Tag Archives: performance

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.

• • • 

The Handshake Apartment

If you’ve heard about handshake apartments, they’ll probably be in Shenzhen, China, and in buildings built so close that occupants in neighboring buildings can shake hands from their windows. You can get the idea from these images. They’re intense, but it’s what happens if you want to solve density, access, daylighting and ventilation without recourse to elevators, mechanical ventilation or artificial illumination. The gaps between the buildings are lightwells, airshafts and access paths combined. It’s an intelligent vernacular response to getting things done with a minimum of resources of which land is one.

Many people think it’s a bit messy and third world because people can look into each other’s windows and, not surprisingly, architects eager to establish their visionary credentials in such a lucrative market have been on the case, either adding colorful floors and bridges to the uppermost levels, or cutting into intermediate levels to provide interconnected shared space.

The project below is by Dutch outfit doffice who have completed many projects in Shenzen. This one’s a conversion of 29 out of 35 existing buildings into accommodation more attractive to young tech workers. Seven elevators were added with “sky bridges” on the third and fifth floors linking them to building stairwells and each other. It’s fairly decent if the only problems with handshake apartments are a lack of shared facilities, the difficulty of getting to and moving between buildings, and the absence of elevators.


The problem with adding elevators is that they block what unbuilt space there is between buildings and compromise movement at ground level. The problem with sky bridges above paths is that they further compromise what little light and airflow there is. It also means that making apartments more attractive places to live means people passing 50cm from your window on the 3rd or 5th floors. Forget shaking hands, this is kissing distance. These elevated access corridors also reduce the area of one in four apartments on two of the six floors. There’s little reason to connect buildings at intermediate level other than to reduce the number of elevators and it means nobody will have to walk more than two flights of stairs to get to their apartment. For comparison, connecting the buildings at roof level would mean occupants walk a maximum of three floors down or three floors up from ground level, and that no apartments need be sacrificed.

This second project with similar buildings connected at roof level makes more sense despite its apparent frivolity. If elevators were placed on the periphery then those gaps between the buildings would remain fully functional.

It’s fine to compensate for space subtracted but a lack of space on the roof or a lack of horizontal routes through the district isn’t the main problem – an excess of proximity is. The exploded axonometric below shows four one-bedroom apartments, each accessed from the same landing. Entry into the stairwell is from beneath the stair and is as spatially minimal as stairwell access gets. You can see how the building overhangs the access corridor outside, further reducing the distance between adjacent upper floors. [I hope there’s a mistake in this axonometric below for if the building were mirrored about the access corridor, there’d be no space at all between adjacent upper walls and, moreover, the stairwell half-landings would overlap.] These apartments have gone as far as they can. Architects have nothing to offer that won’t make them less.

Here’s my approximation of the layout of the building above, assuming 2 metres as the length of a bed. There are two types of apartments, mirrored around the stairwell.

I’ve adjusted the stairs, and removed the landing protrusion from the already overhanging building. Kitchens and bathrooms are identical apart from the door position. There’s no shower cubicle shown so I’m assuming a wet-room.

Building dimensions are 9m x 12m and the approximately 25sq.m apartments contain a kitchen, bathroom and two habitable rooms. Balconies aren’t a good use of space if the entire footprint is built on. I expect it will be almost impossible to make these apartments unhandshakeable without sacrificing floor area. It won’t even be easy to redesign them so windows in opposing buildings don’t look directly into each other. This next layout gets two out of four bedrooms onto the corners where there’s the best light and ventilation.

Mirroring the layouts around the ground level access path (so the lowered ground level is shared, as is likely), and mirroring them across the access path in the other direction simply creates direct overlooking problems for every window,, while repeating horizontally and mirroring vertically is pointless as the apartment layouts are mirrored already.

However, the blue apartments each have bedrooms with both opposing windows and opposing blank walls, suggesting a pinwheel arrangement in which all bedroom windows of blue or yellow apartments face a blank wall (below). This counts as an improvement, minor as it is.

