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Learning From Shikumen

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In 2003 I produced a small proposal to fit several two-bedroom houses onto a small site somewhere in Kent, UK. I wanted to design only one house with arbitrary window positions so the houses could be rotated and clustered on the triangular plot. This is it. It could be a row house with windows only on end walls or it could have windows in the side walls, end situation permitting. I liked the fact the plan could be shrunk yet still retain all its features.

It wasn’t horrible, but this is what I think can be improved.

  • Apart from the downstairs w/c, the middle part of the plan is taken up solely by circulation. 27.8% is too much, even if it does allow one to see along the entire length of the house. I expect this excess width at the entrance point came about because I thought the roof geometry more pleasing.
  • The upstairs bathroom is too large.
  • I’m not convinced of the necessity for a downstairs w/c.
  • The second bedroom is the same size as the living room.
  • In a row house situation, the courtyard wouldn’t be large enough to function as a courtyard.
  • The original proposal had communal garbage bins adjacent to the car parking area but there should be some provision for individual outdoor storage, if not necessarily for garbage bins.

This is the 2022 re-design.

  • I overcame my misgivings about the roof geometry and circulation space shrunk by 10% to 17.6% accordingly. Short of introducing a ladder stair or artificially inflating the habitable area, I can’t see how it could be made any less.
  • I toyed with entering the house from a re-entrant corner in front of the stair. This increased the habitable area organically, and also placed the entrance at a more useful position – as it is in many a terraced house – but it complicated the upper floor unnecessarily.
  • I also toyed with the idea of having the houses repeated instead of mirroring pairs of them around the party wall separating the courtyards, but this meant the courtyard wall would need to be higher and would reduce light to the courtyard and the rooms opening onto it.
  • Mirroring also meant a reduction in the amount of external wall area. All the reduction was for party walls so there was no loss of window wall area.
  • The courtyard is now square and rooms opening onto it now have double the area of glazing. End walls need only have minimal window openings.
  • Construction could be updated and panelized but I’ve kept it brick for now. Its still basically a K-Span house and, apart from the internal circulation, still isn’t world’s away from Ando Sumiyoshi/Azuma House. If you want to link two rooms per floor around a courtyard, then it’s difficult for it not to be. I’ve not gone with his peculiarly Japanese bathroom positioning but I have stacked the wet rooms.
  • The general shape and slope of the roof remain unchanged and the roof still discharges to the courtyard and then via a drain to the street. However, parapets are additional cost and (in order to prevent the spread of fire) are best reserved for party walls only. Pending.

New Shikumen I

The defining characteristic of the Shanghai li-long typology is the internal courtyard existing in a row-house typology, and the defining characteristic of a shikumen neighbourhood is these row houses arranged in rows inside a block having perimeter retail. These rows are single-sided with the front of one facing the rear of another.

  • The bathroom can have a window.
  • A L-shaped kitchen is possible. The kitchen has a service access with storage and space for garbage bins.
  • All rows are oriented north-south and so mirroring houses will not affect daylight quantity.
  • The service area can hold two garbage bins and is also an alternative entrance.
  • Next to the service entrance is a storage/utility area. It’s possible to have a lower level w/c, and with a window this time.
  • I spent much time pondering the best configuration for the roof. I’ve kept parapets between houses to prevent fire spread and I increased the party wall projection between adjacent upper level windows for the same reason. Whether to keep the parapet walls flat or have them follow the inclination of the roof will be a tradeoff between economy of materials and economy of labour, assuming conventional construction.
  • I assumed conventional construction, even knowing that the walls will probably not be cavity brick and the windows timber framed. I’ve kept the construction simple and avoided lintels. The only internal beam spans the corridor to support the roof at the bathroom end of the stairwell.
  • In the end, I set the direction of the roof for maximum daylighting to the courtyards and to the streets.

All that needs to be done now is multiply them. I’ve made no provision for car parking. It’s in the street which will is about 6 metres wide – not unlike many a London mews house.

