How Other Folks Live

The standard “Western-style” apartment block typology is fairly resistant to change. LMvdR hit it bang on at Lake Shore Drive. Central access core, a long corridor, party walls linked to structure, central bathrooms and kitchens mechanically-ventilated, peripheral habitable rooms with views. 

from a 1957 marketing brochure

from a 1957 marketing brochure


openable windows

And nothing much has changed since. This post is about how the apartment building typology is being improved upon in other countries. It’s not some condescending “critical regionalism” based on “others” trying to be modern in their own way – usually by adding lots of lovely hardwood shutters and shading devices to your standard white building. Instead, on the very basic level of architectural response to climate, these other apartment buildings are, on the whole, better – apart from in Australia. 

Bangalore, India. This is Mantri Tranquil. It’s not bad. Habitable rooms face outwards, non-habitable rooms face inwards. All are naturally ventilated as natural ventilation is all there is. This would be mostly induced by convection, but some due to general turbulence or a weakened Venturi effect.  The configuration itself is basically semi-detached houses on top of each other, arranged to share vertical access as efficiently as possible. It’s large surface area per apartment is expensive to build, but it’s what gives it its advantages. mantri_tranquil_floorplan_wing_J_floor_3_to_floor_14

There’s scope to increase surface area even more by, say, six cylinders accessed from a central seventh cylinder – “a honeycomb that’s all honey!”. But then you get six apartments, not eight – bummer. (Maybe go for 12?) Pune, India This is Sobha Garnet. It’s no longer a cluster but it still uses the same passive design principles – less effectively but with less surface area. Differential air pressure front and back would create stronger cross ventilation. garnet floor plan Variations don’t improve upon it, but introduce the idea of corridor access and lightwells/ventilation shafts.

Chennai, India This is Orchid Pearl. Spaces between the buildings have atrophied into lightwells but all rooms are still naturally ventilated. As soon as there’s corridor access to everything, those corridors can be made any length. Floor plans new size And they are. As long as the light wells are open at the bottom, we can expect the Venturi effect to create updrafts ventilating non-habitable rooms and cross-ventilating any adjacent habitable rooms.

Penang, Malaysia This is Camellia Park. All rooms are naturally ventilated but now, shrunken shafts ventilate and might illuminate a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and laundry drying area. Level3Layout1

Despite their various shortcomings, it’s still possible to live in all these apartments without mechanical ventilation or, if need be, elevators. 

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia This is Cempaka Sdn Bhd.  Here it starts to get nasty! seri01 Mechanical ventilation is now essential for all apartments. Studio apartment sizes range from 38.6 sqm. to 52.6 sqm. (416 sq.ft to 566 sq.ft). Which isn’t bad. But it really is time for these small apartments to stop pretending they’re larger than they are. In Malaysia, people prefer to greet their visitors in a space with no natural light rather than let them glimpse where they sleep. seri03-2

Tokyo, Japan This is Roppongi Hills. Roppongi Hills is a big, urbany, mixed-use development much hailed as the shape of future living in Tokyo. Roppongi_Hills_from_Tokyo_Tower_Day-2 To be honest, it’s sort of what we expected living in the future in Tokyo to be like. But man, those plans are deep! The “LIVING • DINING” room is a very inefficient shape, as well as an unpleasant one. (It’s determined by office constraints above.) Accustomed to multi-purposing, immodest Japanese use the bed as extra seating. You’ve seen the future. 426

This next plan manages to make 67 sq.m two-TV apartment seem cramped. On the plus side, having two ways to get to the same place is a decadent way to make an apartment seem larger. It’s still possible to cook in a kitchen this size with only two hotplates and 30cm of counter. Refrigerators don’t seem to get much narrower than 60cm but the 30cm wide sink is shocking compared to the standard-issue Japanese sink. 10737001_20110413204631

Manchester, U.K. This is Abito by BDP. It’s a much better way of doing the same thing. Typical Abito Apartment Oops. There’s that ffs same sink! Japanese people I apologise sincerely while bowing deeply and longly. I know now. If I can rinse a lettuce, I can wash up! I must be old.