All living room windows still look directly into each other. This could be solved by shifting the living rooms to the corners and giving them a pinwheel arrangement of windows but this would need to be done without creating problems for the bedroom windows and this is the problem. The bedroom window problem could be solved by having them on the same side as the living room windows and it would still count as an improvement if those bedroom windows still opposed a bathroom window and/or a kitchen window. However, it’s going to be difficult to achieve this for the red and green apartments as they’re only 4m wide.
It worked, although the red apartments suffer and the green apartments still have the bathroom in the best position.

The last thing to try is to see if it makes any difference not having all the sunken access pathways in a straight line. This means that each intersection will have one of each type of apartment.

It didn’t make that much difference, although the layout of the yellow apartment had to change and whether for better or worse I don’t know. This is as good as it gets for the main parameters of 1) no directly overlooking habitable room windows and 2) no reduction in floor area.

  • I would prefer to plan an apartment of this area as a studio but I’ve preserved the separate bedroom because a family of four might be living in this apartment.
  • My personal preference would be for an open kitchen but that is not how the Chinese prefer it and I appreciate that.
  • The pinwheeled layouts preclude mirroring and mean each apartment drains to a separate riser.

So what’s next, now there’s one acceptable way for the windows to be arranged?

  1. It would be good if the layout had drainage and service risers shared by at least two apartments. Pairing kitchens and bathrooms around building indents will reduce internal floor area and just might make for more workable layouts.
  2. It would also be good if those kitchens and bathrooms were identically sized and shaped.
  3. Moreover, although one of the initial parameters was to have no reduction in the internal floor area, it’s not as if the floor area there is, is always being used the most effectively. This is largely a consequence of the entrance doors being in one corner of the layout, but there’s also a width constraint due to the unstated requirement for all kitchens and bathrooms to be naturally ventilated. This is most apparent in the red apartment.
  4. Ideally, I would like to solve similar problems in similar ways. Because there is only one staircase on one side of the building, there’s nothing that can be done about the different proportions of the apartment without changing the dimensions of the block. Here’s my preliminary sketch for an improved handshake apartment. The overlooked construction gaps still serve as light wells and ventilation shafts but construction is more rational and there is increased visual privacy. I don’t know if this is going to work.

It didn’t happen exactly how I’d thought. The largest problem, as ever, with corner access to an apartment, was how to get from the front door to the rooms using a minimum of space along the way. Securing a block of space for the bedrooms also wasn’t easy.

  • The side indents mean the outer wall doesn’t have to be used to ventilate the kitchens, although it does of course increase the surface area of the building. This can’t be avoided.
  • I had planned to have those indents ventilate the bathrooms as well as the kitchens and, although there was sufficient apartment length to do this in the red and green apartments, there wasn’t for the blue and yellow and I gave priority to solving similar problems in a similar way, and to have identical kitchens and bathrooms.
  • The re-entrant corner indents allow bedroom and living room windows to pinwheel around the intersection. It is possible for certain green and red living rooms to have an additional high-level window as overlooking is a problem for eye-level windows only. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a neighbours’ lights on.
  • Both types of indent represent 2.5m2 of floor area “lost” but compensated for by increased daylighting and better ventilation for the habitable rooms, whether or not the trees happen.
  • The stairwell is responsible for the difference in apartment sizes but the red and green are wider with their living rooms large by the width of half the stair, and that area is compensated for in the blue and yellow apartments by the longer living rooms with more wall space.
  • Areas of green/red apartments and yellow/blue apartments differ by 1.2 sq.m but could easily be made equal.
  • The building still needs some construction logic imposed, but not today.
  • The trees would be nice to look at but they’d only reduce available light. Plus, there’s almost certainly important pipes beneath those paths. It’d be better to let people grow their own plants in a planter outside the window of the balcony shared with the reverse-cycle A/C compressor.

