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Living on top of one another

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Some years back, my parents downsized from a four-bedroom house with parking for seven cars and moved into a semi-detached house that was part of a retirement village not too far from my former high-school. No sooner had they moved in they decided it wasn’t for them and, as soon as they could extricate themselves from the contract, moved to a four-bedroom detached house in a different part of town and within walking distance of the Canning River.

The smaller unit had made sense in so many ways but their main reason for preferring something that didn’t was that they’d felt people in the retirement village were “living on top of one another”. They didn’t mean it literally – it had been a single-storey development. It was the density they were uncomfortable with. It was their first and last experience of not living in a detached house. They’d been looking forward to a smaller garden but were unprepared for the party wall separating their garage from their neighbour’s garage. It was their first experience of a party wall and they didn’t like it. They wanted space on all sides. This is The Homestead Myth [1] in action. It’s more of a prejudice than a myth.

It’s not just my parents. This next image is of Jindalee, one of Perth’s newer northern suburbs. I used this image in a post three years ago so I’m sure there’s newer ones further north. The space between houses has shrunk to the minimum setback and can’t be used apart from circumnavigating one’s house to confirm its detachment. This space is an open cavity between two cavity walls. It shows that the Australian preference for detached houses and the Australian aversion to party walls are one and the same thing.

Many of Perth’s older suburbs are morphing into something similar. This is Redcliffe, my once neighbourhood, in 2017. I can see only one house with a lawn on four sides. [Hint: It’s close to the upper middle, behind the house where the Snook family used to live.] Plots have been redeveloped to allow two single-storey detached houses instead of one.

Two-storey terraced houses such as these ones always existed closer to the city centre but there were never that many. [1] I was seventeen before I even set foot in a two-storey house.

The 20th century notion that building upwards allows more garden space at ground level is now playing itself out in Perth suburbs as people realize two storey houses mean you can have more space between you and your neighbours. This is the house that stands where my music teacher used to live. I still have trouble accepting this could happen. [c.f. Teaching & Learning]

Urban sprawl is inevitable when a preference for space on all sides combines with even a diminishing preference for single-storey houses. This creates other problems. More roads and commuter trains are needed but, even if a train line is built or extended, each station needs to be serviced by either a car park or a bus route and each of those routes becomes longer with increasing distance as well as involving a chane from train to either a car or bus. Adelaide’s Obahn system is a guided busway system that attempts to get the best of both without changing. Buses travel at approx. 85 kmph before exiting the busway to service local routes.

It’s a neat system that does away with changes but all those local carriages will not be travelling at full capacity the city centre. It’s something to do with the inverse-square law. Public transportation needs a certain density to work and, sooner or later, even in Western Australia, people are going to have to get used to living on top of one another. Just as in London where apartments in buildings overlooking Hyde Park attract a certain kind of buyer, Perth has much good feng shui that attracts a certain kind of buyer. So forget the coastline and river foreshore – they’re taken.

If multi-story living is to be a solution, then how to do it on sites not blessed with any kind of view is a problem but not a new one. Over a century ago detached suburban houses came with their own internal worlds called gardens and it worked until gardens became so small the houses weren’t detached anymore.

The Detached Apartment

The proposal in a previous post, The Landscape Withinhad paired apartments of fixed size and layout separated by open stairwells and all overlooking triple-height elevator lobbies. The idea was to take some of the goodness of Walden 7 and inject it into a more or less regular apartment block. For the tradeoff of elevators stopping every third floor, the lobby became a naturally ventilated and illuminated place and a proper lobby that was not just a means of access.

It worked, but one thing it didn’t do was facilitate the configuration of differently-sized apartments that, as with the production of anything, bring added cost. This April’s post The Inflexible House proposed an apartment building with all floors having the same layout, with apartments of different sizes configured by staircases connecting to additional bedrooms up and/or down.

I’m now proposing a mashup of those two, and a high-rise apartment block with apartments having a reduced sensation of party walls. The two-metre wide spaces between apartments are filled with external and internal access stairs.

Each floor has four entrances per landing like Landscape but incorporates the internal staircases of Inflexible to access an arbitrary number of bedrooms but typically between zero and four. Construction variations are limited to the blocking and unblocking of doorway openings and the optional addition of one 100mm partition wall. The principle is best illustrated by the middle row of layouts below for three typical floors.

  • The right half of the building is an arrangment having equal numbers of studio, 1-bed and 2-bed apartments.
  • The left half of the building shows a studio apartment, a 3-bedroom apartment configured over two floors and one bedroom of a 3-bedroom apartment configured over three, although a two-floor configuration is also possible.
  • Four-bedroom apartments can be configured over two floors but 5- and 6-bedroom apartments would be spread over three.
  • As with The Inflexible House, apartments can interconnect to allow different patterns of occupation but this isn’t the primary object. [Studio apartments can’t access the internal stairwell and can only interconnect with the apartment having the adjacent bedroom, but all other apartment types have the potential to interconnect via the stairwell with up to three other apartments, thereby allowing for extended families and other patterns of occupation.]
  • This proposal goes no further than what’s shown. It has no set height although I imagine it could be constructed in load bearing brick to, say, twelve storeys. Shear walls run through it like rock candy so, even at a modest 1:15 aspect, an 80-storey superslender is also imaginable, as are clusters.
  • I haven’t considered car parking as I’m still unconvinced undercroft car parking is any more secure than surface. Perth is not Munich where the owner of this Aston Martin can park it in a carport confident his car and its wheels will still be there in the morning.
  • The building does not have to be square as all functionality is away from the periphery [c.f. The Domino’s House].
  • The benefits of this configuration cannot be compromised by arbitrary external treatments such as changing or varying the extrusion, or the addition of the ubiquitous shuffly windows or snazzy cladding.
  • Wrapping staircases of different apartments halves the amount of built volume required to access other levels. Given that in a conventional two- or three-bedroom apartment, the corridor accessing the second and/or third bedroom usually passes at least one bedroom, this configuration may well be a better use of built volume.
  • There are no balconies. High-rise buildings are supposed to create loads of useful garden space at ground level.
  • Two elevators servicing twelve apartments per three floors may seem excessive but against this must be weighed the simplicity/speed and efficiency/cost of construction, the small amount of area required for apartment access and the maximum social/illumination/ventilation benefits to be gained from what little access area there is.

