Antisocial House

Over these past few months, articles in the architectural media have been split between those that use our global pandemic to push their author’s agenda for architectural or urban change, and those decrying this by saying it’s too early to tell and that we should wait until things return to normal – which is itself an agenda disguised as a non-agenda. A third stance is to accept change if the basics remain intact, as gracefully articulated by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his 1958 novel The Leopard, set in pre-unification Sicily.

In the book, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” were the words used by an Italian aristocrat to explain how his family would have to give up its old ways in order to retain influence after unification. The statement was always a political one but 2020 has been a bumper year for quotes and misquotes, not least of all because disaster capitalism and its associated politics take it further by callously regarding unplanned change as opportunities for furthering its only agenda.

Thus we have have planned change that we initiate and welcome because of some anticipated outcome, unplanned change we abhor because it thwarts that agenda and, finally, taking advantage of unplanned change for one’s own ends. This is what we’re seeing in the world at large but also in the field of architecture there to serve the needs of that world. The only question is whose world that is.

  • Architects should always be thinking about how the built environment can adapt to circumstances and changed for the better. Ninety years ago when architects still believed the mother of invention, architect Mosei Ginsburg and his team came up with a proposal for a way of living they thought would be better adapted to the new Soviet society being created. It was an example of planned-for change in response to circumstances.
  • It may have been suitable for its occupants but not for those in charge, who wanted something that didn’t involve too much change, especially to existing social structures. Large apartments and villas were therefore appropriated and used to house multiple households. Kitchens were shared rather than communal. This is an example of there being no plan other than to muddle through new circumstances resulting from change. We call this firefighting.
  • Architecture is well adapted to embracing change that maintains the status-quo. Every year brings some new “green” mega-airport earnestly broadcasting how virtuous it is while enabling business as usual. (Foster+Partners’ PR lets us know their latest luxury airport proposal for Saudi Arabia is inspired by a mirage but refuses to respond to critics.) To this group we can add resorts that float as well as anything to do with building on Mars.

Where does all this leave us? Residential buildings with communal kitchens, dining and recreation rooms were never built as the solutions they might have been but the typology is with us today as dormitories and care homes – and currently causing shudders worldwide but not for any architectural misconception. Office towers are another useful building typology also being looked at askance. Not everyone can telework from their house in the country but many companies are keen to have their employees work from home, saying they’ll be safer for not having to reach their place of employment via public transport, communal lobbies and shared elevators.

In today’s news Lloyds Banking Group, a major UK employer, said ““As more of our colleagues are able to work flexibly and remotely, we are becoming less reliant on office space,” Those former “office” workers are now free to use their homes as the place of work their employer used to pay good money to provide. Employers benefit from productivity up and fixed costs down so I’d like to think employees will someday get a tax deduction for providing a workplace, as the self-employed do. But all this begs the question: If elevators are so unsafe for people to use to get to work, then what about the people who need to use them to get home? Instead of rushing to reimagine the workplace and reimagine the city it might be an idea to rethink apartment buildings and the place of elevators in them.

Despite the long introduction, this post really began with me thinking about how to adapt the apartment layout of Going Up And Down, in which I added an elevator to the mud-brick apartments of Pre-Carbon Copy in order to make them DDA compliant. This is where I left it on January 5.

Last year I’d been wanting to celebrate the communal areas of apartment buildings so we could get better social value from these spaces used by all residents. [c.f. The Universal Apartment, Streets in the Sky, The Uncompleted Apartments, and others].

Much has now changed. Fire escape stairs are still as necessary as ever and natural ventilation is still good but we’re suddenly less keen on communal areas and are newly anxious about elevator sharing. No-one’s offended when the elevators doors open and you decide to pass and say “You go on ahead!” to strangers.

What to do? I first added a double-door elevator so the apartments either side could be directly accessed. I imagined it using the destination floor reservation system where you call the elevator by pressing the number of your destination floor. However, these elevators won’t group into the same elevator everybody going to the same office floor, but would take only you to your designated apartment. [The height of the building would be determined by some acceptable level of inconvenience because the elevator returns to the lobby level for each passenger.]