I don’t think anything more can be done without rethinking the building type itself, or the dimensions of the plots. It might be possible to use less corridor to link four stairwells. It’d also be good if there were a more equal distribution of daylighting across all apartments instead of half being on the dark side. The challenge now is to achieve all and a modicum of privacy when the only feature these buildings have is a hardworking two-meter gap between it and its neighbours. I’ve been interested in polyfunctional access corridors for about a decade now but I never thought light and air passing through a 50cm gap between a window and an access corridor would ever be as good as it gets. We should think through some options just in case.


The Dispersed House

Architects spend much time organizing living spaces into fairly compact volumes that don’t require constructing unreasonable amounts of space that can’t be used for anything other than accessing those spaces with definite purposes. It’s possible to design houses or apartments that don’t have any circulation space as such, but if one has to travel through one space to reach another then circulation space is still present. The alternately flipped and stepped-back apartment plan of Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1973 Pasadena Heights is brilliant, but the living area is the only means of getting from one space to another. In this case, it’s not as inconvenient as you’d think because the apartment has five distinct places for perhaps four people to be, and the central living space is the only space where all can be at the same time. This central space is the main one and the peripheral ones are just that.

However, when there are more people and more spaces, it’s often easier, more economical and more convenient for everybody if there’s also some dedicated circulation space so the other spaces aren’t compromised, as with the following two images from the post, The Forgotten Function. This circulation space exists solely for the purpose of getting from one space to another, and is no larger than it needs to be to do that.

Another way not often used is to have the circulation space external to a building configured as an agglomeration of dispersed spaces. The first house of this type I remember is Philip Johnson’s 1964 Boissonnas House II, in Cap Benat, France. It’s a house that was never on the internet to slip off it and I confess to having forgotten about it until someone mentioned it recently. [Thanks Craig!] In the plan below, the uppermost space is the living space, to the left is the master bedroom while, opening to the canopy at the SIX o’clock position, is a dining area for when meals aren’t taken outside. This is adjacent to the kitchen and rooms for two staff. Farther down are two more bedrooms and a separate guest suite.

Philip Johnson had form with this sort of thing. His 1956 Robert C. Leonhardt House in Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island, USA was an earlier example of the same approach. The photo on the left below is the living area which is a glass box at one end.

The two volumes are visually discrete when seen from the approach and, as far as I can tell from this plan, remain so on the lower level despite each having a staircase leading down. This therefore also counts as a dispersed house.

Earlier still in 1952, Johnson designed the Wiley House as a timber and glass living volume above a concrete lower volume. The two volumes are connected internally and so at the time were not a dispersed house.

However, a recent barn conversion and the addition of a pool house now make it a house with dispersed functions even if the main living ones are still concentrated.

Of course, Johnson’s own 1949 Glass House and the various buildings on his compound together comprised perhaps the original dispersed house, The famous glass box was primarily used as a reception room while the other buildings were used for daily meals, sleeping, working, viewing art, watching television, etc. [c.f. Glass and Other Houses]

This then, is the principle of The Dispersed House. So far, all these examples have been on significant property and for clients having what appears to be comfortable and leisurely lifestyles. Possessing ample property and the time to enjoy visually possessing it have always been indicators of wealth.

These next two plans are UAE houses typical of the government housing of their respective times. The three main functional divisions are the family living block that’s the largest, the “majlis” which alternates between men’s reception room and formal family living area, and the separate kitchen and maid’s quarters.

On the left below, is an example having the same functional divisions but with less dispersal, while on the right is a downscaled example – a starter home – perhaps from the early 1970s, that maintains the traditional separation seen above.

There are more modern iterations of The Dispersed House. This next is Casa Tagomago by Carlos Ferrater (2001) in the northeast corner of Ibiza. Living and master bedroom are connected but guest bedrooms are separate volumes along an open pathway.

Next up is Desert Nomad House (2006) by architect Rick Joy. Its program is dispersed across three buildings and one platform. We can’t tell how large the site is but, like the previous Johnson houses, it celebrates climate, landscape and a possession of a view far beyond its boundaries.

This is Riken Yamamoto’s Yamakawa Villa from 1976. The landscape isn’t expansive and the weather such that it’s best appreciated from beneath a roof. The rooms are volumes that are dispersed yet not detached. When the weather’s nice the open space comes into its own.

