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Incremental Improvements

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Disruptive change is being touted as what makes the world better and this alone is sufficient reason to be suspicious of it, as well as the motives of those that say so. At the same time, and no doubt because of it, incremental improvements to known products pass unnoticed, giving people even less incentive to pursue them unless there’s some manufacturing economy to be gained. Manufacturing economies get pursued in the fields of electronics and computing but these fields at least deliver performance increases, even if price never seems to lower. Mass housing was once driven by these same forces but architecture’s loss of interest in mass housing coincided with the hollowing out of manufacturing and industry and, accordingly, governments’ interest in housing those workers. We should decry the death of the ideals of modernism for social reasons rather than aesthetic ones. 

However, I like to think buildings still need to get built to house people whether it fits the priorities of the state or not. How to build them more efficiently is still a social problem even if how to build them less efficiently is what sucks up all the architectural oxygen. A few weeks ago in the post Deck Access, I wrote:

The goal is a spatially efficient plan with

  • the daylighting and ventilation benefits of deck access
  • dual-loaded corridor to access the greatest number of apartments – maybe
  • open space between the access corridor and any windows facing it 
  • the option of having all living rooms on the same side of the building (despite the double-sided corridor)
  • the possibility of apartments with different numbers of bedrooms.

The Dispersed Apartment didn’t have all living rooms on the sunnier side. Plan Without Qualities didn’t have living rooms. So let’s try again! Having all living rooms on the same side of the building is one of the unique features of the scissor apartment that’s going to be my starting point. I remember saying the astonishing thing about this configuration is that it’s impossible for it to be anything else than what it is. S’time to find out!

Buildings with scissor apartments have corridors every other floor. Here, the pink apartment is half a flight of stairs above the level 0.0 corridor from which it is accessed. Another half flight of stairs will take you to level 1.0 which is where the bathroom is, another half flight to level 1.5 where two bedrooms are, and yet another half flight to a fire escape exit on corridor level 2.0. Apartments where the living room is half a flight up from the access corridor are called up-going apartments.

This yellow apartment is half a flight of stairs below the level 2.0 corridor from which it is accessed. Another half flight of stairs down will take you to level 1.0 which is where the bathroom is, another half flight down to level 0.5 where two bedrooms are, and yet another half flight down to a fire escape exit on corridor level 0.0. Apartments where the living room is half a flight down from the access corridor are called down-going apartments.

The two fit together like this, with both apartments having a bathroom on level 1.0 bridging the corridor.

The inherent problem of this arrangement – as you can infer from my schematics – is that access stairs never begin at the corridor wall. There’s usually space for an entrance lobby of some sort. This problem was never solved and so entrance lobbies in scissor stair apartments tend to be narrow to keep the width of the building down. The arrangement also has kitchens and bathrooms at the middle of the plan and, as a consequence, without windows. Also not great.

The goal is to improve this arrangement by having more windows where they’re needed and, at the same time, perhaps enhance the awareness of living with other people – in a Yamamoto kind of way. Achieving apartments with different numbers of bedrooms can come later. The first thing I did was stretch the plan because windows overlooking access corridors are going to need some space. This creates extra surface area but if you want additional windows then you are going to need additional surface area. [Corollary 1: Internal bathrooms and kitchens mean less external surface area and buildings that can be constructed more inexpensively. Corrolary 2: The construction industry always builds what the construction industry wants to build. Corollary 3: Architecture follows.]

Pulling the building apart increases the width of the building but, with the conventional scissor layout, the stairs created L-shaped rooms that, though useable, weren’t ideal. Increased external surface works if you want more windows but the question is what other benefits can be gained from this new space.

Following on from Plan Without Qualities, I propose open stairs from the entrance corridor to a small entrance landing on the living room level, whether it’s stairs down from 2.0 to 1.5 (yellow) or up from 0.0 to 0.5 (pink). This is fine in principle but those open stairs will have closed, internal stairs above and below them. Those vertical shafts I want aren’t going to feel (or be) very open. Stairs to the living room level will need to be horizontally displaced from the internal stairs, and they’ll need to go to the outside if both bathrooms are to have windows.

It looks like it’ll be possible to have an inner, shaft-like space overlooked by perhaps kitchen windows, and criss-crossed by the entrance half flights of stairs.

  • It’s time for some walls.
  • The railings indicate the corridor levels and the entrance stairs. All other stairs are internal.
  • The two bathrooms are still on level 1.0 – they’re not moving so I took away the colour.
  • I made the corridor floors concrete so we don’t forget these things have materials.

Here, the inner stairs are the external access stairs and the ones on the edge are the internal stairs. Except they’re not. Once again, the scissor stair arrangement is resisting being anything else than what it is. Whereas the exposed internal corridors of The Dispersed Apartment still had the potential for functionality (especially if they were made a bit wider), that’s not going to be the case here.

The open external stairs must be above the enclosed internal stairs and it produces something like this. Excuse my materiality.

The anticipated internal layout has each half flight of stairs not side by side but on opposite sides of the floor. This may prove to be a bad idea. In case it does, I’ll lay a trail and come back to this point and start again with conventional continuous flights on the same side of the apartment. If all goes right, this two-apartment module can be horizontally repeated with the up-going internal staircases of one apartment appearing as a continuation of the up-going external staircase of the apartment adjacent. Energy won’t be needed to light and ventilate bathrooms and kitchens, bathroom windows won’t even be visible from the access corridor, and kitchen windows and entrance door side panels should be well positioned to satisfy the “living together” aspects of this problem. It’s time to tidy this up and see what it’ll do. There’s two apartment layouts and two combinations to try.

