Category Archives: PERFORMANCE

milestones in the pursuit of better performing buildings

An Architecture of Sharing (2’nd Attempt)

This post is a reworking of a post of almost exactly one year ago, in an attempt to find a better way of approaching the subject. It’s mostly the preamble that’s different as the manifestations remain much the same although some of my examples are more extreme. This is because an architecture of sharing isn’t so much about people using/sharing out of kindness the building elements and the spaces they create, but about the need to benefit from the positive environmental and social effects of doing so.

Here I’m not talking about sharing as in a cake or pizza where using the object depletes it at twice the rate and each person has only half of the whole. I’m taking about sharing as in walls that are party walls and not external walls, and slabs that are one person’s ceiling and another person’s floor at the same time. In this sense, if two people share something, they only need one thing and not two. The economic sense of this is not lost on builders and developers. The environmental sense of sharing is not fully recognized. (The first letter of sharing is not R.) Instead of focussing solely on concepts such as defensible space in response to negative aspects of people living in close proximity, equal attention should at least be paid to simple tweaks to our building fabric that could bring positive social benefits for those same people.

An Architecture of Sharing is thus about building elements shared by multiple persons. It’s about a way of seeing and thinking about building elements in terms of what they do rather than in terms of what they are. It is about not seeing walls in terms of visual characteristics such as colour, texture or shape, physical properties such as strength, availability or economy, or even in terms of any historical or cultural associations that wall may evoke. With all that now in the background, the architecture that results is going to be different from anything we had in the 20th century or anything we’ve ever had before. If we can think of walls in terms of how they accentuate differences between the values of persons on each side, then we should be able to think of them in terms of how they might reinforce what values they may share.

But historically ingrained habits are difficult to fix, especially when they’ve been codified by architecture. As soon as space is divided, it has tended to become political. For millennia, walls have divided space into that on one side and that on the other and, by extension, the people on those respective sides. Walls not only physically divide and separate but are also statements of division and differentiation.

At the most basic level, enclosing space by building a wall articulates the possession of the enclosed space as well as the resources to enclose it. This has left us with a history of architecture articulating the possession of property and wealth. Such an architecture (and the aesthetic and moral codes for its evaluation) are proving unable, or at least resistant, to responding to new environmental, climatic, and social challenges. 

If you encounter a blank wall, you’ll know you’re not welcome or even entitled to know whether anyone is on the other side or what happens there. Walls such as these have existed for the protection of those on the outside (as with the case of jails and other places of confinement) but they more commonly exist for the protection of the people and things on the inside. The wall of Syrian supercastle Krak des Chevaliers doesn’t give much away apart from telling you you’re not welcome.

Now think of that same wall but now it has a door. It’s not important what type of door it is. What’s important is whether you have the means and rights to pass through that door. The extent of those rights will differ according to whether you are the owner, a resident, an employee, invited guest or visitor, or none of these.

The walls of a hotel room corridor are much like this. The doors are numbered and your cards has the number of your room on it, conferring you the right to occupy that room for a number of nights. A person in the corridor isn’t aware of other guests, cleaners, porters and room service who use that corridor, and a person in the room is similarly unaware of the internal life of the hotel. The hotel corridor is used by different people but is not shared. We accept this in hotels because hotels are for short-term stays, privacy and rest are these are more important than feeling one is sharing a floor and a building with many other people. There are lobbies and dining and leisure amenities for that. However, this configuration is also extremely common in residential buildings with single-aspect apartments. Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments is probably not prototypical but may as well be. It’s an example of everything that’s inadequate about 20th century apartment design.

This Architecture of Sharing I’m proposing doesn’t see a wall as something that divides people or groups of people but as something shared by those on each side. It’s not necessary for those two groups of people to have the same expectations with respect to that wall, but their expectations will be shaped by how much or how little they know about each other and that knowledge will largely come from what can be seen through openings in that wall. 

The 20th century obsession with architecture as space skewed debate towards the difference between inside space and outside space and “blurring the distinction” between the two. In the Architecture of Sharing, this is a false distinction when inside space and outside space are both owned by the same person. (Glass walls were never going to be a solution when one side of the wall was private space and the other side of the wall was public or even communal space.)

Higher housing densities and a more efficient use of resources are possible because apartment buildings share building elements. Two people or two groups of people share the same wall. The same stairwell and elevator is used to access apartments on different levels. An architecture of sharing promotes the efficient use of resources, whatever they are. Entrance and elevator lobbies are spaces shared by all occupants of a building. Corridors are spaces shared by the occupants of  all apartments on the same floor. Negative spaces such as courtyards and light-wells can be horizontally shared by multiple persons and also can be shared vertically by multiple persons. None of this is new, but having an awareness of it is.

The Architecture of Sharing is not only about building elements such as walls and floors but also about the spaces they create. The Architecture of Sharing is concerned with making people more aware they are sharing these elements and spaces with other people. Its purpose is to configuring residential units that are more socially permeable. Closing the front door does not necessarily isolate residents from the building or its internal life. 

