Developing more humanistic buildings

I’m working with a number of developers that are in various stages of planning, and we’re investigating a strategy of developing buildings that are more anthropomorphic – taller than they are wide, just as is the rule for windows. Verticality is more human-like, horizontality more machine-like (ie cars, ships, planes).

The factors in favor of smaller, vertical buildings, as far as value to the home buyer/resident:
1. People feel more like they own their own place, have their own identity.
2. Less elevator waiting time, if any.
3. Higher property values in a neighborhood with more human-scaled/proportioned buildings and much stronger street entrance presence, and safer streets as a result.

Here are the factors in favor of larger, horizontal buildings:
1. Elevators. Many city codes require one when a building has more than 4 units, and such a $100K investment needs to be spread out over as many units as possible to keep housing costs low.
2. Building height limitations. Getting above five stories starts to lose human scale, but many neighborhoods don’t even allow more than two. It’s very difficult to get a sense of verticality with such a height limit.
3. Facade. It’s obviously less expensive to do a facade for one 40-unit building than it is for two 20-unit buildings. Other economies of scale. Stairs, entries, design, property management, etc.

The key question: Assuming a five-story height limit, retail on the ground floor, and around 1000 s.f. 1-2BR units, what’s the narrowest building one can develop with the most attractive units the most affordably? Anyone have suggestions, examples? Amsterdam (pictured) is a great model, though each building would need to hold more units (10-20 rather than the 3-4) to keep them affordable for a majority of the creative class.

  • Unfortunately, the math is such that it’s an almost impossible goal. Some places have tried this – Celebration, of course – but what you really end up with is a really fake looking building.

    Now it does work in New York, particularly in the East Village, but that’s an expensive neighborhood compared to most.

    One alternative to maintaining that human scale and still achieving efficiencies, is to build townhomes along the street and a tower behind. It keeps the scale, allows for another unit type, and keeps the number of elevators to a minimum.

    One other option, if the site is on a corner, you can create the human scale along one street front and let the condos run to the back, almost creating the look of one giant house. Many of the places grad students rent in Cambridge are designed like this. They look like a house, but are really condo buildings.

    But, if you’re going to build five stories, with retail and condominiums and minimize the number of elevators and create good looking homes and non-fakey buildings, you’ve got a challenge. The economies of scale are very difficult.

    One other note about five stories. In most cities, going above four stories means switching to mid-rise construction, which is an expensive proposition. Generally, you either want four or six.

    Still, it’s a great goal. There’s a street in Denver – sorry, no pictures – that has about three blocks lined with five story buildings one each side. They don’t have the look of Amsterdam, they’re more modern, but it’s a great feel.