  1. Stair landings crossing apartment, repeated along corridor
  2. Stair landings crossing apartment, mirrored along corridor
  3. Conventional internal landings, repeated along corridor
  4. Conventional internal landings, mirrored along corridor

It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about the internal layouts as I go along – there’s not that many rooms to think about – but I am a little worried what internal stairs on the side will do for the bedroom landings. Unlike the classic scissor stair arrangement with its central, intrusive stairs, my room shape won’t be compromised but plan efficiency I’m not so sure.


1. Stair landings crossing apartment, repeated along corridor

I’ve added a person for orientation around the various views. I think this proposal succeeds on the awareness factor. Privacy doesn’t need to mean social isolation.

Module 1
Module 1 repeated twice up and six along
Looking up to up-going apartment entrance
Looking down to down-going apartment entrance
Looking out from kitchen of down-going apartment
Looking out from kitchen of up-going apartment
Looking out from entrance door of up-going apartment
Looking up stairs in up-going apartment
Looking out from bedroom corridor of up-going apartment
Looking out from bedroom corridor of down-going apartment
Looking at bedroom corridors of up-going apartment (top window) and down-going apartment (middle window

2. Stair landings crossing apartment, mirrored along corridor

These are the same apartments alternately mirrored instead of repeated along the corridor.

  • The same volumes still subtract from the open space but the longer views along the corridor make it feel less enclosed.
  • This exercise is about living with other people so there’s nothing wrong with pairing entrances.
  • These entrances still have a double-width stair (as the width of the two flights of stairs below won’t change.)
  • There’s probably some advantage to constructing the stairs as double-width flights that are then divided.

3. Conventional internal landings, repeated along corridor

External, this is going to look exactly like the first variation since the internal position of the party walls is the only effective difference. I won’t take this further.

4. Conventional internal landings, mirrored along corridor

There are however two variations for this. The first will have the double-width stair for the entrance stairs while the internal stairs will continue as separate flights each side, and the second will have separate half-flights for the entrance stairs that then continue up as a double-width divided flight as per Variation 3.

4a. Double-width entrance stairs

First, the new plan.

  • The entrance landing is smaller but will be paired with the other – which is fine for these up-going apartments.
  • Dedicated circulation is minimal and gross internal area hasn’t changed.
  • The additional 300mm length for the kitchen has been taken from the width of the entrance.
  • The length of the bedroom landing halved and this space went to make one of the bedrooms larger. This landing still has a window.
  • The other bathroom is accessed by the down-going apartment on the way down. This won’t work for the end-of-building apartments. I realized later that It would only ever have worked for apartments repeated, not mirrored.
  • Internal stairwell walls are now 200mm.
  • Fire escape not compromised.
  • The minimal width entrance was a disadvantage of the conventional scissor stair apartment. This isn’t such a problem with the up-going apartments with their paired entrancesbut the down-going ones will have their entrances above/below the internal corridor shown here and won’t be paired. There will be only an 800mm x 800mm space in front of the entrance door – no improvement.
  • As for the appearance from the access corridor, I don’t like how the entrances are hidden.

4b. Double-width internal stairs

This variation will have the same constrictions for the entrances, only this time those of the down-going apartments will be paired while the up-going apartments will have the 800mm x 800mm entry “porch”. Construction-wise, there’s probably more to be saved by having parallel internal corridors than parallel entrance stairs. Making the entrance wider means taking from the kitchen.

However, since the problem with variation 4b was that the internal stairs concealed the (admittedly small) entrances, pairing the internal corridors so the entrance doors are on the open side seems the way forward. The entrance improved at the expense of the kitchen but it also meant the fire-escape door is now on the wrong side of the bedroom corridor. The door swings out but still, it’s not a safe way to access a fire stair. Paired internal corridors with entrances on the outside will always have this problem. The fire-escape exit of the down-going apartment doesn’t have this problem and nor did the previous variation (with the barely visible entrances).

  • With all variations, the length of the bathroom is determined by the width of the apartment.
  • With all variations, the width of the bathroom is determined by the width of the access corridor
  • With all variations, the width of the entrance affects the length of the kitchen because the entire width of the apartment is allocated across kitchen, entrance and internal stair.
  • With all variations, it’s simple enough to appropriate a third bedroom from the adjacent apartment, thereby converting 2 no. 2-bed apartments into 1 no. 1-bed and 1 x 3-bed.
  • With all variations, the bathroom drainage is going to be interesting. The original scissor solved this very elegantly but I’ve split the plan where the stack used to be. I still believe that space is better used for light, air and sociality rather than soil pipes and cockroaches.


#2: Stair landings crossing apartment, mirrored along corridor is the way to go.

  • Access between entrance and internal stair overlaps the activity space of the kitchen. This isn’t best practice in family houses and apartments but, were this apartment to be lived in by two, three or four adults, the bedroom corridor door is more likely to be used as a secondary entrance, especially if they’re not seen as secondary but alternate.
  • Mirroring apartments makes their entrances more open and visible even though they’re between internal half-flights.
  • One reason we won’t see buildings like this is because there’s an 18.8 metres of external wall in addition to the 11.8 metres of external wall of an unstretched layout. This is how it is. You can’t have external windows without external walls.

This proposal seems like something that ought to exist. I’ve drafted the plan as simply as possible and it can be read as either an up-going apartment or a down-going apartment.

They mirror like this.

And they look like this.

This is a good place to stop, knowing there’s still questions of construction, how the access corridors and bathrooms are going to be supported, where the washing machine is going to go, drainage.

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