Sofia, Bulgaria Over there, they like ’em with one corridor, one stair and one elevator. End apartments may or may not be larger. A-5-floor

The corridor can be extended for up to the maximum fire-escape distance. Adding another fire-escape stair case dramatically increases that maximum distance. London, U.K. The one corridor, one-stair configuration features in Foster+Partners’ luxury development, Albion Riverside. Property development is classless, knows no borders. Here, splitting the building into four cores and corridors means each of those corridors are reassuringly shorter. It also means more six more double-sided apartments.


These double-sided apartments have advantages for cross-ventilation and do offer an alternate view but their main advantage is to shift bedrooms to the rear of the building, freeing up more of the main frontage for more, value-added but smaller apartments. At the time, it was marketed as “All apartments have a view of The Thames” but on this plan alone I can see eight out of 25 apartments – about 32% – that don’t. I’m getting cross now. Grrr. Do I have to tell people what to see?

New York, U.S.A. misfits’ has mentioned New York by Gehry before. As well as bringing a shaft-like shaft of south sun, the corridor window gives bonus glimpse of Governor’s Island and Staten Island for people who paid good money to look the other way.


Melbourne, Australia Recent apartment developments force one to question Melbourne’s right to be consistently voted one of the world’s most liveable cities. The East End Apartment breaks old ground anew. The pink apartment features a windowless sleeping alcove behind, yet open to the kitchen (breakfast in bed?) elegantly solving the light/impropriety conflict. Adjacent yellow apartment has a habitable room with no window at all – and in doing so stretching the definition of habitable room to breaking point. In all apartments, kitchens atrophy into niches in either the living room, the corridor or the corridor/living room. ace15695e04344c493df5f9f3dd64e45 The cruelly-named Aspect has Bedroom 2 windows looking onto lightwells adjacent to corridors and shared by bathrooms and kitchens. Stare for long enough at the plan and you will see the light wells are shaded blue in mocking homage to sky. level-1 Standard practice in Bangalore and Penang is the current reality in Melbourne. Here’s piss-poor Malvern Hill. malvern hill It continues. Here’s another disturbing development. See how the middle apartments have bedrooms tucked behind other bedrooms? decor_apartment_02

Such low standards have prompted “discussion” of regulations but those discussions seem to focus on the amount of space rather than better use of it. This next diagram highlights the differences between a 42 sq.m apartment and a 50 sq.m apartment. Despite the extra ffs cupboard, the kitchen still fails to cut it. Increased circulation in the hallway doesn’t help cat swingers. The living room, basically, is still shit. The extra 8 sq.m hasn’t changed much and the lack of expectation is stunning. image-20150515-8739-1iynsklThere’s worse. Here’s the despicable innovation of the ‘saddle bag’ bedroom. The illumination lux reality is the same as for the internal bedroom two drawings up. With the saddlebag bedroom, the link between the window and the internal space it supposedly services is a legal one rather than anything with practical meaning. Well done Australia! image-20150515-8739-18egoqe
Here’s a link to the guidelines for Higher density residential development for the Australian state of Victoria. There’s much on the feely stuff like

  • urban context
  • building envelope
  • street pattern & street edge quality
  • circulation & services
  • building layout and design
  • open space & landscape design

but little on the bits people actually live in. The most relevant section only offers suggestions for what ought to be good practice anyway. suggestions

Along with the usual bollocks we’re used to ignoring.


3 thoughts on “How Other Folks Live

  1. Jonathan Strauss

    The plan image “review layouts for practicality”, is an example of good planning or poor?
    Flat on the lower left is a mirror of the lower right except that the 3rd bedroom is shown as a “study” as there is no window.
    How does cross ventilation work in the lower left.
    The planning seems to imply share houses, massive bedrooms and undersize living?

    I also really like Objective 5.4.1. You are “encouraged” to provide light and air only wherever possible. If not possible, then don’t provide it. Sounds like a really great idea.

    1. Graham McKay

      Yep, you’re right Jonathan. Given all the other good examples it’s included with, I guess it’s an example of good planning – or at least “practical” planning in someone’s eyes. Did you notice the “internet corner” behind the kitchen to give that long corridor a reason for existing? On the other side of the building are two mezzanine bedrooms with no windows either. Grim.

      1. Jonathan

        I unfortunately did notice the top half of the plan. Because I could not understand it in relation to the lower plan, missing in action, as it maybe does not qualify as “practical”?
        Thankfully i am nearing the end of my career so will not have to deal with those who believe in this tripe

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