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The Space Between Apartments

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The problem: to arrive at a circular configuration for medium-high rise housing that has

1) the structural efficiency of circular structures such as the Chinese vernacular Han (Hakka) communal house

2) cross ventilation to all apartments enabled by the two or four apartments per landing as in a typical floor of a standard Chinese apartment building

3) the central access of certain Indian apartment buildings

4) access every third floor to enable three-storey high elevator lobbies such as my 2018 Streets In The Sky proposal

5) access floorplate airspace for privacy and vertical airflow as in Chinese apartment buildings

6) access every third floor to enable three-storey high elevator lobbies such as my Vertical Village II or Walden 11 proposals.

5) bathroom windows opening onto airspace every floor and kitchen windows overlooking that airspace every floor such as in the Indian Apartments above, or my Wind Tower proposal from June

It’s fairly simple to adapt the Indian Apartments as the circular layout will mean the central void area can be as large as it needs to be but how large or small is that? This is one problem, and I also anticipate the following conflicts all related to the size of the void.

  1. Deciding the number of elevators, and thus the number of floors
  2. Ensuring meaningful cross ventilation
  3. Making the void spaces multifunctional re. security, sociability and community, as well as for ventilation and privacy

My first thought was to just bend Streets In The Sky full circle. Either or both concentric walls can be primary structural elements, depending on how tall this building turns out to be. They could be masonry or mud brick, with concrete used only for floor slabs, stairwells and maybe the elevator shafts. It already looks like the external stairwells will be what ventilates and illuminates the core. Fine.

I still don’t know how large the central void will be so I’ve provisionally kept the internal staircases that can connect multiple units according to usage and spatial requirements. I still think it’s a great idea even though I wonder, “Why, if it’s that great, somebody hasn’t thought of it before?” It stays for now, but whether it’s there or not isn’t crucial.

Apartment volume and access stairs are provisionally sorted and plumbing and utilities will be dispersed rather than centralized, as will heating and cooling. Natural illumination and ventilation to all rooms should reduce the need for cooling. More windows necessarily means more external wall and so, unless they are very deep plans, double-sided (dual aspect) apartment will always have more external surface area than single-sided ones the same area. It might be an idea to put the kitchens and bathrooms on the shorter, inner side of the donut, and place the habitable rooms on the outer.

The windowless side of linear apartments typically has a surfeit of space that gets filled with all manner of wet rooms and service rooms.

For that and other reasons, I used to use these three examples to show UAE students what not to do.

The example on the left below is usually as good as it gets but the washing machine room and external storage are fillers, albeit useful ones. The deep layout on the right has some surplus length on the inner side that has been used to provide a windowless maid’s room. I’m including this as a reference for how the degree of curvature, apartment depth and the difference in length between the inner and outer edges are linked. These will probably determine the optimum radius for my circle building. The second layout would still have an internal bathroom and kitchen, bot both make more sense if the inner wall has windows.

The next thing I should do is write an algorithm incorporating these variables, as well as all the other parameters for marketable yet good-practice room and furniture layouts, and then find someone to translate it and tweak it so I can let Grasshopper automate my work. On the other hand, I could always just design it using that algorithm known as taking everything into consideration and tweaking it by drawing on experience and learning from it. This next is my first drawing-up.

  • Each apartment is approx. 45m2 and there are eight per floor. This will be too large if the internal staircase is to remain and impose certain (known) restrictions on the internal planning.
  • Right now the kitchen and bathroom are separated by that stairwell door but I’d like each two apartments to share a shaft and this means they must be adjacent.
  • I’d also like to have no curved wall requiring special cabinetry in the kitchens, and to have no bathroom fixtures against curved walls.

The point of this exercise is to have eight apartments per floor but the configuration will need to have advantages over the already-good standard Chinese configuration. Two elevators per two apartments seems excessive but necessary as a precaution against failure (if one assumes high-rise). If such buildings were simply arranged to form a circle there’d be no need for every third floor to be a lobby, and the only advantage of the circle configuration would be a structural one at the expense of ideal orientation – much like the vernacular Han house at the beginning of this post.

Sharing elevators is not all about economy as elevator lobbies also have a social dimension. They’re also indicators of activity inside the building as a place where people live and come and go but much of this activity will be obscured by the elevator shafts that provide much of that activity. This contradiction means the elevators need to be against the end walls of apartments walls having something like a truncated pie-shaped layout.

Time spent so far: 90 minutes, not counting time spent writing about it.

