Planning Library: A House in the City

I’ve been waiting quite a while to get my hands on A House in the City, home truths in architecture, by Robert Dalziel and Sheila Cortale. I found it a worthwhile read, but not as wonderful as I had hoped. I will brief you on what is in the book, with some commentary from me using inset paragraphs.  The OPL has copies; feel free to join the waiting list.

The central premise of the book is that there is a place for high-density low-rise communities near the centre of cities. And furthermore, buildings in such inner ring neighbourhoods need to be flexible to fulfill a variety of changing roles over time. Lamentably, much of the modern building in the last century has been single purpose and proven difficult to adapt to new needs. It therefore becomes disposable.

In Chapter 1 the authors lament that architecture schools focus on discovery learning and praise innovation, at the expense of learning about what worked well (or didn’t) in the past. Thus we do not learn [well enough] from history. Designing only for today’s needs  means designing for the specific moment, which then vanishes, and the product is obsolete. There is too much focus on the house as a stand-alone structure, not part of an ensemble or community that evolves over time.

Rather than copying the past forms, the authors suggest we look for archetypal patterns in house form. They chose nine world cities (none in Canada, although St John’s Nf makes a photo appearance once) to examine some representative housing types in each. While the detailed expression of the building may be unique to a place, they find patterns.

Comment: once you have read the first chapter, take a break. The print is tiny, and elegantly thin, which makes for hard slogging for those with eyeballs that have seen their 50th birthday. And find your smart phone, there are QR codes that take you to additional illustrations and tables. Non-smart-phone users like myself are ….

Chapter 2 makes brief work dismissing notions that higher density is correlated with higher crime rates, social pathologies, etc. Cities should promote interaction and a sense of shared life in diversity. The “futuristic cities” espoused in media, in Corbusier’s City Radiant, exemplified in Dubai and high rise clusters in our cities, are antithetical to human interaction. At this point the authors introduce one of the key measures used throughout the book to compare different densities, the number of habitable rooms per hectare (HR/ha).

Comment: The HR/ha measure bothered me. Unless you are British, where this term is apparently in common use, what does it mean? Here in Canada, I think we are more familiar with density expressed as housing units/acre (a common American term). Being in a half-metricized country leaves us hung between hectares and acres. Dwelling units/hectare does not distinguish between large or small dwellings. HR relates more closely to domestic population density. Apparently, 400 HR/ha is equivalent to a plot ratio of 1:1 (1 unit of floor space built, to 1 unit of lot area, which might be Floor Space Index, but I am not sure). A plot with 240-450 HR/ha is housing with attached parking; 450-700 HR/ha is houses/apartments with central car parking. Clear?

Density can be expressed in several forms. The authors recognize three formats, shown in the illustration below taken from pg 21:

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Comment: while the apartment tower-in-a-park is a definite building format, I was disappointed there was no high-rise-on-a-street format considered, especially given the authors’ scorn for “useless” green space around high rises. The City of Ottawa approves high rises without greenspace as far west as Parkdale, which seems to be taking “downtown” densities far into the inner suburbs where the authors envision low rises competing with high rises in a park. In short, I didn’t see the Ottawa-type planning conditions for high rises covered in this book. The mid-rise around a courtyard is common here; the extensive rows of townhouses shown above is rare.

Chapter 2 continues to catalogue the social, environmental and physical ills of high rises, without a similar cataloging of the same criteria against other (low rise) forms.

As a reader predisposed with an affinity to their concluding position (high density low rise is an underappreciated housing form), I still found this section unsatisfactory. Unconvincing.

Chapater 3 distinguishes between flexible and adaptable. Flexibility refers to the same broad useage of a building (eg as a dwelling unit) but there are internal alternations and additions created to accommodate different patterns of life. For example removing internal walls to create an open-space great room so popular today. Or subdividing a single multi-floor house into apartments.

Adaptable space responds to external pressures, as when a dwelling unit ground floor is converted to retail, or residential is converted to office functions. Adaptable means there are physical changes to the internal space or fenestration, but the building structure accommodates this and does not need to be replaced.

