, with 383 people per square kilomet{re/er}. For London, the figure is 4,700 per km2. (For more figures see this.) Compare this to the US average of 31.7 per km2. My home state of New York averages about 195 per km2. This includes New York City, which has an average density of 10,316/km2. That just goes to show how sparsely populated my part of the state is.

So, every time my mother comes to England and sees views like this (from my university's website), she cannot help but wonder aloud at the fact that people can live this way--with no lawn separating them from the neighbo(u)rs. This type of housing is called terraced housing or a terrace (and thus terrace is a frequent element in UK street names. In pre-Better Half days, I lived on/in Denmark Terrace). In AmE, these are townhouses or row houses--but they're not nearly as common in the US as in the UK. The ones here may be single-family dwellings or they may be divided into (AmE) apartments/(BrE) flats. Better Half and I got lucky in buying our current flat/apartment, as it's end-of-terrace, meaning that we have windows on three sides, not just the front and back.

The next step into privacy is the semi-detached house, known in AmE as a duplex--that is, a building that is divided into two houses, so that each shares a wall with the other. In fact, it was only in adulthood that I learned the term duplex--we referred to the duplexes in my neighbo(u)rhood as apartment houses when I was a child.

Going one further (privacy-wise) than semi-detached, are detached houses, which are what Americans would simply call houses. To get a detached house in an English town, one must have a pile of money--especially down here in the South East:
The average property price in Brighton in 2006 was £187,309 with detached houses selling for just over £350,000. The average property in Brighton now costs £213,566 (up to £248,000 according to Halifax figures) with detached properties selling for over £400,000. The national average stands between £177,000 and £228,000. (from Edison Ford; for rough US dollar conversions, double all the numbers).
One can see here why assumptions about class are made on the basis of what type of house one lives in--although it would be extremely déclassé to go around mentioning that you live in a detached house. My first experience of these words was back in the US, watching Are You Being Served? (an old British sitcom that is--to the bemusement of many British people who lived through it--incredibly popular with PBS viewers. John Inman, RIP). Miss Brahms, the junior ladies' department assistant, frequently defends her claims to middle-classhood by proclaiming in her working class accent that she grew up in a detached house, but Mr Lucas seems to have knowledge that it was really semi-detached.

Postscript (4 May): Dean over at Brighton Daily Photo has provided us with a great view of the housing density in Brighton.

Speaking of déclassé, Ben Zimmer points out that the New York Times has caught up with the rest of the world and has published an article about Kate Middleton's mother's alleged class-signifying no-nos--including and especially using the word toilet. All the news that's fit to already have been printed.


  1. I note with interest your comment on why some UK streets are called Terrace. I had not noticed, but of course I will see them everywhere now!
    In New Zealand (esp. the hilly city of Wellington) we have a lot of "Terraces", but these tend to be streets that (more or less) follow a contour along a side of a hill. The best named (in the tradition of “North Island” and “South Island”) is “The Terrace” in Wellington. Which appears to be, technically, a ridge rather than a terrace...

  2. It is interesting about the origin of "Terrace" in street names. Where I live now, in the US, the whole city is flat and on a grid so all the endings of street names indicate is whether they run North-South, or East-West... or at least they do to people who can remember the mnemonic about what runs in which direction.

    In NZ we use the word flat in the sense of apartment, but also to refer to a living arrangement: a group of young people living together. In this sense you can flat in a house (and in fact I have). The people you live with are called flatmates, and leaving home to live in a flat is called "going flatting".

    Is that sense of the word flat used in the UK?

    I guess in the US you could call this a "group house", but people I know don't tend to. It is a much less popular living arrangement here it seems.

  3. Though it's rather rare, you'll sometimes come accross buildings here in the U.S. that have "terrace" in their name - they're usually pre-WWII apartment buildings. And sometimes in Chicago real estate you hear the term "two-flat" used to describe a two-storey house with an apartment on each floor.

    I would call a group of people living in a house "roommates" or "housemates." A "group house" (or more commonly, a "group home") is a place where disabled people can get assisted living of some type.

  4. Do Americans have cottages?

  5. enidd's noticed the word "flat" being used quite a bit in california. does it mean something different to "apartment," or is it just trendy at the moment?

    she's also confused about legal and illegal units in californian houses.

  6. In regards to "Group house"... The only time I have noticed it used in a non-supported-living context is in Microserfs, where Douglas Coupland had his workaholic geeks living in group houses. But perhaps that was a regionalism or reflected the fact that Douglas Coupland is originally from Canada. Good to know that isn't a typical usage.