Circle House V.2 isn’t looking so circular. I still don’t know what’s going to go behind these centre-facing windows but they’re not going to have 100% overlooking. However, this is a three-story high space, daylit, naturally ventilated and with a degree of human activity and occasionally social interaction.

A bit more planning, moving things around, placing shafts, putting the internal stair on the outer wall and here’s where it’s at.

It seems okay and I’ve managed to keep the potential for variable occupancy and tenure afforded by the reconfigurable access to the internal stair . The layouts below show a one bedroom apartment and a studio, but spaces can be linked vertically and horizontally to make apartments, B&B’s or even hotels. With four elevators servicing eight apartments per floor with elevator stops every third, the building could have maybe 40-50 storeys.

Time spent so far: 3 hours.

It’s time to flesh out the 3D and see if this really was such a great idea. Just to state it again, the reason for doing all this was to have the opportunity for double-sided apartments, access lobbies that are naturally illuminated and ventilated, and that are conducive to a feeling of community – of people living together in the same building. It’s time to hand it over to the render guy and tell him to give it some windows and balustrades so other people can have an idea how this is shaping up. There won’t be any ray tracing or bitmapping smiley people, birds, and growies, but the flat renders will show the essence of this building as it might exist rather than the perfection of one that never will.

If I’m going to have to add a shelf that can take and A/C compressor if required, then I might as well make a balcony for laundry washing and drying as well. The area of this would be subtracted from the internal area on the side adjacent to the external stairs and reducing the size of a studio apartment from about 25 sq.m to 22 sq.m (240 sq.ft). It’s not large, especially when your only walls aren’t parallel and meeting at right angles.

This 22 sq.m is the number that stuck in my mind after reading this article.
[Thanks Hugh for thinking of me and sending me the link!]

It mentions how small the apartments are, the economic drivers for builders building them and for people renting them. It of course mentions the psychological cost of living in such a small space but doesn’t offer any insights into how to make 22 square meters more liveable. Feelings of social isolation probably are exacerbated by living in a small apartment but it’s still a problem with larger apartments that people enter and close their doors behind them, isolating themselves from the remainder of the building and the people they share it with. The worst part of the problem in Hong Kong is that stopgap buildings are being built that nobody likes living in, or is keen to settle down in. Another is that nobody knows what the solution is. Whether Hong Kong, the UK or Australia, homebuyers get what housebuilders can build and sell. The thing about free markets is that they’re never market-driven. It’s not a problem architecture is eager to tackle.

Residential buildings are more profitable when the proportion of sellable to non-sellable space is high. This proposal uses the non-sellable airspace between apartments to add social amenity to the sellable space.

I still have to do the area and efficiency calculations but my gut feeling is that I’ve made a more efficient and social building and probably managed to save some concrete because I’m these apartments semi-enclose larger volumes of amenity airspace. Regardless, this building can be lived in without artificial illumination or ventilation, and the only operational energy needed is that for elevators, the water pump and motion-activated nighttime illumination.

One third of apartments have level access, one third is accessed up a flight of stairs and the other third down. This is what makes the configuration possible and is a premise, not a problem. The two biggest problems arise from the circular shape. Not everybody’s apartment will face the preferred directions for view and/or sunlight. The openness of the access lobbies will still provide them with an awareness of them and (communal) access to them via the stairs. The more serious problem is that circular buildings are land-hungry. They’re omnidirectional and can’t be tightly packed. I need to know how the land use efficiency compares.

Separating my circle towers say 20 metres on an isometric grid would maximize airflow, daylight distribution, and views of whatever there is to see, and provide a density for comparison with the regular grid of the standard practice arrangement above. The preferred grid for residential towers is an academic question at the moment as the Chinese property market is, um, in a state of transition. Many apartments in developments like the one above are planned well and for all the right reasons but have been built and sold for all the wrong ones. When the dust settles, I hope we see more of smaller apartments with a lower level of luxury but using non-sellable area to produce an awareness of living together with other people. Internal area alone can’t do this, however much of it there is.


  • it’s quite a humane model. me thinks users would happily trade off the small units for the grand circulation spaces and the sense of community they would lend. it’s a great visual sharing of common space as shown doing the dishes. you’re hella speedy with that program. well done.

  • Beautiful done as always! I simply can’t resist noting that a wee bit of a rotation on those staircases leads us right to the Mississauga Towers. Then we’d really arrive at L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui! 🙂