One feature of The Inflexible House proposal was that it had one entrance and one bathroom for every bedroom. This proposal is more conventional in having entry into the shared living space. It is also unapologetically retro in having only one bathroom regardless of the number of bedrooms. Until perhaps the 1970s, the typical Australian detached house had only one bathroom. This is Harry House in Bardon, Queensland, designed in 1954 by Ford, Hutton and Newell. [2] It had only one bathroom and it was sufficient.

Over the decades, The Australian house has become bloated. Not only is every bedroom a hotel suite, but the house itself replicates previously municipal services. Private swimming pools mean municipal pools are no longer for recreation. Home theatres eliminate local cinemas. Leisure rooms, games rooms, outdoor rooms, bars and barbeque areas eliminate the social benefits of parks, pubs and community centres. The house hasn’t bothered to replicate the local library. 

Wanting space on all sides of one’s house and not wanting party walls let alone floors are the same problem. This proposal attempts to overcome the psychological prejudice against party walls by placing them alongside strairwells or, when not, by lining them on both sides with storage. This proposal may be for an apartment building but one’s neighbour is nearly always at least two walls and at least 2.2 metres away. This is more than the suburban minimum and with no possibility of overlooking or overhearing across the fence.

• • •

This variation restores the hallways overlooking the elevator lobby and which were an important feature of The Landscape Within proposal. Nearly all apartment circulation passes through the hallways to animate internal views of the lobby, particularly at night. Landings of the external stairs overlap the access space and allow oversize half-landings and a degree of use as if they were private balconies.

• • •

  2. This book will show you much of what was good in the Australian house between 1950-1965.



  • This certainly speaks loudly to me as I sit in my Sydney suburb with new developments going up around me, thanks to a change in LEP. I’m all for density when it is intelligently done but all I see, here at least, is the clearing of all vegetation in preparation for bloated houses that reach out to the fenceline, the 1 metre gap then concreted so that water run-off becomes a serious issue. Scant respect for sunlight and privacy, few eaves (not the style) and a general hotch-potch of meaningless features to give an air of modernity. I’m not saying anything new, of course, but it astonishes me how few people see this as a problem or a blight… On the community/ density front, I still think Le Corbusier’s Unite in Marseille stands up remarkably well.

    • Yes, I really don’t know what can be done about continuing suburban sprawl coupled with the wrong sort of densification, apart from architects continuing to produce prototypes that make living at higher densities more attractive to Australians. Western Australia has the West Australian Apartment Advocacy, a body that works to promote the lifestyle and other benefits of living in apartments. While I applaud them for taking on the problem, I still think it bizarre such an entity is even necessary.

      I’ve always wanted to see a full set of plans for the Marseille Unité in particular as I’ve heard it said it has 23 different types of apartments. About 20% of those apartments must be two-storey single-access apartments as you can’t have dual aspect where there are elevators and stairs. Perhaps 80% of the apartments could be the “classic” 1+1/2 floor unit. I’ve seen photos of single-storey single aspect apartments but I’d really like to know how the larger apartments are configured. The rear bedroom walls could be knocked-through to create any number of “children’s” bedrooms but this would decrease the number of dual-aspect apartments.

      How to configure apartments of different sizes within a rigid structural system is one thing we need more information on generally. If Le Corbusier cracked it, then it’d be nice to learn how. Apartment buildings might become less expensive to make and this could increase their attractiveness to many. A bigger problem is how to make access corridors more attractive. Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 is the only example I know of where the architectural event is structured around people seeing others going to and from their apartments and these visible signs of activity are what apartment living should be about. It’s villagey in that respect.

      The other thing is energy usage. I’d like to see all apartments have daylighting and natural ventilation for not only the access corridors but all kitchens and bathrooms too. This is a good thing to do anyway but it might also result in apartments that feel a bit more like detached houses. A view and a balcony are expected to compensate for the unfriendliness of apartment corridors and their often nasty kitchens and bathrooms but I don’t think that has to be the case. I’m currently extending the proposal of this post to see if I can configure a linear apartment building that’s more friendly and less energy-dependent. (It’s going to take another couple of weeks.)The 1960s tower I lived in in London had naturally-lit and -ventilated lobbies, garbage rooms and laundry-drying rooms on all floors. These things were just provided as a matter of course.

      • Look forward to seeing your plans. The Unite has a much bigger percentage of through-apartments – 216 out of over 330, thanks to the clever inner street servicing two & three levels. But the inner streets are dark, which I quite like, as a contrast to the bright spaces of the apartments with their double-height spaces and large windows.