Surprisingly, Philip Johnson provides a clue for how the dispersed house can work on still smaller sites lacking the blessings of landscape. Even if the client for Johnson’s 1950 Rockerfeller Guest House was Blanchette Rockerfeller, the house’s site is not large and is overlooked on all sides.

The house’s ostensible functions are grouped in the front building that also has a basement as well as two bedrooms and bathrooms on the upper level, while at the other end of the internal courtyard is a guest suite. Topologically, Tadao Ando’s Sumiyoshi/Azuma House of 1976 does the same thing with its four discrete spaces are connected by an external space.

The first of these next three images is the plan of a Nubian house from 1500BC let’s say. Much like the Ando house, all rooms are accessed from the central courtyard but, apart from the fact it’s an external space and large enough to have functional value because of that, is not worlds’ apart from the house and apartment this post began with.

These next three images show changes made to Nubian houses since 1960 due to spatial pressure and differences in construction. All social activity takes place in the courtyard. The image on the right also shows an additional courtyard for men to gather. [In case like me you didn’t know, Nubian culture spans the Egypt-Sudan border.]

These two layouts from the New Mews 2/2 post hint at the possibility of configuring a house so the outdoor space can be used as a functional space in its own right while permitting movement in and around the house, weather permitting of course.

This “weather permitting” is a modern affectation. In winter, Japanese traditionally withdrew into the one heated room and I’m sure our mediaeval forebears and many more recent owners of stately houses have done the same. The Western way is to have a whole industry of retractable roofs evolve to meet the needs of those who want to have it both ways.

Lacaton & Vassal’s Lapatie House has revived the notion of seasonally variable usage with its light structure appended to a more substantial structure, so extending the period for which the outdoors is useable. This is a useful concept but, like the verandahs of tropical climates, it has more to do with climatic amelioration and little to do with circulation and dispersed houses.

This next example of a Nubian house still has the dwelling defined by the outer wall but the courtyard is now an amorphous shape defining both positive spaces with definite functions as well as negative spaces with undefined functions or functions other than circulation. Instead of one external space being treated and used as a room, there are now three or four. What we have is other rooms being used to define the space of the main living room. It’s Haus Am Horn minus the roof over the central space, and thus links directly to our history of Modern Architecture and it’s also Pasadena Heights from the not so distant past. Both are paths untaken.

Haus Am Horn has the peripheral spaces designed around the central space but, with Pasadena Heights, the central space is a consequence of the spaces at each end and, because of that, is not traversed as often as you’d think. This might be useful.

There’s obviously a plan afoot but this train of thought is going to be interrupted by at least two unrelated posts as well as by the end of the year.


An Integrative Design Approach

Another problem with today’s architecture is the lack of an integrative approach towards designing buildings. What’s happening is that parts of a building component are designed without taking into account any other parts it may affect, thereby possibly affecting those parts in a negative way. I especially sensed this during my education at architecture school, and it’s not that different in the real world where the part that gets designed first is often the shape of the building.

I remember we were told to first come up with a shape for the building – a stage usually referred to as “3D”, and which came after the ‘concept’ stage. We had to come up with a nice 3D shape that fitted the concept we had chosen. Apart from fitting the concept, this shape had no other reason for being.

“3D” concept and initial form finding

However, in most cases, those shapes were altered until they looked “right” to the instructor and so weren’t even about the so-called concept anymore.

more “form finding”

Now despite all the problems I had and continue to have with that approach – and which I talked about here – there seems to be one very important factor that is neglected in this process and that is integration. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that the 3D shapes architects come up with at the beginning of any design are actually beautiful and actually do help make the building a better one. Would that beautiful shape not screw up all the other things in the building that are at least as important? I believe it would.

Let’s look at planning first. Planning is one of the most important attributes of a building, and yet it comes second to “form finding”. Planning usually gets done so that the building can be used once a nice form has been found, especially if the building is an iconic building at architecture’s high-end. We all saw what a terrible building you get if the planning hasn’t been so well thought out, as in Graham’s earlier posts on the Villa Savoye or the Unité d’Habitation, or my earlier post on the Villa Savoye where I described its terrible daylighting and thermal properties. Here’s another example:

Haramain High Speed Rail Link Station:

It was a competition entry by Atkins in 2008. The building’s “canopies” got me interested, especially when I read about their reason for being there.