Unsurprisingly, the streetscape resembles 1920s Shanghai where this building and urban typology originated to solve chronic overcrowding. The premises are still valid. The space between rows could even be reduced to 1920’s standards if some alternate provision were made for vehicle access. The street with in the image above assumes two way traffic and cars parked on one side. The street width in the images below was most likely arrived at from daylighting and ventilation concerns rather than automobile access, and is probably minimal.

Narrow as the streets of this proposal are, they will still be more lively than the circa 1960 streets of an Arab city where courtyards are completely enclosed and windows rarely open directly onto streets for reasons of privacy as much as security.

Finally, the area delineated in the image below is approximately 13,100 sq.m. There are 2 x 8 x 5 dwellings in that area = 80 with an average occupancy of three persons = 240 people = 18,500 ppl/

This is a population density greater than Seoul and roughly equal to that of Macau, but still less than Athens.

As ever, the point of these explorations is not to design a tiny house in isolation, but to design one so can be aggregated with many others without sacrificing any benefits of the layout.

A quick check of the Australian national code tells me that 450mm high parapets are necessary only when the roof cladding is combustible [!]. I hadn’t thought of separating adjacent roofs by a box gutter and I’m not sure how I feel about roof battens extending over the party wall even with a non-combustible cladding that’s almost certainly going to be sheet metal.

This new knowledge may mean parapets are unnecessary for fire protection reasons but daylight considerations still suggest the roofs slope down to the courtyard and drainage considerations suggest they should slope to the street.

  • For a while, I thought the small piece of connecting roof above the stairs and corridor could be some kind of fully glazed orangery-type connection covering the stair and a bridge corridor. It’s a possibility. This space would get hot and cold, but not as much as Ando’s Sumiyoshi House.

Perhaps getting rid of the parapets and having a box gutter isn’t such a bad idea. Putting that box gutter not along the parapet but along the line of the upstairs corridor wall will keep the height of the butterfly roof low. Murcutt-esque curved sheet metal would be cool but is’nt going to happen. This is where I’ve left it for now. The box gutter is simple a normal gutter along the courtyard wall. It is open at both ends to prevent blocking and overflowing and to let rainwater drain directly to the street.


  • I sure appreciate bathroom window. I like kitchen width in the first try better. Conscise and with island option. New living ares is way too TV oriented. If you opt out of TV, you’re left with weird arrangement options. When you’re old, you appreciate toilet on the ground floor too… Guess I’d make thrid version of the layout, that mashes up both of yours, cheers!

    • Hello Alia – I haven’t stopped thinking about this. The second bedroom is still as large as the living room and is a problem. I don’t care much for televisions in living rooms myself but every living room should at least provide a place for them for those people that do. I also question the dominance of the kitchen in any plan – both functionally and socially. Australian kitchens, for example, always have an island or bench counter. They’re beginning to seem quite old fashioned. hhh like you, I don’t mind a downstairs toilet either, and although there’s the option of having one, I didn’t feel that strongly about it. I haven’t drawn anything up yet, but I’m thinking of putting the living room at the back and the the kitchen/eating area at the front. This will mean that, upstairs, the bathroom will be at the front and next to the master bedroom while the second bedroom will be at the rear and above the living room and still too large. It might be an idea to have an upper level outdoor area. It’s not over yet. Thanks.

      • I see where you come from. Too large bedrooms are problematic. I like the idea of upper level outdoor area. Wonder how it could be used though? Clothes drying? 🙂 I hope to see the third version some time in the future!

  • Great prototype and rational improvements on your 1st pass. Set up for solar and like the parapet-free version. To sleep better at night, might do gentle saddles between the gables in lieu of the “box gutters”. In the US, folks get crazy about the palatial master bedroom with dedicated bathroom. I know the ROW (Rest of World) doesn’t have the same belief system. The hall bath serving 2-4 occupants is just right. One doesn’t need to make a career about doing #1, #2, or taking 5 minutes to bathe (ref. to Hugo Chavez, RIP regarding how long a shower should take). A jack-n-jill, 2-sink bath would be nice, but something else in your efficient plan would need to give. Cheers.