  7. One thing to be clear about here is that being a row of houses is not the only reason a street may be called a terrace. It could also be a geographical description of a flat level adjacent to a slope--although in all cases I can think of in England, terraces do have terraced housing. The OED notes the street that is now called Adelphi Terrace (formerly Royal Terrace) in London as the first such street. (Incidentally, you'd probably be more likely to say road rather than street in such contexts in BrE, but I'm being a bit sleepy this morning. Must be from blogging till 2.30am.) It's probably the case that terraced housing is called such because the buildings are typically set a bit above street level.

    On flat/apartment, some readers have noted before (somewhere) that flat seems to be a trendy word in some parts of the US. I don't know whether in such places it's used to refer to specific kinds of apartments. In BrE, apartment is more usually used to refer to something grander. For example, in a palace, one would find the king's/queen's apartments (in the plural), such as these.

    I woke up this morning reali{s/z}ing that I left out an AmE term for terraced housing, which I've slipped into the entry now: row houses.

    Tasmansea, I've never heard flat used in the UK in the verb-y ways you've described.

    While group home definitely refers to instutions that would be covered under the BrE term sheltered accommodation, I don't have the same feeling about group house. It seems to me that I have heard that to refer to student living situations where people are housemates in a house that they rent privately--matching Coupland's definition.

    Cottage in the UK refers to a small, humble, co{s/z}y house, whereas in (at least in my part of) the US it usually refers to a summer house, especially on the shore of a lake. It also in UK gay-male slang refers to men's public toilet facilities--but that's a different matter.

    Enidd, you'll have to find a legal source on the differences between legal and illegal housing in California.

  8. What Jack reports being called a "two-flat" in Chicago sounds like what in England we call a maisonette. In my usage "maisonette" refers both to the building (or rather perhaps to half of the building, since the maisonettes are often themselves semi-detached) and to the flat. I wouldn't use "maisonette" for a house simply converted into flats, though, or a flat in such a house. A maisonette is purpose-built. Sometimes people did use "maisonette" for the converted accommodation, actually on the first and second floors (?=AmE second and third floors) of a 3-stor(e)y building we lived in in Chester, but only by analogy and with scare quotes. NZ "flatting" is simply called house-sharing in BrE, I think. You can "go into a house-share".

  9. Max, I think you and Jack are describing different things. A maisonette is a flat that is divided between two floors--i.e. the flat has an upstairs and a downstairs. But a two-flat (as Jack describes it, I've not come across the term) seems to be a building with two flats in it, one on each floor--essentially a duplex in which the divider between the two abodes is a ceiling/floor rather than a common wall.

  10. A maisonette differs from a flat in as much as it has its own street level front door.
    By the way, are you aware that in Scotland they use apartment to mean room e.g.a house with 3 apartments.
    In the US I find that the first floor is what we in England call the ground floor.

  11. The maisonette we lived in (before the new end-of-terrace place) didn't have its own street-level entrance, but it did have its own outdoor entrance. (There was an outdoor stairway leading to the (BrE) first floor/(AmE) second floor.)

  12. In San Francisco, the term "flat" is used to describe an apartment in what is called a Victorian or Edwardian row house that has been divided into apartments. A flat is one floor, front to back, of such a row house.

    In SF apartment buildings, you live in an apartment, not a flat. I've lived in both flats and apartments in San Francisco.

    When I lived in what is called a flat in SF but in Washington, DC, it was called a "floor-through." It was one floor of a row house, and the floor above was a separate apartment. In the basement there were two studio apartments.

    On the North Carolina coast, where I grew up, people owned cottages ("summer cottages," to use the full expression) but didn't live in them year-round. Often they didn't even have a heating system. It always struck me as funny that such grand structures (detached, three or even four floors) would be called cottages. The local people lived in much more modest houses that were called houses.

  13. Interesting about the use of "maisonette" in BE to describe a "flat" (AE apartment) that has an upstairs and a downstairs. In French (I live in France) such an apartment, with an upstairs and a downstairs, is called "un duplex".

    I used to live in San Francisco and my understanding of the term "flat" there was that it described, very literally, one floor of a house that had been set up as a apartment. "Flat" it was -- only one floor, never two.

  14. The house that I recently bought is called a "cottage-style" home. This discussion caused me to search around for what that actually means. My best understanding is that it is a small home that lacks what are known here as "formals", meaning a formal living room (no TV, etc.) and a formal dining room (not a part of the kitchen). It is a house atuned to the life of a young bachelor (I was) or a young couple (I am).