An idea of an architecture of sharing was contained in the now-disused term “streets in the sky”. That well-known photograph of Park Hill (1957–61) in Sheffield by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith showed children playing and housewives chatting along a deck access corridor. The implication is that these corridors would be regarded as and used as social amenity space. However, apart from the solid panel front doors themselves, the only awareness the residents had of the corridor on the other side was via the narrow panel of obscured-glass beside the front door. Streets were always much more than this.

One theme shared by many of the proposals here is how to make the shared spaces of multiple occupation residential buildings more like actual streets and what we like about them. We all know of shared surfaces where pedestrians and vehicles traverse the same surface at the same time. They work because drivers and pedestrians are each aware of the presence of the other. This mutual awareness is something that can be applied not only to horizontal surfaces but also to the spaces on either side of those vertical surfaces known as walls. I’m going to try to define some of the ways in which building elements can work together to create what I’ll call An Architecture of Sharing.

Horizontally Shared Walls

I’ve written a lot about walls already but the wall of the next example divides a single internal space into two internal spaces that, though un-equivalent, complement each other. The space on one side is snug and comforting and conducive to rest, while the space on the other side is more expansive and brighter and conducive to activity despite having the same floor area. Moreover, the window in the inclined wall allows a person on one side to be aware of the presence or absence of a person on the other. It is a simple example but it is what the Architecture of Sharing is about.

Vertically Shared Floors

Vertically shared floors happen when the ceiling of one level becomes the floor for the one above. It allows more floor area to be created on the same amount of land. A residential building with one residential unit per floor is the simplest case but, even then, noise transmission – usually from above – can still make people aware their floor slabs are vertically shared.

Vertically Shared Floors and Horizontally Shared Walls

Most residential buildings have a combination of vertically shared floors and horizontally shared walls known as party walls. In this next example, the only horizontally shared wall is the one separating the two areas indicated as sleeping areas. It is a wall that should not allow an awareness of persons on the other side yet, a person or persons on one side are expected to behave in consideration of a person or persons on the other and to not make noise to a level that will disturb people on the other side of that wall. On the other side of the plan are two walls that separate areas indicated as private living space from the stairwell which is communal access space. Walls such as these should also not allow an awareness of persons on the other side yet, but more so in the case of people using the stairwell and who are also expected not make noise to a level that will disturb people in their living rooms.

This is also an example of the simplest possible configuration of communal access and a communal stairwell and where the access corridor is also the stair landing. It’s a configuration that was standard in low-cost housing in many countries around the world but perhaps most commonly in Eastern Europe in buildings without elevators. As stairwells were relatively expensive to build, there came deck access with some rooms fronting the open corridor, and then to corridor access (as in Lake Point Drive). Shared access has sub-categories but the communal corridor is probably the most typical.

Communal Corridors

Communal corridors are an important element of the configuration of a conventional multi-household multi-storey residential building that also has horizontally shared walls + vertically shared floors. The communal corridor enables the walls and floors to be shared but the norm is for the corridor to be enclosed. There’s no need to talk about communal corridors because they are mainly used by different people and different times and so not shared in any meaningful way.

Shared Access + Shared Outdoor Space #1

This is when the access spaces such as corridors and elevator lobbies are used to provide not only ventilation and daylighting but a view of the internal life of the building, of people coming and going. Apartment entrance halls are the first and most obvious place to have these views of the communal access space. This mutual viewing and awareness of who is coming and going and who is at home or not is not about surveillance but about fostering a sense of people living together. Sometimes just knowing that other people are at home is sufficient.

The example here is a variation of deck access but the residential units could also be mirrored about the deck to create a double loaded deck lit and ventilated by light-wells. This proposal has bathroom and kitchen/living area windows opening onto light-wells adjacent to the deck. It puts a distance between the deck and openable kitchen and bathroom windows. The plan is tight and probably more suited to student or key-worker accommodation.

In this example, the access deck is also treated as a kind of outdoor space at half-level to the unit windows to minimize unnecessary eye contact while allowing people on either side of those windows to have an awareness of people in and moving around the building.

Shared Outdoor Space

In this next example, a conventional Australian suburban house is reconfigured as a house for a nuclear family or a boarding house house or some other house for multiple occupation. Once again, there is private space with a view of the communal outdoor space and the (mostly) communal indoor space by which that private space is accessed.

Shared Indoor Space

Shared inside spaces are generally about domesticity and so domestic rules apply. The market for private housing still assumes a nuclear family as the norm and that persons who aren’t part of a nuclear family will still aspire to live as if they were in a dwelling designed for one. This proposal is for a residential unit for either two or four non-related persons forming a non-traditional household. Instead of everyone entering into the “publiuc” or communal part of the unit, each person enters their private space space from which they then access the shared indoor space. The small internal corridors are transitions between communal space and private space, and between private space and shared space.