In the sketch made by the architect, you can clearly see how the shape of the building was ‘inspired’ by that sketch, and how little it changed since the idea first somehow popped into the architect’s head. The “concept sketch” is usually featured on entries and posters for projects to show you how it all began and is generally regarded as a good thing.

But what this also means is that the design team, regardless of any studies or simulations they might have done for the project (since there’s a bit of talk in the description about cooling loads, daylight, and solar gain) did not use the results of that to optimize the building by perhaps changing its shape slightly, for example.

The canopies provide a bright, dramatic enclosure and reduce the cooling loads, covering a large floor area without introducing the need for daytime artificial lighting.

Well, I’m not so sure about the dramatic enclosure, but I think the cooling load could have been reduced just as much by normal shading devices that might allow better light into the space, rather than by canopies. However, as we know, doing this doesn’t show off your architectural skills and architectural solutions to “problems” so much, and you don’t want that as an architect do you now?

Another good example is the Swiss Re Headquarters in London (1997-2004) by Foster & Partners.

They seem to be saying in their description that it’s a good performing building, and that its shape actually contributed to that.

Conceptually the tower develops ideas explored in the Commerzbank and before that in the Climatroffice, a theoretical project with Buckminster Fuller that suggested a new rapport between nature and the workplace, its energy-conscious enclosure resolving walls and roof into a continuous triangulated skin. Here, the tower’s diagonally braced structural envelope allows column-free floor space and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views. Atria between the radiating fingers of each floor link together vertically to form a series of informal break-out spaces that spiral up the building. These spaces are a natural social focus places for refreshment points and meeting areas – and function as the buildings lungs, distributing fresh air drawn in through opening panels in the facade. This system reduces the towers reliance on air conditioning and together with other sustainable measures, means that the building is expected to use up to half the energy consumed by air-conditioned office towers.

Firstly, a lack of integrativity can be spotted in “and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views.” Well, it might bring in a little more light, although any window lower than 762mm from the floor is pointless. Doing this will also bring in more heat into the building (or make it lose heat faster), which they haven’t talked about. Perhaps they could have achieved the same amount of energy savings if they thought about the glazing ratio.

Have a look at Lord Norman’s first sketch of the building:

Norman SKetch As in the previous example, the building looks quite like the first sketch. Now unless Lord Foster did a lot of simulations and calculations in his head comparing his approach, with several other approaches that could have brought the same or even a better result, in terms of views, daylighting, ventilation, and solar gain, BEFORE this sketch, then the building is nothing but a meaningless shape that an architect came up with. And after finding an iconic and special form, some engineering company like Arup had to be hired to help the creditability of the architect’s claim about the building being “London’s first ecological tall building”.

Since we’re talking about London, F & P, and sustainability, here’s another building they did:

City Hall, London (1998-2002)

But, in this case, ‘sustainability’ meant stepped floors that are supposed to work as shading devices. It’s hard to think of a more expensive way of shading some windows. I wonder if  Swiss Re is still sustainable, since it hasn’t got any stepped floors as shading devices, or any shading devices at all, for that matter.

Misfits is proud of the building (Stacey) they designed using an integrative design approach. All its systems where designed in parallel so that they all work together in harmony, with no system compromising the functionality of any other. These systems including planning, because enclosing space requires building resources and heating and cooling that space requires energy resources. Inefficient planning wastes both. Good planning makes every square metre work harder and as part of more than one system. These systems include but are not limited to planning, orientation, daylight, views, solar gain, ventilation, renewable energy, and constructions. You can read more about this in Part I, Part II, and Part III. Here’s how the horizontal systems were solved.

Now, designing a building with no regard to all the others systems would be treating the building like a piece of sculpture – something not intended for human use, but for the  momentary pleasure that could be gained by looking at it, or as a monument used to make any kind of statement. This happens too often with current architecture.