    [If the rooms are called different things in our various Englishes, perhaps that could make a follow-up post someday? I know better than to get off-topic!]

  15. I agree with Ken about duplexes, and not just because it's what we say in France. I think it's also American usage for an apartment on two levels, not a house divided into side-by-side apartments (also nothing comes to mind for that set-up).

  16. Lynneguist is right, what i called a two-flat is what a lot of people would call a duplex - each floor is a totally separate apartment. Actually, the first time I encountered the term was at the Milwaukee History Museum - among all the dioramas of Indian villages they included a 1940's scene of people moving into a Chicago apartment house, which I recall the label calling a two-flat. If you search on Google for "Chicago two-flat" you actually get a lot of hits, though I've never heard anyone actually say the term. Here's a link I found on Google listing a few such houses as being for sale:

    I've never heard "group house" before, so "group home" is the first thing I would think of. I'll ask others what they think it means.

    I would understand "cottage" to mean a seaside vacation home of some sort, or used by a real estate agent to make a house sound "cozy" even if it is really big and open.

  17. Oh, and I hate double posting, but since Ken Broadhurst mentioned Victorian row houses in San Fransisco, I was wondering if British people know how common it is for Americans to use the term "Victorian" to describe houses, furniture, etc. "Edwardian" is very uncommon, though - I've only ever heard it in reference to San Fransisco. Such buildings would still be called Victorian.

    I'm a big-time Victorian house enthusiast and would love to own one someday.

  18. Does BrE use "efficiency" or "efficiency apartment/flat" to describe a single-room (or single plus bathroom/lavatory) apartment?

    Mostly off topic, I don't think your "toilet" post mentioned the AmE differences between half bath, three-quarter bath, and full bath.

  19. Sea-side cottage: when we lived in South Australia, it was a "beach shack"; in South Island, NZ, a "bach" for Christchurch and a "crib" for Dunedin.

  20. BrE has a 'Bedsit' (or bed sitter) for a single room that contains a bed, basic kitchen facilities and a general living area. 'General living Are' makes them sound grand - it more liable to be a bed, a small table and chair, a wardrobe, a double burner balanced on top of a fridge and a small hand basin - all jammed into one room.

    Toilet facilities are normally shared with the other bedsits on the same floor of the building.

    I had a 'Studio Flat' once - One big room for bed and living area - but with its own separate (and very small) kitchen and shower room. Definately a step up from a bedsit. (And much larger than any bedsit I ever had.)

  21. One tbing to remember is that all bedsits and most maisonnettes are conversions. That is to say a single family house has been converted into various units. This explains why there are few studio apartments; the cost of putting in a separate bathroom and kitchenette in the conversion would be exorbitant.

  22. Just wanted to mention that the term "semi-detached" is entirely familiar to me from my childhood in South Central Pennsylvania. The term is widely used there, and while I couldn't say for sure, I would guess that it's those newer to the area who would tend to use "duplex" instead (you do see/hear both). Took me a while to figure out that a duplex was the same thing as a semi-detached, in fact, and I was quite surprised when I discovered that "semi-detached" is assumed to be exclusively British. It may be far more standard there than it is here, but it's definitely not unknown on this side of the pond, at least not in Pennsylvania.

  23. Yes, Dearieme, Americans do have cottages, but I believe they call them "tearooms."

  24. I'm the one that asked the question originally, because I use semi-detached (also duplex) to mean two houses connected on one side. I'm from Philly (and boy do I have the accent), so we use semi here (but I hear duplex down the shore).

    It was more the markedness of using detached to describe a "just plain house" that I noticed. I mean, for the standard to be "I have a detached house" rather than just "I have a house".

    BTW, I live in a rowhouse. A townhouse you would find in a fancy part of town like Society Hill/Old City maybe.

  25. I don't believe anyone has yet mentioned another type of domicile - the (BrE)holiday cottage/(AmE)cabin. "Cabin" has a slightly more rustic feel, and is likely to be found out of town, whereas "holiday cottage" seems to refer to almost any type of housing - but both terms refer to housing let out to tourists for short periods for (BrE)holidays/(AmE)vacations.

  26. hmm, my learned post on New York housing terminology got lost. I was going to say that in NYC "duplex" is definitely an apartment with two levels, generally a mark of luxury -- there are triplexes, very occasionally. "Duplex" for semi-detached house baffled me the first time I heard it. Also, row houses of a certain vintage -- equivalent to London's Victorian terraces -- are "brownstones" even if they are not made of the brown sandstone that made 19th century New York look, Edith Wharton said, as if it had been doused in chocolate syrup. So you could have a brick brownstone.