This is important, because people using the deck can have an awareness of who is at home and, from the kitchen/living room windows residents can have an awareness of who is coming and going – as with a traditional street. For example, when approaching a person’s house, seeing a room with a light on shows that someone is home. A person inside that house might be able to see the front gate and garden path and will therefore know if someone is about to visit them. If it’s someone they know then they might pre-emptively open the front door to greet them. Occurrences such as these are normal for persons living in detached houses because they are permitted by openings in the wall between inside and outside. The arriving person knows someone is home and the receiving person also knows someone is there. This won’t happen if the window isn’t positioned to allow it.

Shared Access + Shared Outdoor Space I

This is when the access spaces such as corridors and elevator lobbies are used to provide not only ventilation and daylighting but a view of the internal life of the building, of people coming and going. Residential unit entrance halls are the first and most obvious place to have these views of the communal access space. This mutual viewing and awareness of who is coming and going and who is at home or not is not about surveillance but about fostering a sense of people living together. Arrangements such as these have no more or less opportunities for direct contact. Sometimes just knowing that other people are at home is sufficient. This example has kitchens and entrance halls overviewing the three-storey high elevator lobby.

This is a lobby level of a circular apartment tower with two elevators. Each stairwell links to one floor up and down, meaning that these elevator lobbies are voids three stories high and square in plan. That void (and people coming and going) is overlooked by kitchen windows and entrance hall windows. On the lobby level, voids with railings keep people in the lobby at a distance from those windows and foster and awareness of activity in the lobbies above and below. Internally, all apartments have a kitchen, a bathroom, a living area and one bedroom but this bedroom can be taken from or given to the adjacent apartment to convert two one-bedroom apartments into a studio plus a two-bedroom apartment. This is also an example of Horizontally Shared Walls + Vertically Shared Floors.

Shared Access + Shared Outdoor Space II

This proposal from the past year has the shared access as shared outdoor space but it also has the light-well as communal light-well as far as the access corridors are concerned but as open space (for illumination and ventilation) shared across different residential units on different levels. It is dense. All slabs and walls are shared to some degree, as are horizontal access shaft and the vertical ventilation and illumination shafts. This proposal was imagined in concrete but were a shopping mall to actually be converted into residential use, could easily be partitioned in mud brick.

I imagine the entire thing could be reconfigured as a six-storey mud brick habitation but the units would probably change to single-storey units to make better use of the light-well.

Shared Access + Shared Stairwells

This set of proposals began with the Stacked Stairs proposal that used internal stairwells to enlarge an apartment into the floor above, the floor below, or both. These proposals all use internal stairwells in the same way, but now recognize that the landings can be split and the same staircase used to upwardly enlarge the apartment on one side, and to downwardly enlarge the apartment on the other. Shared access is the same stairs being used in the same way by different persons, but shared stairwells is about the same stairwell having divided landings so persons on one side can use the stair to go up a level, while persons on the other use it to go down one. Various apartment configurations are possible according to whether the landing is divided and has two, one or no doors opening into it.

These are two iterations of the same idea. On the left, the stairwell at the bottom can be used so the occupants of the apartment on left can share (or appropriate) the bedroom space of the apartment above, while the occupants of the apartment on the right can use the stair to go down and do the same for the apartment below. The iteration on the right is based on a Yemeni mud-brick house that its functionality improved in the same way. In this case, the stairwell at the bottom of the plan is the shared access while the staircase at the top is the shared one.

Shared Access + Shared Outside Space

This proposal is very tight. It has the entire ground level as a shared access level and vertical light-wells as shared outside space and the only view out from the dwellings. This is only possible by contriving the window positions and shapes for maximum area yet minimum view into windows on adjacent and opposite walls. It’s a clear example of shared communal outdoor space yet individual dwellings have no walls in common.

Shared Access + Shared Stairwells + Shared Outside Space

This proposal is a combination of the two above, with stairs in the internal stairwells capable of being assigned to different apartments or even shared between apartments adjacent either horizontally or vertically, therefore allowing the one layout to be used for households, live-work, or other different types of tenure and occupation. I’ve talked about this before. This goes beyond the sharing of individual building elements or spaces as it proposes the flexible allocation of elements and spaces already shared.

• • • 

This idea of an architecture of sharing still needs more explanation. It’s nothing complicated but it is a little strange looking at the same building elements in a different way and seeing what possibilities they have that we didn’t see before.

• • • 

Game On!

In my last post I made some observations on the project plan below but I had to ask myself what I would have done with the same building and a similar brief. From what I understand from the Architectural Record article, the brief was to get as many units onto the site as inexpensively as possible. The architects used the word cowboys to describe their property developer clients and the project is what it is, so whatever alternative I may come up with will be nothing more than an exploration of parameters of my choosing.