Flexibility and adaptability are achieved by having room sizes suitable for a variety of uses (about 12-15′ square), the absence of internal load bearing walls, a certain regularity of facade, careful plumbing and electrical chases, and careful location of the stairs. Stairs should be located to the side, at the very front of a building, so the stair can serve for a single use building or a multiple use (subdivided) building.

Note that the role of building codes and the cost of complying with stricter code requirements for commercial or multifamily use was glossed over, with the comment that their proposed measures preserve the building’s long-term utility. Affordability for today’s individual buyer is not considered. Perhaps some of this is due to the higher proportion of housing in Britain owned by large landlords and rented to individuals.

The authors conclude that simple generic structures of two to five stories, with modest spans of 4 to 5 metres, with staircases designed for various uses, to be the most flexible. And the most adaptable to other uses, including commercial ones. Buildings which last longer, and accept many interpretations, are more cost effective in the long run.

Comment: cost to the initial buyer doesn’t seem to be a consideration to the authors. I am reminded of those who have favorite solutions to sell, be it energy efficiency, solar power, green roofs,  flexible use, or whatever, but who ignore that someone has to pay for this upfront, and won’t see the benefit perhaps for a generation or two, if ever. And what of the taxing regime, and code regime … there is a reason so few people build to passive house standards, or put on metal roofs — the return to the buyer is too long term, or there are alternative expenditures that [seem to] make more sense. It bothered me that the authors did not bridge the obvious gap between proposing a more expensive structure and its initial affordability.

Chapter 4 discusses what housing might look like. They argue there is a common sense of beauty, and character, good proportions and scale, and that high rises cannot have it. There can be a desirable hierarchy of spaces approaching a ground-oriented house (busy street; side street; lane; courtyard; entry) but approaching one’s apartment is characterized as a sequence of anonymous lobbies, staircases or elevators, corridors, etc.

The selection of adjectives here, as elsewhere in the book, becomes irritatingly intrusive. I do wish an editor had insisted on some more balanced selection of adjectives.

A brief discussion of ‘threshold’, the distance between the public realm and private, offers key considerations in how far the house is set back from the sidewalk. And their mention of Canada comes in a photo array surveying traditional housing forms that are much loved by residents, planners, and visitors. These forms can be repeated endlessly to build whole neighbourhoods and then a city.

Chapter 5, space and light, discusses the appropriate size of rooms, and how much fenestration is required. Ideal ceiling heights are 9 to 12 feet. There follows an interesting discussion of what shape of window is ideal. The authors favour a portrait shape, or doorway shape, rather than a horizontal or “picture” window.

Comment: I found the discussion of window shape very interesting. I have always been fond of vertical format windows and unthrilled with horizontal ones popularized by post-1960’s architecture. Apparently, I am not alone! Note; a ganged row of vertical windows pleases me but the authors favour a regular repeating pattern of windows with solids between them. Perhaps I liked this section more because I found less to disagree with?

Chapter 6 reviews modern methods of house building, including prefabrication. They support the off-site prefabrication of components and wall panels. There is an interesting reviewing of thermal mass and where it might be appropriate (less so the further north one goes).

In Chapter 7, Cost and Value, there is the search for the Goldilocks Zone, the just right space for high density low rise urban building formats. The actual numbers for construction costs are, of course, British, and therefore not easily transferable to here.

I would love to see a few Ottawa developers respond to this chapter. While having only a civilian view of development industry, I wondered at some of the conditioning adjectives in the book: “where established historical high-density models for low-rise buildings are used …”  — does this mean something that fits into today’s codes or not? The authors conclude that it is a “mystery” why builder’s don’t share their enthusiasm for the book’s desired urban format. An interview with some builders might have resolved that mystery.

Part 2 of the book contains case studies from nine major metropolises: Copenhagen, Melbourne, Tokyo, London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Mexico, Shanghai. All are assessed on criteria of density and urban form, flexibility and adaptability, appearance and threshold, space and light, construction and sustainability.

