A House in the City, continued

This is part 2 of reviewing and commenting on Dalziel and Cortale’s book — A House in the CIty —  promoting low rise high density housing for the inner ring neighbourhoods. Despite my criticisms in the previous post, the book is an educational read for keeners.

Part 3 of their book, their take their 62 case studies from nine cities, and distill them to find the much loved classic home format that scores well against their evaluation criteria. They end up with a Georgian-style townhouse of four floors. This is enough space to be a substantial single family home, or easily divided into stacked-townhouses, or subdivided into apartments, or converted into various mixed or commercial uses.

Rather than a typical row house in the Ottawa format, with a front and back yard, their prototype house has a courtyard to the rear side, which allows them to configure the housing on streets, squares, in rows, or back to back. They also employ a light well on the front, so that the basement rooms have filtered light:


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They build the prototype on a lot approximately 30×30 feet. It has an enclosed bike shed on the side, but no provision for car parking. Due to real-world constraints such as building codes, they ended up with two stories facing the street, with a set-back half-floor and roof deck on the third, and a fully finished basement level.

I question how similar this prototype house actually is to the classic forms they described previously, in that it hasn’t much light or view  from the back.

They pre-sold the house from plans, and the new owners helped configure the rooms. They want a full house for now, but to subdivide it soon. They elected to put the living-dining-kitchen in the basement level. The street-level floor and ones above are bedrooms.

I thought this contradicted much of what the authors advocated elsewhere in the book, in terms of constructing a social streetscape. I am also skeptical at their claim that there are good views of the sky and street in their design, although a close reading of the text shows they only claim this from the above-ground living rooms.

The house does have a courtyard patio, which I guess is about 12′ x 10′. If at ground level, this courtyard would be walled in on four sides by the house or adjacent houses (one, two, three, or four stories high). If the adjacent house had a courtyard adjacent,there would be better daylight angles. But in this case, the adjacent walls were of multi-storey housing.

Surely this would make for a rather glum patio space? But even worse,  on closer observation, I noticed the cross section drawing has the patio at ground level, when  in fact it was built at basement level, so it is 120 sq ft of outdoor space at the bottom of a multi-storey light well with sides varying from 20 to 30 feet high, maybe more. I do wonder at the marketability of this house form when the patio is essentially at the bottom of the foundation. In London (UK) that might be acceptable space, or in Manhattan, but here such a house would have to compete with other more conventional spaces. Local builders have usually found it impossible to sell “townhouse style” ground floor units in high density mid rise apartments due to the cost/value proposition, and a number of high density townhouse projects with minimal outdoor space and setbacks have failed to launch.

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The house was constructed pre-fabricated sandwich panels (concrete-insulation-concrete) with concrete floor panels.  So it should last a long time. A part of the house is underground, under the front entry walk. I did not notice any mention of construction cost or selling price. It is on Biscay Road, in Hammersmith (London).

Go ahead and look it up on Google Streetview (hint, it maybe house #1; it was fun scrolling along the street, notice the school and its yard, and imagine how different — and livable — the street would be if one row of parked cars was replaced by curbside landscaping).

The authors take their prototype house plan and demonstrate how it can be fitted onto many different house sites, and how it could be used for a single house, stacked townhouse, or 3 apartments; as a live-work, office, or retail-office space.

In summary, the book is a worthwhile read, but doesn’t present a totally convincing case. It is NOT an easy reader that you can point to,  so your Councillor understands high density low rise. That remains to come from someone else  (Jan Gehl’s books are easier reads).

 It did make me compare what was being found to work well in other cities with what we have here. I see close similarities in floor space and layout in Ottawa infills to their prototype house, albeit without the basement light wells. It caused me to walk around West Village Private (off Lanark/Scott) once again, and to walk into the courtyards of the high density townhouses constructed in the immediate vicinity of Somerset/Kent, all of which also accommodate automobiles.

In anticipation of reading this book, I advocated last fall with the Gladstone CDP planners to consider an alternative to mostly high rises for that area.

Might it be worthwhile to re-examine some of our density, setback, and road allowance rules and try to construct an innovative inner suburban high density townhouse/stacked townhouse neighbourhood? Even if such a neighbourhood was not built, only planned on paper, I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise  to compare the all-mid-rise and high-rise format which the Gladstone plan seems predetermined to facilitate, to an alternative.

It would be worthwhile to find out the actual density possible, and the market pricing of the two schemes. Even if it only pointed out the invincibility of the forces that lead us to the all-apartments all-the-time zoning that comes from our fabled “smart growth” policies.

But alas, no interest from our planning department. And considerable scorn for the “too-suburban” style of townhouses with integrated parking, and no interest in examining townhouses with underground parking.  The Gladstone exercise is primarily on fitting in the maximum number of 20 and 30 floor towers surrounded by courtyards of mid-rises. Like LeBreton Flats, but with higher point towers.

It remains for someone else, maybe a high-priced consultant, to construct a comparison of the two housing formats.



2 thoughts on “A House in the City, continued

  1. I was going to say the same thing as Zvi – The ‘plex’ is high density, efficient, adaptable to residential and commercial uses as well as to different unit sizes (they can be combined), and it encourages street life. And it’s interesting to see, wandering around Montreal, that the same basic form is still used today for new construction. I used to live in one and loved it.

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