It’s easy to see why. If you look on the internet architecture sites at posts of buildings, you can see how carefully-taken photographs or computer graphics from specific angles are the main way that buildings are described. THESE ARE IMAGES. They cannot describe how the light changes, how the air flows, how much heat the building gains or losses, how easy it is to get from one place to another, and whether the planning takes into account the MEP. Images can only tell us how a building looks, and only from certain angles. It’s not surprising that we continue to judge buildings on that basis. We need a way to represent all the other systems and attributes of buildings so we can make better judgments, and maybe have better buildings.

The Process Behind A Better Architecture Building STACEY #3: Daylighting & Views

Previous posts: Part I, Part II

Back to STACEY and, this time, with DAYLIGHTING & VIEWS. Daylighting is a very important yet neglected aspect of buildings. In addition to its benefits for energy-saving, it has huge psychological and productivity benefits for a building’s occupants as well.


As for productivity, studies have shown that daylight can have a substantial effect on the performance and productivity of the occupants of the building. A study performed by CEC PIER says the following:

In Seattle Washington and Fort Collins Colorado, where end-of-year test scores were used as the outcome variable, students in classrooms with the most daylighting were found to have 7% to 18% higher scores than those with the least.  In San Juan Capistrano, California, where the study was able to examine the improvement between fall and spring test scores, we found that students with the most daylighting in their classrooms progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% faster on reading tests in one year than in those with the least.

The same study also concluded that having better views can significantly increase productivity:

Workers in the Call Center were found to process calls 6% to 12% faster when they had the best possible view versus those with no view. Office workers were found to perform 10% to 25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall when they had the best possible view versus those with no view. Furthermore, office worker self reports of better health conditions were strongly associated with better views. Those workers in the Desktop study with the best views were the least likely to report negative health symptoms. Reports of increased fatigue were most strongly associated with a lack of view.

Furthermore, adequate daylighting can produce enormous energy savings over the years. When you have enough daylight coming through your window, you don’t need to turn on the lights during the day. Some studies have shown that having better daylighting in a building’s spaces can decrease energy consumption by 45%.

So yes, it is an excellent thing to have, and it benefits everyone – except architects who, once more, seem to be making everyone’s live a bit harder. I seem to remember that I never turned off the lights in my university dorm room, and that was in the UAE – a country that has one of the highest hours of full-sun per day.

Designing a building without taking daylight into consideration from the very beginning and then trying to somehow compensate for it later is just fixing an architect’s mistake. Such oversights would not happen if, instead of the architect having complete authority over the “form” and shape of the building, an integrative design process (IDP) determined them along with daylighting and views at the same time.

Proudly, Stacey had such a process. The first step was to orient the building to give better year-round daylighting results, as well as minimizing the solar heat gain. That achieved, it was then time for some in-depth daylighting simulations using some cool software – IES <Virtual Environment> – to determine the type, size, and location of these windows so that they met LEED’s recommended illumination levels.

I remember running many simulations for different variations of windows until we had the optimum daylighting that met the LEED benchmark and that also minimized solar gain.  The variables were VLT (Visible Light Transmittance), SHGC (Solar Heat Gain Coefficient), u-values, size of windows, double glazed or triple glazed, their location and height from the ground. Some of these variables were conflicting. For example, higher windows meant deeper light penetration but higher ceilings meant that more energy would be required to air-condition the spaces.

As a reminder, this table shows the baseline and proposed constructions for windows:

And here’s an image of the daylight distribution for one of the apartments (in lux) after the window type and their locations had been optimized.

This is a comparison between south-facing living rooms and north-facing living rooms.

Speaking of daylight and windows, you might be wondering why the south facade doesn’t have any shading devices on it. Many people do. There’s a general expectation for buildings to have some sort of “architectural solution” to the problem of solar gain on windows, regardless of whether it actually is a problem or not. I have seen shading devices shading walls and columns so there seems to be a bit of confusion about what shading devices are for in the first place. Unless a study or simulation is performed, it’s not possible to know if shading devices are necessary or not, and if they are, whether they are actually doing anything to reduce solar gain or  just look like they might be.