    Elsewhere in the US the term "condo" is functionally equivalent to "apartment," at least for those in a newish, large building, as far as I can tell. This too surprised me, as in New York City there's a binary division between "co-ops" and "condos" based on their financial organization, but I guess the cooperative system doesn't really exist elsewhere.

  27. The American distinction between apartments and condos (or coops) is not made in the UK. In the US, one assumes that any apartment is rented. If you own it, it's called a condo(minium). In a coop (most common in NYC) the tenants have an association which owns the building and they have long-term leases from the cooperative for their flats/apartments. This is kind of similar to the UK situation in which tenants group together to buy the freehold on their building. (And I just don't have the energy to explain freeholds and leaseholds on a Saturday morning!)

    In the UK, flat is used regardless of whether you own it or rent it.

  28. Dear lynnequist. In Australia, 'duplex' is used to specifically describe Jack's 'two-flat' - two dwellings separated by a ceiling/floor, with commonly owned yard. Semi-detached is used specifically to describe a dwelling that is divided in the middle, with each dwelling on its own torrens title land (no common land).

  29. Just to pick up on a tangential point made early in the post, there's a common misconception, particularly among the British themselves, that Brits are much more committed to owner-occupation than their continental neighbours. In fact, Spain has a higher owner-occupancy rate than the UK does, and I think one or two other European countries have levels similar to the UK's. (The UK may owner-occupation rates that vary between nations, though, for all I know.) No time to find a reference right now (which is tacky, I know, but it's a beautiful afternoon, and drinking white wine in my garden - ie yard - is much more fun than looking up sources), but I took a course on housing at LSE (London School of Economics) last year, and was very surprised to learn this fact. (The lecturer, unlike me, had references to back her up, not just a glass of Aussie tipple.)

  30. I use duplex to refer to a house that was originally single-family and then had been divided into apartments by floor (i.e., separated by floor/ceiling) [Illinois/Pennsylvania]. I recently moved to the Philadelphia area, and here there are a lot of houses that sound like the description of semi-detatched, which are called 'twins'.

  31. ken broadhurst summarizes lynneguist on "maisonette" as: 'Interesting about the use of "maisonette" in BE to describe a "flat" (AE apartment) that has an upstairs and a downstairs.' But I am very scepetical about such a usage (=NYC duplex) being part of BrE. In the London suburbia where I grew up, maisonettes superficially looked like semi-detached houses from the outside. But there were two entrance doors for each "semi", sometimes in the same porch, sometimes one at the front and one at the side. One led to the ground-floor residence, and the other to the first-floor residence. Just like jack describes a "two-flat".

    1. Do you really mean two entrances for each semi? That would give four entrances in total.

  32. As is often the case, we've discovered here that there are a lot of regional differences in the terms described here. I have a feeling that the reason I didn't hear/use duplex when I was young was because it wasn't a current term where I lived at the time. I did have the feeling that it was more western or midwestern at one point, but it seems to have spread quite a bit, with the NYC meaning still different from the rest.

    As for maisonette, our old flat (which I think you visited once, Max?) was sometimes described as one, and I've seen other flats above shops described as maisonettes by (BrE) estate agents/(AmE)realtors--in order to make the point that they had an interior staircase. But that usage of the term may be new/limited.

    Better Half says he might call our old place a maisonette, but being above a shop might disqualify it. He lived in a maisonette growing up, and what he describes is more similar to what Max describes. It was purpose-built four-stor(e)y (BrE) block (=building) of identical flats/apartments, each with two floors, so with one set of flats sat on top of another set. The top ones had their entrance on a communal balcony that ran around the building.

  33. When I stayed in London for a few months nearly two decades ago, I stayed in a terraced house, but I heard it called a "side-by-side". It was a boarding house and my fellow boarders were from Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand, and Ireland (as well as England). Have you heard terraced houses called "side-by-sides"? At the time I assumed it was BrE.

  34. I've seen other flats above shops described as maisonettes by (BrE) estate agents/(AmE)realtors
    Watch out Lynne! Realtor "is a service mark used for a real-estate agent affiliated with the National Association of Realtors". Although here, I'm sure that said real-estate agents are quite pleased for there to be confusion.

    I don't know if you've written about the ugly use of "home" for "house" propagated by the real-estate industry... Does this happen in BrE too?

