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These are some of the major moments in the history of elevators.

30BC give or take: Vitruvius wrote that Archimedes built an elevator circa 236 BC. 
circa 1000: The Book of Secrets by al-Muradi in Islamic Spain described the use of an elevator-like lifting device used to raise a battering ram to destroy a fortress.
17thC: English and French palaces had simple elevators as amusing diversions.

They were all hoist-based systems.

1793: The first screw-drive elevator was installed in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

Industrial Revolution: Elevators made mining coal easier. Coal made making steel easier.
1835: The first steam-driven elevator with counterweights.
1852: Elisha Otis famously demonstrated his safety elevator at the New York exposition in 1854.
1857: The first passenger elevator installed at 488 Broadway, NYC.


1870: Elevators installed for the first time in an office building.
1880: The German company Siemens builds the first electric elevator.
1890: Completely automated elevators were possible but weren’t widely accepted until the second half of the twentieth century.

What happened after is also history. Realistically, I don’t think the disabled are going to be made undisabled by bionic limbs anytime soon. Ramps have their place, but never as the primary means of moving around inside a tall building.

Even the one at Solomon R. is down only.

There’s nothing wrong with imagining a perfect world but I’m going to have to accept that elevators are going to be around for quite some time to come. Maybe someone will invent ones that use less energy and are less reliant on embodied carbon.

My mud-brick apartment building from two weeks ago is going to need an elevator.
[c.f. Pre-Carbon Copy]

It had a floor plate efficiency of 86.3% which was sweet but not DDA/ADA-compliant. In what follows, Area will refer to gross internal area, and Efficiency to the ratio of net habitable area to net internal area, as indicated by the colors (and including stairs up to the break lines). All plans are to the same scale.

My first thought was to just add an elevator. The building is eight stories max. so there’l only be the one. I assumed a self-supporting structure for the elevator shaft. I don’t remember why my first iteration (below) was circular. I was probably expecting some savings in the volume of the external wall compensating for the additional internal wall. If so, that was stupid of me because building rectangular buildings with shared walls would be a far better use of material. This was all worked out long ago. Floor “plate” efficiency drops because of the additional area for the elevator. I wasn’t feeling good about arranging furniture and functions in basically triangular rooms this size.

Back to square one, but now with an elevator. I reasoned that if there’s going to be an elevator with a self-supporting structure, then that structure should do a bit more work and be integrated into the building. In this next, the elevator shaft is a stiffening element at the centre of the building. This means the structure of the landings would have to tie together the two halves horizontally. Area increases because the entire building is longer by the width of the elevator but six square meters of that has to be used to get around the elevator. The position of the dining table disguises this somewhat. Efficiency improves because apartment area grew at more than twice the rate the access area.

This next plan has no change in area or efficiency but is neater because the apartment “lobby” is planned along with the other service elements. The convention of “formal progression” from public to private has gone but it’s still necessary to pass around the elevator. This is just how it is. There’s no other place for it.

Or is there? This next sideways stairwell and elevator combination solved that problem and also resolved a contradiction I’d become aware of. Namely, if we want a low-carbon building then the elevator needs to do less structural work, not more. It makes no sense to replace a mud brick wall with a reinforced concrete elevator shaft. The self-supporting elevator is a separate problem for other people to work on. I like this layout despite the additional area required for the secondary corridor that restores symmetry to the apartments. Efficiency isn’t great as a result, but it’s also because the doors are in the right places. The apartment can be planned very tightly. I’m only solving internal planning for the studio apartment as it’s the most critical.

This next is a variant attempting to make access more efficient by accessing twice the number of apartments and without sacrificing natural ventilation and daylighting for bathrooms and access stairs. It works, with all wet rooms (and studios) on one side and additional habitable rooms on the other. I like it.

It’s also possible to have this variation with a single-level one-bedroom apartment bypassed by the internal stair.

Another thing I had to try was what I’ll call The Parisian Elevator. Efficiency isn’t great but once again it’s because (a) the access space is large and (b) the central placement of all doors allows for a very tightly-planned apartment. I’d like it more if it was conventional construction because here the elevator and stairs are becoming the one structure once again. I need to remember the point of this exercise is to use mud for even the stairs and landings.

I’ve come almost full circle. I now have mud brick on four sides of my elevator and, although we still have to walk around it, I’ll call that new room I’ve created a storage area because it can’t be called a habitable room. I’m uneasy about this, but won’t argue that sleep generally involves reduced light levels and a lower rate of ventilation – as in breathing.

I’m assuming a cage elevator with an independent self-supporting structure – like what elevators used to be before their shafts were brought into service in the structural cores of carbon-form buildings.

Next, I’ll concentrate on making everything wheelchair accessible. First, I adjusted the size of the elevator carriage to minimum dimensions. It wasn’t necessary to change the size of the shaft.

Increasing the width of the landing to 1500 mm increased GIA by 1.1 sq.m but two thirds of that was for the apartments so the efficiency dropped only slightly to 82.1% . I made all doors 980 mm with a clear width of 900 mm.

I used 60″ (1524 mm) as the distance in front of kitchen counters, and the following dimensions for the bathroom.

For the bed, most plans I saw had a 1500 mm wheelchair circle on only one side of the bed. (How does the bed get made?) For now, I’ve kept the bed at 1300mm wide and increased the width of the apartment to 3000 mm to allow the bed to be placed perpendicular to the wall if wanted. This is good practice anyway. Here’s how it turned out. The efficiency can only be improved by increasing the width of the building by making the apartments wider, and/or by removing the split landings from either or both stairs, so making the apartments longer.

The inset shows a minimal non-accessible bathroom and kitchen.

I removed the wall that created those problematic inner spaces. This scaled comparison shows 7 metres as about the limit for wall length in a multi-storey mud brick building but I simply don’t know what the variables are. The only people who could tell me are Yemeni builders.

  • This is the smallest apartment possible for a DDA compliant apartment. The internal stair won’t be used but, if this apartment is on the ground floor, then the landing can be used to access the large room on the other side (or, if it’s on the uppermost floor, to both rooms on the other side). In these cases, the stairs would connect the apartment to the one above (or below).
  • If this apartment were on a middle floor it could connect to either the apartment above and below or both.
  • Another option is for the apartments above and below to be connected yet bypass the apartment completely. It’s not necessary to access the apartment internally as all apartments are connected by the elevator.
  • Granted, assistance might be needed, say, to make the bed or do the laundry, but that assistance doesn’t have to come from a connected apartment, or may not even be wanted to come from one. It’s a personal choice and, by simply allowing or disallowing direct internal connections between apartments, it is possible to design so people can control their level of independence. Apartments may be connected as a precaution but family members may want to enter the apartment as would any visitor or helper. We can’t assume how people will want to live, especially when disability or ageing are concerned. All we can be certain of is things not staying the same forever.

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