Nevertheless, I’ll try to get windows on both sides to as many apartments as I can, and I’ll try to get them as equal in floor area as I can. I’ll try not to have apartments whose only view is a light-well. I don’t mind apartments being entered via the kitchen but I’ll try to avoid generic solutions. How do people eat these days? Is the kitchen counter now an acceptable substitute for a table and chairs? In seven out of seventeen apartments it will have to be. I’ll give each apartment space for a table and chairs as well as a sofa.

For my North American readers, should I continue calling these dwellings apartments or should I call them something tenure-neutral like flats or units? Because from what I understand, in North America, calling something an apartment means it’s rented while calling it a condominium means it’s owned. I’ve always thought type and tenure were different so whenever I use the word apartment I’m really only talking about a building with multiple occupation and not about tenure. I’m only concerned with the environment that’s built and not how it’s owned, although I know they’re not independent. In Japan, a condominium is called a “manshion” while an apartment (“apaato”) refers to a timber building where dwellings have a wc but no bath. These are typically occupied by students.

This is my first attempt at downscaling my Sky Rectangle proposal to single apartments on one level. For the time being, I’m persisting with the staggered levels for two reasons. The first is that if the dwellings were structurally integrated and prefabricated, then they could simply be stacked a lá Habitat ‘67. It’d actually be better in that the roof of the apartments would create the walkway one level up and it wouldn’t be necessary to contrive a dedicated structure for access. (To be honest, this is a wish, and I don’t see it surviving for long.)

The second reason is that a rotationally symmetrical plan means the bathroom and kitchen soil pipes align, meaning only one per light-well. I’m relaxed about it passing in front of the kitchen window.

One hundred years ago Le Corbusier allowed a soil pipe to pass through the entrance lobby of Villa Savoye. Nobody seems to have noticed it hiding in plain sight. Eyes that cannot see.

In these next three views, I’ve set the angle of vision at 75° so there’s more information but, in reality, the main room won’t seem as spacious. The window-street and window-window relationships are all good.

The rotationally symmetrical plan forced a layout logic in which the front and back of the apartments were the same but it also created a square living room in the middle,

Smallish square rooms aren’t optimal for the two activities of eating at a table and sitting on sofas doing some group activity. [If families no longer eat together around tables or sit on sofas and engage in some kind of group activity, then we have to rethink what we want from our dwellings. Otherwise, we’re really only dealing in representations of ways of living.]

The square room is the legacy of this project’s beginning with the 8.5 m x 8.5 m grid of a shopping mall car park and so the width of the living room and that of the walkways are both equal at 5.5 metres – a width that’s excessive for walkways and not the best for a 5.5 m long living/dining room either. Dimensions more like the Golden Mean or a length twice its width would be an improvement. But how wide? I don’t know, so I’ll make it 6m x 4m which ought to be more useable despite being one square metre smaller. Both bedroom and kitchen seemed cramped so I added an extra metre at each end. This is the improved version.

  • Internal area increased by about 2 square metres but the voids are now 6 x 2.7 metres instead of 5 x 2, an increase of 62%.
  • Most of the area increase went towards making the bedroom and kitchen more useable, but there is now additional storage in the entrance.
  • The kitchen can be enclosed to accommodate the Asian preference.
  • Alternatively, kitchen and entrance can be curtained off, if desired.
  • Both the bathroom and kitchen exhaust to outside.

This is what happened next.

It didn’t work. Access was using too much of the limited area even without the staggered floors. The smaller end units I’d designed to “square-off” the building had about the same area as the target units so this was my next test.

The apartment sizes were okay (and there were eighteen!) but this would mean demolishing or gutting the the building and rebuilding. I couldn’t not take into account positions of light wells, the party wall and the elevators and fire stairs in the former building on the right. (The building on the left was only three storeys and never had an elevator.) This is what happened next.

  • The basic idea was to shrink the smaller module I’d arrived at and to use the voids for access as they are underused for both illumination and ventilation. (The window openings into the left void appear to have been blocked off. Relocating access to inside the light wells means there is more sellable area left outside the light wells – a net space gain.
  • Having habitable rooms open onto light wells isn’t ideal but there’s nothing bad wrong with using them to ensure a minimum amount of illumination and ventilation to kitchens, bathrooms, access corridors and rooms (including bedrooms) that would otherwise be artificially illuminated and ventilated.
  • Hopefully the main light wells have driveways beneath them somewhere on the ground level to ensure airflow. Hopefully it won’t be where I’ve relocated the fire stair.
  • I shifted the exterior fire escape to the end of the left light well. Its existing position compromises the width of 18 apartments. As is now, all apartments have a width of 4.2 meters more or less. Lengths vary, but only for the length for the living area and bedroom. Twelve out of 18 apartments have the same layout with only differences in length.
  • The living/bedroom area is unpartitioned but an inner bedroom could still be ventilated by what is shown as a light well outside the kitchen and bathroom. These are also a legacy of the project’s beginnings but, since the ground floor is commercial space, they’re probably not going to happen. I suspect that floors are timber because, with the current arrangement there must be risers all across all typical floors. At what level these collect I don’t know. Probably the best I can do is to have bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and entrance opening onto an outside space fronting the two existing voids and take soil pipes down there. [This is what I did settle for, as shown below.] The bedroom window uses the closet space as a buffer between private and semi-private space.
  • I notice, a bit belatedly, that the party walls in the as-built building, align with those free-standing columns. Whether this alignment was enforced or simply expedient I have no way of telling and nobody is telling. Fingers crossed.
  • The fire escape in the building on the left looks original because the apartments in the frontage remaining. each have two windows. They won’t in my redistribution. This becomes a question of facade retention vs. profit. In the building on the right both top and bottom, I have six apartments where the structural bays suggest four (as was built). If my proposal were to be built, some of these windows would have to be divided or blocked which would be a shame since the importance of illumination is a priority everywhere else.

