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The Inflexible House

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There’s much that’s good in the Yemeni convention of building a house having all floors the same plan and deciding later how to use those spaces. Some patterns of use are more established through custom or necessity but the spaces can still be reallocated to suit temporary situations such as the visit of a relative or longer-term changes such as an eldest son marrying. This is simply how these houses are lived in and part of it is because they can be lived in this way. Changing the use of a room involves no architectural trauma because the houses weren’t planned to have a hierarchy of spaces.

This itself is a consequence of Yemeni houses being configured vertically over several floors and being constructed of mud brick. In a seven-storey mud brick house, you don’t decide to knock through internal walls for a sense of space. Their plan was never free.

The Yemeni people had no need for architectural devices such as promenades architecturales framed by columns offset by transfer beams. 

In a Yemeni house, access remains access and about getting to rooms whose size and shape aren’t going to change. We can learn from this.

Everyone in a Yemeni house belongs to the same family and knows everyone else even if they won’t always know which room they are in at any particular moment. The closeness of the spatial configuration reinforces (and enforces) this familial familiarity. The configuration of a Yemeni house does not transfer easily to other cultures and different patterns of habitation. Even within our own culture, the single-family detached house and the two-bed apartment don’t facilitate patterns of occupancy for which they were not designed. Extended families require house extensions. Houseshares require deciding who gets the bedroom with the en-suite. B&bs and airb’n’bs have different access privileges.

This post is not about designing a value-adding flexibility as arbitrary consumer preference. It is about designing an inflexible buiding that can easily and inexpensively allow multiple and diverse types of household within a single building. The goal is a building that can have

  • apartments having different numbers of bedrooms (to be occupied however),
  • apartments suitable for extended, estranged or multi-generation families,
  • apartments for house sharing and/or co-mortgages,
  • apartments for airb’n’b type occupancy (with partial or full access) and also
  • apartments suitable for co-housing.

The norm is for each of these types of household to have a building supposedly optimised for them but what if a single building could accommodate them all? We don’t know what economies would result but then, we don’t know what benefits would either. What if a building could be configured to fit them all? We won’t know until we try.

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The Inflexible House

The starter problem was to provide 480 apartments in equal numbers of studio, 1-bedroom, 2-bedroom and 3-bedroom apartments. The required areas of each were large at Studio: 60m², 1-Bed: 80m², 2-bed: 140m², 3-bed: 180m² but suggested apartments could be paired and designed together to simplify the problem and reduce design and construction time and cost. Symmetry between the numbers of living rooms and bedrooms suggested a 3-bedroom apartment and a studio apartment could be paired and designed in the same space as a 1-bed and 2-bed pair.


A generic design solution assumes a generic design problem and we will not be able to arrive at one if we are of the mindset that a three-bedroom dwelling must have a larger living space than a one-bedroom dwelling, or that the third bedroom is always going to be smallest and not require its own bathroom. Generic design is only be possible if we ignore habitual assumptions and prejudices that we don’t always know are correct anyway. Do larger families require more space to be together or more spaces in which to be apart? Why do we insist increasing household size requires additional spaces when the usual consequence is spatial division? I began with a generic living space and a generic bedroom space.

For reasons of better daylighting and ventilation, I wanted living spaces with windows on both sides. I arranged the living spaces and bedroom spaces into a symmetrical configuration having equal numbers of studio, 1-bed, 2-bed and 3-bed apartments.

conf 2

At one point, I was returning to my desk and looked at my sketch and suddenly saw it as a section.

conf v

Between every two bedroom spaces is an access corridor. Internal stairs link up and/or down to living spaces.

Every bedroom has its own entrance from the access corridor and without passing through living space. Internal stairs exist only to connect people via the shared living space. People only use this space when they wish to be part of some shared activity (such as being in the same place) and not because they have to pass through it in order to access or leave their own space. Sounds like a plan.


The Variations

Arbitrary Numbers of Typical Apartment Types

Section #1 below shows a configuration having one of each apartment type, with the diagonal hatching representing staircases. Section #2 shows two 1-bed apartments and two 2-bed apartments, #3 two studio and two 3-bed apartments, #4 three one-bed and one 3-bed apartment, and #5 two 1-bed, one studio and one 4-bed apartment. These variatins all presuppose families that are approximately nuclear. Internal staircases are only used for people to travel from their bedroom space to the living space.