This makes the ground floor lobby the only place you could meet your neighbours or anyone else living in or moving around your building. It wouldn’t be possible to even share an elevator with anyone else unless they invited you into their elevator going to their apartment. Outside the elevator doors on each floor is a set of destination buttons and inside the elevator the only buttons are for closing or holding the doors. This is strange at first.

The doors are opened either by access card or by an occupant inside the destination apartment opening the door. This arrangement is suited to unaccompanied deliveries. Since a single-occupancy double-doored elevator could be used to privately access any of the other linked apartments (or unlinked apartments if their occupants open the door), this makes the internal stair of the above apartments redundant because all possibilities for permitted private movement between apartments are enabled by the elevator. The fire-escape stair remains a communal amenity for communal use in times of emergency but the elevator has become a communal amenity for use by one household at a time.

This post is concerned with layout principles so I’ll continue with conventional wall thicknesses rather than mud-brick ones. The layout efficiency of my first attempt, V1.0, is excellent but only because the internal area approaches that of a two-bedroom apartment. V1.1 has a GIA ten square metres less but a better efficiency because the fire escape stair length has been reduced to the minimum permissible by Dubai Fire Code.

It’s still large for a one-bedroom apartment so V 2.0 turns the stair around to reduce the apartment area a further 12 sq.m.

The split-level construction is a construction complication so Version 3.0 returns the stair to the former position and moves the elevator to the exterior because we like open air.

I’m imagining a hybrid elevator part “birdcage” elevator and part construction hoist sensibly attached to the building at balconies. V 3.1 has a balcony that we value more for all the usual reasons but entering the apartment via the balcony also means that clothes, shopping or deliveries in need of washing, drying or sanitizing can be left outside.

The point of all these variations around a stairwell remains the same as it was in Pre-Carbon Copy, Going Up and Down and the Universal Apartment series of posts: namely, to configure an apartment building that can be lived in as either single, extended or multiple households without sacrificing any of the respect for privacy and safety bubbles that that entails. The double-sided, designated-floor elevator still allows any number of half-floors to be arbitrarily joined to confugure a household. This next comparison has everything apart from the elevator and stair positions adjusted to be equal.

V 1.2 permits movement within the building with a minimum of inconvenience because the elevator is internal but V 3.2 has other advantages due to the elevator being external. This is a fundamental conflict of privacy and convenience vs. ventilation and sanitization. What’s good for one isn’t good for the other. Screening the balconies would change them into semi-enclosed spaces not as well ventilated and with more surface area. Both elevator positions make it possible to communicate between apartments configured from more than one half-floor but another problem is that those half floors don’t permit as many layout possibilities as those of Pre-Carbon Copy, for example.

The L-shape is the problem because all wall positions are fixed by either the sleeping space or the kitchen being tucked into that corner made by the stairwell. Moreover, entering from the balcony means entering from the periphery and not the centre, necessitating circulation space of some kind. The stairwell, balcony and elevator doors of V3.3 below, all need to be moved towards the middle of the apartment. This is a tall order since the elevator doors are linked to balconies on the periphery.

V 4.0 overcomes this.

Version 4.1 simplifies construction by making the elevator and balconies into an add-on structure at the “rear” of the apartments but this now creates an L-shape on the other side.

V 4.2 is probably as good as it’s going to get. The balcony can be extended to the bathroom that now has a door to become an alternative entrance or for facilitating the washing of items on the balcony before bringing them into the apartment. These extended balconies stop two metres short of the balcony adjacent. Construction was simplified at the rear but complicated at the front to allow opposing windows two metres apart. It might be an idea.

As a spin-off, I explored possibilities for unpaired apartments as a kind of Antisocial Row House. You’ll recognize much from the previous exercises – all I’ve done is reinvent the Yemeni extended family house yet again. All areas are 51.25 sq/m (GIA) or 39.60 sq.m (NIA) – a floor efficiency of 77.3%.

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The entire building could comprise independent apartments since an arbitrary number of floors can be made into the one household by the elevator, if not the stair. The design and material for the elevator cabin and balcony balustrades would need to have little or no plastic or metals such as stainless steel since it’s been found they keep bacteria alive for longer. Timber has other disadvantages. Perhaps carbon fibre will save the day. Perhaps there’s a non-biophilic benefit in the vegetations of Edouard Francois.