polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Housing Design from the Outside

by Peter Sigrist

After spending the past seven months studying urban housing, I've drafted the following list of design variables that shape perceptions of place around the home: proximity, enclosure, scale, accessibility, materials, additions and style. There are many studies of urban design elements (including classics by Camillo Sitte, Colin Rowe and Christopher Alexander), but this list focuses specifically on shared space around apartment buildings. I hope you will let me know if you have ideas for improvement.

Proximity refers to the distance between each building. It is similar to density, but I find it more useful from a design perspective because the arrangement and size of buildings in a given area is at least as important as quantity. Building density is also easily confused with population density. Internal proximity can make a community feel sheltered from extreme weather and protected from crime based on Jane Jacobs’s notion of “eyes upon the street." It also brings the challenges of sharing and maintaining limited space, and making it feel more comfortable than crowded.

Enclosure represents the degree to which shared space around buildings has an interior and exterior. For example, courtyards are more enclosed than fenceless yards, creating interior space without ceilings. Housing that is more densely arranged offers a sense of enclosure without courtyards or fences. In multi-unit buildings, enclosed space may be accessible or inaccessible to the general public. Thus, the maximum degree of enclosure is found in private courtyards, and the minimum is found in widely distributed housing surrounded by public space.

Scale includes the height, length and width of apartment buildings, which help create the dimensions of outdoor space. Higher buildings result in cavernous settings when grouped together, and conspicuous voids when spread apart. While they have the obvious capacity to house more people in less horizontal space, inefficiencies tied to internal climate regulation, elevators and maintenance place their benefits in question. Longer and wider buildings can impede walkability and reduce green space. Expansive façades highlight repetition, monotony and decay. Smaller buildings tend to be associated with comfort around housing, perhaps because of the psychological effects of less-polarized differences in scale.

Accessibility refers to the ease with which residents are able to make use of amenities around their homes. Amenities include public transportation, shopping areas, kindergartens, parks and libraries. In many apartment complexes, modernist “superblocks” separate residential areas from major streets. These buffers usually consist of grass or trees, and are penetrated only by small access roads. They are a common feature in housing projects and subdivisions, which have been thoroughly criticized by proponents of mixed-use neighborhoods. However, they make green space more accessible and offer an escape from bustling street life.

Additions to the space between buildings — such as trees, parking lots, benches, playgrounds and sports facilities — serve as shared resources for neighborhood residents. Trees exert an especially strong influence on space around the home, as a function of their quantity and maturity. Mature trees are cooling, calming and capable of making building monotony and decay less apparent. They also require maintenance, such as pruning and protection from blight. Parking is always in high demand, but its influence on the non-utilitarian enjoyment of shared space is profoundly negative. Many additions are popular among those who use them, but not pleasing to everyone.

Materials selected for buildings and other structures influence the aesthetic experience of place around the home. They can also facilitate or complicate maintenance. Certain materials hold up especially well over time, from visual and/or structural perspectives, and they are not always the most expensive. Studying existing materials — and thoroughly testing new ones before applying them on a large scale — can make the environment around housing more attractive and easy to maintain.

Style refers to the distinctive forms and decorative elements that contribute to the atmosphere of shared space. Certain colors make walls appear more dirty or low-quality. Structural variations and details can add visual interest or aversion. This is primarily subjective, but it may be worth exploring what people think of different styles to see if there are any points of frequent convergence.

Again I encourage anyone to critique this list and let me know what I've missed.

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Credits: The source of the opening photo is unfortunately unknown to me. I found it online a few months ago, but now it isn't turning up in search results. Please let me know if you have any information about it.