Extended Families & Multigenerational Households

The magenta apartments with two living rooms and three bedrooms are configured by an additional staircase linking a one-bedroom and a two-bedroom apartment. Variation #3 has two such combinations, each having the two component apartments linked by a staircase bypassing the living room of the other apartment to provide an additional sense of separation and or independence. #4 is a more extreme variation, with each apartment having a single, dedicated five-storey staircase.


Staircases in the conventional apartment types were used only by people going to and from their bedroom space and the living space but, with these extended family and multigenerational household apartments, the staircases are used by all persons moving between the two living spaces. Were it not for the alternate access provided by the corridors, #4 would approximate not only the plan of a traditional Yemeni house but also how they are occupied.

Apartment Sharing / Shared Mortgages

All bedroom spaces have individual entrances, bathrooms and dedicated storage and so any apartment with two or more bedroom spaces is well suited to apartment and/or mortgage sharing.

Airb’n’b, B&B, Boarders, Lodgers

For the same reason, any apartment having two or more bedroom spaces can have one of sub-let on a short- or long-term basis without tenants necessarily having to pass through living areas. Similarly, any apartment with two or more bedroom spaces can be lived in as a B&B with one bedroom occupied by a full-time resident/manager and the other bedrooms let on a short-term basis (with breakfast included).

Full-house access and privileges means the door linking to the stairwell remains unlocked.


Similarly, any apartments with three or four bedrooms can be lived in as co-housing, with the bedroom spaces perhaps occupied by two persons benefitting from the advantages co-housing has for people in similar situations or having similar needs and attitudes.

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These five types of household and their variations can exist inside the same building without any need for specialized building design or reconfiguration. 

What’s not to like?

  • Households with young children will want to keep superfluous entrances locked, as will B&B and airb’n’b operators who have not accepted pre-payment.
  • The hallways of the bedroom spaces are also the entrance halls for their respective guests. It is not the norm to entering a two-level apartment on the bedroom level.

These apartments do not set out to subvert the conventional hierarchy of spaces and the “progression” from public to private that is assumed to be a desirable thing. These apartments are designed to permit household and tenancy flexibility, and this has more to do with independence of access than the receiving of guests and the impressing of visitors. 

The living room is not an extension of the world outside, through which one must pass to enter the more private spaces. Rather, the link between the outside world and the private space is the direct one, giving people the opportunity to dump their stuff, refresh, and relax before progressing to the shared social space. This feature exists no matter what type the household. 

  • The hallways of the bedroom spaces are also the entrance halls for their respective guests. Entering a two-level apartment on the bedroom level is not unknown, but it is not the norm.

What could be improved?

  • The living spaces are large and the gross area is overly influenced by the staircase dimensions. If staircases are only used for local access there may be scope to reduce their dimensions and simplify their construction.

    Circular staircases will prevent the staircase sharing required for access to studio apartments. Straight flights with more winders would retain that functionality.

  • Apart from the access to the studio apartments, the only constructional difference in plan between the different types is whether a stair on a bedroom space level goes up or down, and whether a living space has one or two stairs. The floor in the area of the stairwell will have to have some structural redundancy so it can be removed and a stair added and/or the stairwell isolated if necessary. This will unify construction and facilitate reconfiguration.
  • At present, staircase windows must acknowledge the three situations of a staircase going down, going up, or being absent but external wall area is better used for actual living space rather than for how to get to it. A solution as elegant as André Devin’s Groupe Frais Fallon still escapes me. Keeping the apartment width to a minimum means it is not easy to have shafts, staircases and bathrooms along an access corridor. Devin’s offsetting upper and lower floors may lead to a better solution still out there. If it does, the external wall/facade will have total freedom of position and construction. [c.f. The Domino’s House]
  • In general, habitable rooms and non-habitable rooms compete for window space. Bathrooms with windows and acccess corridors that are naturally ventilated and (to a degree) illuminated are preferable. [c.f. Detective Story]
  • Moreover, it would be better if those access corridors could be observable from inside the apartments, especially if they are to be used by residents occupying the apartments in different ways and for varying periods of time. They must feel like everybody’s space rather than nobody’s space.  [c.f. The Landscape Within

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