I was surprised the total area for access in my proposal is exactly the same at 154±0.5 m2. However, mine is naturally illuminated and ventilated, easy to navigate and also lets you know you’re not alone in the building. Access area diverted to light-wells represents a net increase in sellable area but I used some of it to enlarge and illuminate the elevator lobby.

  • I know nothing of the pre-existing structure and construction. I haven’t followed the grid implied by the columns, whatever they’re made of, but I was lucky they didn’t intrude into the apartments. I maintained the minimum 1.2m shared corridor width (that produces that lone column below the elevators).
  • Because of this, I wasn’t so lucky with the window spacing.
  • As for fire escape, apartments 17 and 18 might be too far from the fire escape stairs. If so, adding another door to the stairwell is better than adding a third stairwell in the light well. Shifting access to the light-wells unified access and better utilized the light-wells for what they’re there to do.

• • • 

  • It didn’t work out how I imagined it would. It’s not possible to know all the conditions and constraints the architects had to work with. I made assumptions about the construction but I also saw things in the as-built plan that contradicted them. Budget is another constraint but only the client and the architects know what the budget allowed and what it did not. There’s also the unknown of market expectations. I think the entry “courtyard” is a worthwhile idea but it only works if there’s a light-well or some other external access. Apartments 11, 12, 13 and 14 didn’t have this so I designed them as active band apartments with the outside is the necessary void. The architects have designed generic apartments so I suspect there is no appetite in Winnipeg for active band apartments.
  • Only apartments 15 and 16 have separate bedrooms that make use of that difficult space between the core and the light-well. This is made possible by using the light well to access apartments 17 and 18.
    • In all, I’m pleased but not smug. Any of several known unknowns and an unknown number of unknown unknowns could instantly invalidate this proposal but it was a useful exercise all the same.

• • • 

Feasibility Study

Here’s where I left it in Sky Rectangle – a proposal for interlocking back-to-back apartments arranged in rows half-stacked and half-terraced, with both the apartments and access corridors illuminated and ventilated by 4m x 8m shafts open to the sky and corridor.

In that post I mentioned how the images above are just my impressions of what I expect the level of illumination to be. Rendering parameters can be adjusted and photographs can be manipulated. The only way of being certain would be to construct a full-scale model for some chosen latitude and observe it for a year. I didn’t do that. However, I was recently in an office four floors (approx. 12 metres) from the top of a lightwell measuring approximately 4 x 8 metres. This is what it looked like from the inside.

And this is what the bottom of the lightwell looked like from the street-level driveway entrance perhaps 20 metres away. In both sets of images you’ll have to allow for a certain amount of ambient light coming from behind just as my proposal will have a certain amount of sideways light contributing to the ambient.

This level of illumination looks sufficient but then, these photographs were taken about midday (Sun alt: ≈ 73°, azimuth 7°) in midsummer (Jan. 31) in Perth, Western Australia (lat. -31.95°. long. -115.86°).


And this is what that proposal is going to be inserted into – five levels of shopping mall floor-plate, each with an area of approximately 35,000 square metres and with the long sides oriented approximately east-west. Within that floor-plate are atriums, openings for escalators, and cores for elevators, fire-escapes and utilities. There are also double height cinemas, a double height ice-skating rink and a swimming pool, all of which I’ll ignore. Conditions on the periphery are not uniform. Unusually, the north and east side also have three levels of external deck access while the western corner has five levels of externally linked terraces. I’ll ignore these special features because I’m attempting to derive general principles.

Basically, the problem is one of inserting a regular spatial system into a structural one that’s regular only in parts. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. Disjunctions between the two systems will occur on the periphery, around the atriums and around the cores where they ought to be of most benefit to the most people.

• • • 

It was a worthy idea, and all the disjunction space was indeed around the periphery, the atriums and the elevators but, as you can see from the Level 2 layout below, there was just too much of it. I was only getting about 100 dwellings per floor. [At this time, I was still assuming an ice-skating rink in the middle on the lower side.]

