As cities continue to densify, the future of multifamily housing depends even more on finding the right balance between indoor and outdoor spaces. This balance is critical to the health of urban residents and the success of the places they call home. Planning for density and open space must be considered to pave the way for a more porous city that includes spaces for increased access to natural light, landscape, and human-centered places.
In terms of housing, our era has seen the growth of two extremes. On one end, there have been dense mega-structures like the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, where 50,000 people lived in a 6.4-acre parcel, once considered the most populated area in the world before it was demolished in 1994. On the other end of the spectrum, American suburbia consists of homes that are spread so far from major cities and services that they have lost any relationship with an environment or context beyond their own. Once viewed as quiet places to escape from the city, suburbs have become one of the few options for workers who are being forced out of city living due to high costs and lack of housing supply. While these two typologies are vastly different in form, an understanding of what drove the creation of each allows for the potential to generate multifamily housing solutions that balance density with access to outdoor space.
Designing urban residential buildings around a balance of indoor and outdoor space is not a novel idea. Architects have been designing such places since the late 1800s, compelled by the challenge of retaining public outdoor space against rising industrialization. Early on, the design narrative focused on healthier ways of living that eventually gave way to augmenting connectivity within communities, boosting natural light and ventilation, and showcasing sustainable design elements.
Three multifamily residential examples offer a framework for the reconciliation of natural experiences with urban living. While each of these projects reflects a distinct density, context, and architectural language,they share an emphasis on balanced indoor/outdoor design. The SANAA-designed Shakujii Apartments comprise of eight three-story units in a dense neighborhood in Tokyo. The complex indoor/outdoor relationship relies on harmonious vertical and horizontal connections, turning the units into a community engaging its context and adjacent structures. Meanwhile, The Mountain, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, combines the appeal of backyard-centered suburbia with the social interactions native to a dense urban area. This complex is composed of 80 units, each with its own outdoor garden facing the sun and a complete view of the surrounding landscape. A third project is located in Montpellier, France and designed by Sou Fujimoto. The Arbre Blanc (or "White Tree") is a high-rise residential building with cantilevered balconies of varying lengths, several of which are connected by staircases. The ground level and roof are communal spaces accessible to its residents and the surrounding community.
While each of these projects shows a distinct density, context, and architectural language that share the values of balanced indoor/outdoor design, they also possess a common porosity that connects the built environment with nature and the surrounding community, while contributing to a more porous city.
Outdoor living spaces can be profoundly satisfying and provide residents with a connection to the outdoors. Balconies, patios, and terraces can be visually appealing, inform the architecture, and create a sense of ownership and customization. They create a buffer between the occupied indoor space and the cacophony of sound from the surrounding city. However, countless recently built multifamily housing projects sacrifice individual outdoor space in favor of maximizing density and leasable area. Multifamily housing project programs are even seeing balconies, patios and terrace removed, substituted elsewhere by public open space and amenity areas exclusively for residents. We must consider both individual and shared outdoor spaces equally because they are vital to promoting ownership and community. These two varieties of outdoor space must be kept in balance, rather than one being prioritized over the other. Finding a balance between indoor and outdoor spaces helps to create porous structures. We have identified three different typologies at varying levels of density that can lead to different outcomes and configurations to strike this balance. The low-density "Figure/Ground" typology creates relationships between indoor and outdoor spaces and offers a compelling connection between views, neighbors, and the city. Because these spaces can foster dialogue and social connections, they lead to a stronger sense of community within the complex. The medium-density "Terrace" typology re-imagines the building as a stepped landscape with individual outdoor spaces that can be either open to the sky or covered. These spaces can be transformed into gardens, sun decks, or even ponds or pools. The terraced design helps residents maximize their views beyond. The high-density "Vertical Tree" typology emphasizes each unit’s balcony, which extends beyond the building envelope, almost like tree branches reaching for natural light. Balconies could hold potted plants, outdoor seating, canopies, and trellises.
Deconstructing the Apartment Building
This multifamily concept is designed to give the user a wide range of choices based on desire, cost, access to light/ventilation, and intended use. Flexible accommodation of residents’ ever-changing needs is now critical to the success of multifamily projects. The front half of the building consists of larger unit types with a sizable open space for cooking, dining, and living, as well as an adjacent outdoor space and up to two bedrooms. The back half of the building is made up of several standardized 10'x10' spaces, some with adjacent bathrooms or a small outdoor area.
A tenant with few possessions might be comfortable in the smallest configuration, which is a single 10'x10' space with an adjacent bathroom and small outdoor area. The tenant would have an option to also rent an adjacent 10'x10' space for use as a private workspace or den. Typically more private spaces in residential units need at least a 10'x10' space for uses such as sleeping, working, crafting, or playing music.
An extended family type such as a multi-generational family or a group of roommates might rent the larger unit type, while also renting some of the smaller spaces throughout the building for additional sleeping, playing or working spaces. A private workspace can serve parents while keeping them sufficiently close to their children. Through the mix of smaller and larger spaces, this concept offers tenants the ability to adapt their space to match their evolving lives. These small modules can facilitate the sudden need to house an aging relative or host a short- or long-term lodger.
The success of today’s multifamily buildings requires a deconstruction of their form to understand new opportunities within this building typology. This concept incorporates an open-ended light court that allows natural light and ventilation to flow throughout, letting the building breathe by pulling it apart. Pushing the circulation outdoors at the perimeter of the light court allows users to engage with the open air as they walk to their workspace or amenity area, as well as a more pleasant and hygienic open air space. Separating the family units from work and amenity areas separates private and social functions, allowing tenants to be more present and mindful in their space. This encourages movement, preventing a sedentary lifestyle.
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Reimagining Spaces: Multifamily Design
Amid the upheaval from today's pandemic, we see one clear implication for our industry: space design is entering a whole new era, and there's no going back. Since Early 2020, Omgivning has been exploring the potential of this design evolution creating Reimagining Spaces, a post-pandemic design report reimagining the Workplace, Commercial, and Multifamily spaces.
Download parts one and two of this three-part series
Reimagining Spaces: Urban Reprogramming Commercial Design
Reimagining Spaces: Workplace Design