  35. Just to add a weird example from the former Soviet Union countries, (at least Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania from my own experience). There some houses are called kottedzhy. They are not quaint stone houses with thatched roofs as they would be in England, but either what would be called town houses (in a terrace) or individual "villas". The villas are built with fantasy styles straight out of disney, either bought as a plan, or invented straight out of someones foreign travels in Spain, or castles from the Rhine or whatever. makes the traditional British box so tame. Wish I had joined the mafia.

  36. And a much better read about the awful "modern" British house or pastiche Tudor, is Alain de Botton's Architecture of Happiness.

  37. I just noticed in the picture of the terraced/row houses that the cars are all parked in different directions. What's up with that? I don't think I've ever seen anything like that here in the U.S.- usually parallel parked cars all face the same direction.

  38. In Brighton you grab parking spaces by any means necessary.

  39. I think in the U.S. it might be illegal to park in the direction opposite to the flow of traffic in the adjacent lane. All the cars on one side of the street park facing in one direction, and on the other side they park facing in the other direction. Unless, of cours, it's a one-way, two-lane street. The the cars on both sides... well, you know.

    When I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s in a small town on the North Carolina coast, there was a building down at the end of our block that consisted of two apartments that shared a central wall. It was called "the duplex." Each side of the house consisted of a one-bedroom unit with a living room and a kitchen. Again, they were side by side, and except for the fact that they were rental properties, I suppose they could have qualified as two attached houses, in BE terms.

    Another house on our block was divided into four apartments. It was a two-stor(e)y version of the duplex. We didn't have a name for that kind of house, as best I can remember. It was a house and must have been a conversion. It was not an apartment building.

  40. Ah, but Marc, without home for house, we would not have the late Quentin Crisp referring to himself as one of the "stately homos of England" (before he moved to my neck of the woods, that is).

  41. Something that seems peculiar to me about British English is that many (most?) people seem to think a house has to have at least two storeys. They may ask "Do you live in a house or a bungalow?"

    To my ears (South African English) this is very odd, as I would consider "bungalow" (even though the word is only used for a holiday chalet in SA) to be a subcategory of "house". It would be rather like asking "do you like fruit, or do you like apples?"

    Is this the same in other varieties of English?

  42. @Ed:


    I was proudly showing my UK relatives photos of my newly-acquired US (one-story) house, only to be greeted by shouts of

    "That's not house: that's a bungalow!"

    (Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, older houses to be only one-story because of the risk of earthquakes. Newly-built houses are often multi-story because of the soaring price of land).

  43. Interesting point about townhouses in Britain - they're a variety of terraced house at times, but the key feature that turns them into townhouses tends to be more than two storeys. As Lynne points out, population density is high and new developers are often limited by the footprint of a new building, so there's a recent trend towards building three storey 'townhouses'. Of course, there are always elements of confusion and I live in a 'townhouse' that's semi-detached but has four storeys of living accomodation...

  44. In older residential areas of Chicago, the four- or six-flat is the standard housing unit. My parents both lived in six-flats for at least part of their childhood,and I was born into a two-flat (we were upstairs, the landlord & family were downstairs) before moving out to the suburbs.

    Here is a quote from describing the architecture of a particular Chicago neighborhood:
    "The ensemble of three-, six-, and nine-flat buildings that line both sides of the 2100 block of North Bissell Street form an especially cohesive residential streetscape that conveys the scale, aesthetic values, and craftsmanship that defined the middle-class housing of
    late nineteenth-century Chicago. These early flat buildings represent a transition between the
    long rows of joined townhomes which preceded it, and the two- and three-flat apartment buildings that were soon to become a staple of Chicago residential architecture up through the twentieth century"

  45. I'd like to mention some Australian differences. I grew up in Brisbane, spent time in the south of England and now live in Melbourne.
    My impression of the term bungalow is that it's used in Australia to mean a more modest type of house.
    In Brisbane a "flat" (apartment) is more often called a "unit". But in Melbourne a "unit" is short for a "villa unit" which is one of several smaller dwellings built on a single block of land. Typically a larger house is demolished and several "units" are built in their place. They can be fully detached or joined.
    "Granny flat" has different meanings in the two cities. In Brisbane this is a separate part of the house which is self-contained, i.e., has a bathroom and cooking facilities for a guest to live independently under the same roof. In Melbourne a "granny flat" is a separate dwelling built in the back yard for the same purpose. The term also seems to be used for a small building in the back yard that is just a room with no facilities, not really suitable for living in.

  46. I was startled seeing Lynne's picture of terraced houses, because, having lived in Yorkshire for the last thirty years, I have a different picture as in primary referent: something much less be grand,such as


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