The area of the floor-plate minus openings is about 30,000 m2. The footprint of each pair of apartments is 128m2, but another 64m2 needs to be added for the access corridor (on one side) as it is be shared by adjacent group of dwellings. The total built footprint for 100 units is therefore 12,800 – a little over one third which is not great. This is largely the result of the basic (paired) residential unit being 8m x 32m. This length creates much disjunction, particularly at the short ends and around elevators. Having occasional unpaired units 24m long instead of paired ones at 32m length also reduces efficiency. Staggering alternate floors doesn’t make much difference as what one gains on the even-numbered levels is lost on the odd-numbered ones. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, the overall environment doesn’t look bad.

This proposal has the views out that I’d envisaged but the best possible situation shown in the image below doesn’t occur often enough or for long enough as the longest “street” has only four units each side.

These apartments are fundamentally different from those in conventional towers. They’re more like townhouses because, although the voids are the primary source of illumination and ventilation, they also function as buffers between the private space of the units and the shared space of the streets.

This next plan is sufficient as proof of concept but I’d like to increase the floor-plate efficiency from one third to at least one half. There are about 600 units here and this doesn’t seem enough for the project to go forward. I’ve identified four problem spots and each of them are caused by the long basic unit encountering an edge or an obstacle. Alternate levels will have the same problems but in different places. Not unrelated is the fact that getting more units in is a bit like designing a car park in that the more double-loaded roads you have, the more efficient it will be. Even looking at this image below, there clearly aren’t enough of those double-loaded access streets shown in the image above. The vertical pattern of streets should be more apparent.

1 The levels above and below have the best fit for the units and this edge condition is the direct result of staggering alternate floors. This can be solved by fitting half-bay (approx. 4m x 8m) two story units between the voids. These units would have no outdoor space save for the void outside their habitable room windows.

2 A different variation could make use of some of the space to the left of the elevators between situations 1 and 2. Nothing can be done about the 16-m spaces either side of the elevators in 2. It might be helpful to have a variation with the standard for unit one half and shortened (by one bay) for the other, interlocking half.

3 This area is isolated by voids and is not large. This suggests breaking the pattern of voids and having standard three-bay units as well as specially designed two-bay units stacked every level.

4 The same might have to be done for all of this sector as none of its areas are large.

The differing overall lengths of these variations account for instances where there are sufficient columns but insufficient length for five-bay paired unis. These variations tidy up the edges and fill in some of the spaces (that would still be necessary even if the unit and corridor positions didn’t alternate). There’s no point rotating the direction of voids and units 90° because larger (longer) areas won’t occur anywhere except the leftmost edge in the above image. Moreover, the streets would be terminated by elevator cores while the same number of variations would still be needed.

On levels 4 and 5 is a two-storey ice-skating rink supported by beams on level 3 but it now makes sense to build over this to provide approximately 24 additional units. Each of the elevator and stair cores is in reality different but I want to keep them generic at this stage and not indicate the internal arrangement. My only conditions are that there be four metres of space on all sides and that their positions not be hidden any more than they currently are.

[In the existing mall, cores on the west side occur along internal corridors that link to the external access corridors. The outward-facing units and the inward-facing units are serviced by a central corridor Similar transverse routes occur on the east side except they terminate at service corridors along the eastern edge.]

For now, I’ll design those more compact variations that ought to squeeze some more efficiency out of the floorplate.

If I don’t reach 50% efficiency, then I’ll scrap the staggering and instead design a typical floor along the lines of the above with units facing outwards, units facing inwards towards the atriums and inner units lit and ventilated only by light wells. The units will still follow the column grid but in the other direction. As a solution, I don’t like having a horizontal hierarchy of light as well as a vertical one. If I adopt this arrangement then, in most instances, the ends of these inner access corridors will have elevator cores and, because of that, indirect light from both inside and outside.

Rather than pursuing that Plan B, I did this.

The yellow units are the main unit type but there are now also five other variations. There will be about 180 units per level which is almost 1,000 not counting the basements. I can still see five instances where paired half-bay units could fit but it’s approaching as good as it gets for its premises. It is now easier to see the long double-sided streets that make most efficient use of space.

I won’t bother doing something similar for the alternate floors as, in the above, you can see there are three different conditions for how the units “meet” the elevator cores. Although the situations for the same core will differ, the principle of using the variations to account for shortfalls in length will still apply, only in different positions.

Another option is to start again, and use this study and the one before as the basis for an optimized Mat-rix House with a primary structure FF of 5.5 m and a column grid of 5.5 x 5.5 m. This would (just) be large enough to to arrange a car park (if required) and would also allow either steel or mass timber structure. This structure would be more regular and, since there is no need for atriums to bring light and air, or to add “incident” for the sake of it, elevators and stairs would best placed on the periphery. This will be for some other time.


The demonstration mall is on the left in the image above, and has approximately 1,000 two-bedroom apartments. The two levels of basement car parking extend two bays past the building’s east and west sides so, if B1 and B2 were opened to the outside by removing the slabs in these extensions, it would be possible to have another 400 additional units, bringing the total to 1,400.