This section is a fun, informative read. It illustrates how global — homogenized — the world  is. Although it appears there were also very common elements in ancient cities too. Sort of pre-modern rediscovery of the same home truths, or archetypal patterns, or pattern language.

I bristled as some of the adjectives, however. Townhouses selling for 5375 euros per square metre are scarcely “affordable” (as they are repeatedly termed); but apartments selling for 950 euros per sq metre are not praised for affordability. Throughout the case studies, it seems that the authors’ preferred low rise high density urban areas are the preserves of the urban affluent.

There is also an element of post-facto reasoning in selecting popular gentrified hundred year old neighbourhoods (but not unpopular to the rich, slummy, or demolished neighbourhoods…) which is a form of survivorship bias. These neighbourhoods were built in a vastly different era, pre-automobile, and pre-dispersed employment. There are a few, but only a very few, successful recently-built low rise high density neighbourhoods identified. More commonly, an historic low rise neighbourhood is compared to a modern high building(s) that is an infill. Social projects are readily compared to market-price housing.

The authors also rate highly a private space immediately outside a home (which is maintained by the resident) and dismiss views of gardens, ponds, or greenspace as useless. While I am a patio person myself, I venture to say there are many who value a view of greenspace without it being their personal responsibility to maintain. It bothered me that they conflated a barren lawn and parking lot between high rise towers with a landscaped garden.

I also find it odd that it is good for young home buyers to somehow afford to buy way more house than they need today, and subdivide it until they can afford to occupy the whole premises (or maybe relocate…) but it is bad to buy an apartment suited for one’s immediate needs and later expand (either expanding the same unit by taking over adjacent apartment space, or moving to a larger unit within the building). I thought expanding apartments was dismissed too easily, since with knock-out walls (all new apartment buildings in Ottawa have them) units can easily be enlarged, and some builders — none yet in Ottawa — offer grow apartments, specifically designed with lock offs proven so popular in the time share and vacation home formats.

I am also dismayed at the lack of attention paid to accessibility — for the elderly, the handicapped, the timid. It’s all very nice to recommend four storey houses as a sort of universal design solution, but just how does my 88 year old mother get to her fourth floor apartment in a walkup?

Part 3 of the book deals with the author’s efforts to actually build a house in the city. More on that in the next post.








2 thoughts on “Planning Library: A House in the City

  1. Eric:
    You may be interested in the following video on an innovative community in Vancouver:
    Check out “False Creek South: An Experiment in Community” on Vimeo

    #Vimeo #affordablehousing #vancouverrealestate

    This is low rise, high density with a varied population. Not sure how the density compares to current high rises; perhaps another reader has the figures. I lived in this community back in the 1970’s and the most striking aspect was the walkability. Granville Market was approx 10 minutes away, there were lots of pedestrian / bike routes within the community and owning a car was actually very difficult. No garages, no on street parking, no real streets in the normal urban grid pattern, a few visitor’s parking lots scattered about but the planning appears to have excluded the car to the degree possible. This was the most attractive aspect of the community — the degree to which it retained a focus on human centred urban habitat and avoided making the automobile the central talisman of community life.

  2. I watched the video — it seems the false creek experiment isn’t long term sustainable. Hopefully, we’d do better setting up a new one. Back when it was built as one of three cmhc demo communities, i cut my planning teeth on lebreton flats here in ottawa, 600+ townhouses and apts. I prefer the denser vancouver version, as it put most parking underground, but ottawa was designed to be just below that density with wonerfs et all which ended up making houses in a walmart parking lot appearance. Residents surveys showed the lebreton residents much more satisfied than the false creek ones, mostly because they got their cars right by their front doors (supervision, easier w/kids and groceries, etc.). Both these projects are worth walking around today to see how different they turned out, and also for the third project, crombie town in toronto. thanks for commenting and extending the conversation.

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