As far as I know, shading devices are supposed to decrease the solar gain from sun hitting the windows, usually around midday. However, Stacey has such good windows in terms of their thermal properties (u-value, SHGC) and their ability to allow daylight through them (VLT), that shading devices would would have little effect. If the performance of Stacey’s windows hadn’t been as good, then it would have been necessary to have some sort of shading device on the south facade.

That’s all I have to say about Stacey’s Daylighting & Views. The thing to remember is that windows only need to be shaded if their performance is not very good. Supporting evidence is provided by this Master’s thesis. This is an example of a silly shading device. (I’m sure the sun hits the upper part of the building as well.)

“The stainless steel ‘splash’ is a shading device that eliminates over 30 percent of the sun’s heat before it ever reaches the building, thereby saving on the need for cooling within the building. The splash twists around the building towards the south to shield Capital Gate as much as possible from direct sunlight.”

The Beauty I See in Al Hambra

No. It isn’t the very fancy and expensive decorations or the Court of The Lions, and it certainly isn’t the spiritual feeling that one is supposed to feel when looking at such an enormous built object. Those are not the things that amaze me so much about Al Hambra Palace in Granada, Spain.

What does amaze me, however, is how building such an enormous place was made possible, considering all the difficulties that the Muslim builders faced at the time, and how they tackled them with simple, yet genius solutions.


Located on the high mountains of southern Spain, is the magnificent fortress, Al Hambra قصر الحمراء.  It contains more than 35 gigantic towers, and took over 150 years to build. It is a network of palaces, each built by a different Sultan. This made each part somehow unique and different than the other parts, because each Sultan wanted to make his own mark either by building a new palace or by renovating an older one.

Historical Background

During the 13th century the city of Granada lived under Muslim rule. However, the 500 year-old Muslim Spain was shrinking due to Christian advances from the north. As a result,  the Muslim Kingdom in Spain was indeed collapsing, and at a very critical turning point. Because of this, Mohamad ibn Nasir headed south and took over Granada. He wanted to build a palace that would house him and his family, and protect them from the Christian advance.

Plan & Layout

The fortress was built on Sabika Hill on which a fortress had already been built nearly 100 years earlier. His first step was to rebuild the existing fortress, which was known as Al Qazaba, into a stronghold that was large and strong enough to house the people and troops needed to run the proposed palace.

They would also guard the series of palaces yet to be built. Beside it, there was to be a town known as Al Medina المدينة that would house all the people needed to run this gigantic palace. All that was to be surrounded by a huge wall dotted with guard towers to defend the citadel and fight off attackers.

For all this to be possible, Mohamad ibn Nasir first had to build a tower. The first tower was called Torre Dela Vella (The Watch Tower) by the locals. It was the largest thing that the people of Granada had ever seen. It sent the message from the rulers of Granada to both Muslims and Christians, that “we’re still strong, and we can protect you”.

To function, this tower had to be strong enough to withstand attacks while the builders were constructing the rest of Al Hambra.

Construction & Materials

How to construct a huge citadel on a hill, using nothing but simple tools, was a difficult problem that the Muslim builders had to solve.

The solution to this problem was at the bottom of the Sabika Hill in the form of a useful substance that made Al Hambra possible. A mixture of clay, sand, and stone with a calculated amount of water added to it gave the builders the advantage of an on-site material, and this helped to speed up the construction.

This material also gave the place a red color, and thus it was named The Red City, مدينة الحمراء, or Al Hamra City. The one downside to using this material was that water and wind erode it over the years so that it loses its strength.

To overcome this problem, the Muslim builders applied lime and sand stucco to the walls, like plaster, so it could better withstand water.

The Structural System of the Monument

The core of the towers is supported by tiers of arches transferring the entire load of the building that rests upon them. However, half way through construction, the builders realized that the arches would not be strong enough to carry those loads and that Mohamad’s first tower could collapse at any time. They solved this problem in a simple way by bricking up the arches to provide the support needed.