To the right of the mall is a typical high-rise residential complex with each half of a paired tower having 4 apartments x 30 storeys = 120 apartments. Let’s say the mall’s width is equal to three and a half tower halves, and that its length is equal to four rows of three half towers. There are approximately 1,440 units.

The spatial efficiency is about the same but the mall has six 5.5 metre levels (approx. 30 metres) and already exists, while the generic towers have thirty 3.0 metre levels (approx. 90 metres).

The cost of purchasing an abandoned mall and inserting lightweight apartments into the existing megastructure has to be weighed against the (financial and environmental) cost of acquiring and clearing a similar area of land and building anew. Purchasing an abandoned mall, demolishing it and then building a conventional residential development makes no environmental sense and is unlikely to make any financial sense either.

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Architecture Myths #33: Served and Servant Spaces

The notion of served spaces and servant spaces has been around for a while in architecture and we accept this apparent opposition as a conceptual certainty. After all, what could make more sense than mapping an archaic but entrenched social classification onto buildings? The nomenclature is easy to understand as it mirrors that of masters and servants where the superiority of the masters is accepted while the only reason the servants exist is to serve them. But is a kitchen, for example, really less important than a dining room, a bathroom any less important than a bedroom?

Back in the day, it wasn’t a question of served and servant spaces but of entire separate wings for servants. Here’s a plan of Bear Wood, built 1865-1874. All the ground floor rooms around the kitchen court and up to the servants’ stairs (policed by the butler) are the servants’ realm.

It’s said that Harlaxton Manor (1837) had walls with corridors inside so servants could move about without being seen. I’d like to see proper plans for how this worked but, given the general level of excess, I’m inclined to believe it.

In order for it not to be seen by arriving guests, the servants’ wing was often at the rear of the house or off to one side. Sometimes it was also at an angle to show it wasn’t a part of the formal organization of the “house proper”.

In this example of a London townhouse circa 1880, the entire layout is conceived so that served and servants never meet. Servants enter the basement from separate stairs at ground level, passing by the rooms of the footman, housekeeper and butler. The kitchen is separated from the main house (and the dining room!) by a courtyard. Food is carried up the basement stairs and into the dining room through a door for that purpose. Servants carrying food and plates might cross those of a served going to the study. Served access to the first floor boudoir might cross that of servants coming from the servants’ stair to clean and tidy the drawing room but generally, the served use the main stairs and the servants use the servants’ stairs, as you can see from the section below.

The kitchen is well-lit and ventilated but a whole floor and half a house away from the dining room. But for such a large house, there aren’t that many places to be when not asleep. The choices are the morning room, dining room and drawing room when one is feeling social, or withdraw to either the study or boudoir when not.

Servants and the servants’ stairs replicated the functions of pipes and shafts, carrying food, water, laundry and chamberpots up and down. With all manner of pipes and shafts adorning its exterior, Rogers and Piano’s 1977 Centre Pompidou was therefore especially shocking to British people.

Foster + Partners 1978 Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts made up for it by continuing the tradition of concealing servant spaces.

The Albert Houses above, were single-family terrace (row) houses but Albert Hall Mansions by Sir Norman Shaw, no less, were mansions (i.e. flats). This is what they looked like, and still do.

The following paired layouts are repeated three times across the site. Again the basement is the servants’ realm with kitchens at the rear serving the apartments above, and other rooms designated as spare rooms, presumably for additional staff on call. Street access for owners is via the vestibule linked to the central stair and light well, while servants use the adjacent entrance and rear stairs.

Here’s what happens higher up. What in Great Britain would normally be called the first floor is here called a “mezzanine” as it contains only secondary bedrooms. In the photo above, you can see how its windows are smaller to add more weight to the lower levels. In that same photo you can see the upper two levels of the corner apartment shaded green in these drawings. The apartment shaded yellow has a balcony to the dining room. The lower half levels of each apartment are the servants’ spaces again separated from the served spaces by one level and the length of the apartment but still linked by servants’ stairs.

It’s not exactly bringing this conversation into the present, but a similar separation of spaces (and the people occupying them) is present in the two LeCorb villas. Once sunlight is rebranded as something desirable, the servants get less of it at ground level beneath the occupants’ living areas. The piano nobile was hardly a revolutionary idea even if the means of getting it up there was. Or so it seemed.

There are ground floor doors to the chauffeur’s apartment, the laundry room and a side door near the kitchen stair for deliveries. The occupants and their visitors use the front door only, apart from the son who can also use a door to access is car in the garage. The servants realm is visible to visitors, but only fleetingly so. The famous washbasin in the hallway is for the servants to wash their hands before handling the guests’ coats and hats. It was originally positioned as shown in the drawing above but for some reason was relocated to the other side of the column as part of renovations the began in 1965.
Here, the servants’ spaces are more separated, accessed dcirefty from the garage, with the housemaid’s door connecting to the hallway to receive visitors. The stairs to the right are the stairs leading to the living areas, while the lowest level of the stair on the left is for servants to serve food and to clean and tidy the upper levels. Owners use only these upper levels. A portion of the served and servant spaces are therefore shared, but it is by no means egalitarian.
On the front facade, it is very clear which door is for the servants and which is for the served. One steps down two steps to access the servants’ door only to step two steps once inside.

Louis Kahn is reponsible for keeping the notion of servant and served spaces alive even when houses no longer had live-in servants. This is his 1961 Escherick House. Front and garden access, and the galleried stairs all count as a servant spaces. Kitchen and laundry are spaces formerly occupied by servants and, if we go not too much further back in time, I suppose the dressing room would also have had servants on hand to assist.

I won’t bore you with examples but Louis Kahn made served and servant spaces something of a thing. This is his 1960 Richards Medical Research Laboratories building. You get the idea. Stairs and air shafts are given special treatment on the exterior but elevators need to be central and apparently, so do the spaces for the animals for the medical research. All this is done to achieve maximum unobstructed space for the laboratories (after access to the elevators and stairs has been taken into account).

The 2010 The Index in Dubai is another preposterous building by Foster+Partners. The central bank of four elevators “service” the apartment levels above. Even structure is relegated to the status of servant space, except its 10 m long x 2 m wide columns are very solid. The whole point of doing this is to enable those unobstructed 30 m x 30 m office floors that force tenants to pay for their own corridors to access the essential servant spaces. With this building, it’s all about non-marketable space vs. marketable space.

It’s no surprise Kahn arrived at his notion of served and servant spaces from his study of Scottish castles that had entire rooms inside their amply thick walls (even if this can’t not have compromised their integrity). This next image comes from an excellent article on walls as rooms, here on socks studio.

What then, is Oswald Ungers’ excuse for his division of spaces into served and servant spaces in his 1991 House Without Qualities?

I confess to liking its consistency but I would like it more if its two end walls were the same thickness as the rest. I guess there weren’t enough servant spaces to go around, even with the inclusion of what looks like a one-person elevator and numerous storerooms. I do like Ungers’ solution for the kitchen though. It can’t not be a servant space but there’s not enough space for it. I’d have put it on a thickened outside wall and solved an exhaust problem at the same time.

Following the same logic, an inglenook and fireplace would occupy the similar space at the other end of the house. Sources of heat are symmetrical and kitchen exhaust and fireplace flue can be solved symmetrically. After some searching, I finally found an upper floor plan. As I suspected, there’s a redundant gallery to maintain symmetry but symmetry had already been compromised by having only one stair.

Even in this rather astonishing house a second stair never seems to have been part of the plan. Symmetry is reserved for served spaces, unless they’re visible like the galleried corridors.

Anyway, upstairs, the thickened walls would provide closet space and/or, if one must, flatscreens facing the beds. The three storey-void of the stairwell would be mirrored by another three-storey void where the kitchen formerly was, serving more daylight to the basement swimming pool.

These servant spaces are now becoming quite the feature. The next thing would be to make them visible on the outside of a building. This was first proposed by Yves Lion with his 1987 Domus Domain project that makes perfect sense in terms of servicing, illumination and ventilation. It never gained traction.

And yes, I’m going to mention Riken Yamamoto’s 2002 Ban Building in Niigata once again.

The plan below is of Room 3 in the typical floor plan. Kitchen, w/c and bathroom are still serving the main living space only now they’re also serving it with light and air. If you like, you can continue to think of them as occupying very deep window reveals.

Notice how he same distinction of served and servant spaces doesn’t make sense as a concept now the hierarchy is reversed? This shows we still think some functions more equal than others.

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[Big thanks to Evan for the idea for this post. GM]

Chinese Simple Made

The Chinese language is the world’s only language that doesn’t have an alphabet. Each of its 3,000 essential characters has a pronunciation, intonation, meaning and writing stroke order that must be learned and remembered. It’s a lot. So I’ve used the English alphabet to organize some examples of Chinese fit-for-purpose and make it easier to get a feel for the basics.

This post has about one fifth of the usual amount of words but it took about the same time as it wasn’t always easy to identify examples of fit-for-purpose and then find a letter that fitted. I had to bend the rules for Q and X as I couldn’t find any fit-for-purpose queens, quail, x-rays or xylophones.

A is for ASHTRAY.

B is for BROOM.

B is for BLADELESS plastic wrap.

B is for BRIDGE.


D is for DUSTPAN.

D is for DOORSTOP.



F is also for FENCE.


H is for HAT.

I is for IVY.



L is for LADDER.



O is for OCR.


P is also for PATH.

Q is for QI [“chi” = chi]


S is for STENCIL.

S is for SECURITY.

S is for SPOTS TO SIT.


T is for TRASH BINS.