As a result of this, the Sultan’s vision of light and shadows “playing” through these arches has vanished. Boo hoo. They did what they had to do. It was a brutal monument to the needs of the age.

The need for an Intelligence Network

The Christian advance was a very real danger and so Mohamad needed to install an intelligence network to gather information while his builders continued building his masterpiece.

This system would gather information from people that pass through the area, providing early warning of Christian troops movements. Signals warning of the expected attack would be transmitted from the top of the towers by means of special mirrored plates, smoke, or fire. Those signals were relayed from tower to tower until they reached Al Hambra’s main watch tower.

The water is DOWN here, Al Hambra is UP there..

Al Hambra housed nearly 5000 people. Unfortunately, there is no source of fresh water on Sabika Hill. The closest water source to Al Hambra is the River Darro, which flows to the north of Al Hambra, but the level of River Darro is much lower than the level of Al Hambra.

The most obvious thing to do would be to follow the river, up to a point where it is above the level of Al Hambra, and let the energy of the river itself bring the water to them. But there was no natural lake above the Al Hambra. To solve this problem, the Muslim engineers created one.

They constructed a dam above the level of Al Hambra and this dam would create sufficient water pressure to feed the citadel. The dam is 6 km away from the Al Hambra. It creates a reservoir system capable of providing Al Hambra with enough water to fill an Olympic size pool every 5 seconds! It is hard to believe that this was dug by hand almost 800 years ago.

The dam consists of 2 gates – one that lets the water into the River Darro, and one that lets the water into the reservoir.

Water flows from this reservoir into Al Hambra via a bricked canal. But there’s still one more problem for the Muslim engineers to solve …

Water running through hills and mountains

The reservoir they created runs between 3 hills so, in order for that water to reach Al Hambra, it has to pass along a 6 km long channel running through the hills. This has to carry the equivalent of 7000 Olympic size swimming pools of water each day to support Al Hambra’s growing population. This system would work only if the water flowed downhill at a constant gradient.

The Muslims engineers found a simple and ingenious solution to that problem. Instead of going around the hill, they decided to go through it.

They built a tunnel 1 m wide and 2 m high through the hillside and leading towards Al Hambra. The natural stability of the mountain or hill meant that there was no danger of it ever collapsing.

Keeping the water always fresh and clean

Due to the Muslims’ extensive use of water (ablution), clean and fresh water was a must. Creating a system that would ensure the purity and cleanness of the water was the next challenge that the Muslim engineers had to overcome.

Any visitor to Al Hambra will notice that the water there is almost never still. That is the solution. The movement and the motion of the water is very important for always keeping it fresh and clean.

Another thing they did was to create shallow pools designed to slow the water down. The water streams down the channel carrying silt and sand with it until it reaches a wide and deep part, where it slows down and all the silt and sand falls to the bottom. This keeps all the water in the Al Hambra fresh and clean.

Dealing with too much water

Now that they’ve succeeded in delivering the amount of water needed to run the place, they still have to deal with excess water, which can also be an extremely bad thing. To prevent this from happening, the Muslim engineers installed a safety valve.

Any excess water that might overload the main channel entering the Al Hambra, is funneled along a side channel and diverted into an overflow system built within the walls, where it rejoins the River Darro again.

Dealing with too little water

It soon became apparent to that Muslim engineers that, during the dry season, Al Hambra could run short of water. To prevent this from happening, the engineers built several reservoirs on high ground, so that gravity would ensure a constant flow of water to feed the gardens.

To raise the water up to the level of those reservoirs, the engineers used a mechanism of interlocking wooden gears that were driven by donkeys. When the donkey walked in a circle, it turned the horizontal wheel which turned a gear attached to a water wheel, which dips a line of buckets into the pool below, and deposits it into the reservoir above.

With this final invention, the builders succeeded in making Al Hambra a safe, hygienic and pleasant place where people could now live.  All that remained to do was add some architecture to make the Sultan feel rich and special.