We all know them and they are popular in cities~those blocky apartment buildings often with retail on the main floor . They’ve been called “stumpies” or “five-over-one” (relating to the condo units above the ground level retail use) but the form and function are completely familiar. Maybe a bit too common.
Justin Fox in Bloomberg Businessweek describes this building form this way: “The number of floors and the presence of a podium varies; the key unifying element, it turns out, is under the skin. They’re almost always made of softwood two-by-fours, or “stick,” in construction parlance, that have been nailed together in frames like those in suburban tract houses.” Fox sees these buildings everywhere~while 187,000 housing units were built in buildings of 50 units or more in the United States last year, half of those units appear to be in this blocky mid-rise form. The balloon or stick framing construction costs appear to be from 20 to 40 percent less than buildings with “concrete, steel or masonry.”
The building method can take advantage of cheaper casual labour , and construction lumber is plentiful.
The stick style of building migrated into being the main way of building houses in the suburbs. Wood framed apartment buildings have been built since 1927, but their renaissance in the modern age happened in the 1990’s when the Building Code classified wood treated with fire retardant as noncombustible, making wood useable for “ordinary masonry construction” exterior walls which were required to be built of non combustible materials. Blocky buildings of five stories with sprinkler systems started to crop up, with a concrete podium and wood construction above. By covering “more of the one-acre lot than a high-rise could fill…(you could) get 100 apartments at 60 percent to 70 percent of the cost of a high-rise building.
“Most multifamily developers build to sell—to a real estate investment trust, an insurance company, a pension fund, or some other institutional investor. These owners aren’t interested in small projects, and their bottom-line focus determines not only materials but also appearance and layout.” Because of scale creating “superblocks”, the use of different colour panels and different textures on the exterior provide some visual variety.
Fox knows that the mid-height form is boxy and repetitive, but he argues that there is monotony in every other big housing trend adopted over the last two hundred years.
“There’s lots to like about stumpy buildings that provide new housing in places where it’s sorely needed and enliven neighborhoods in the process. A four-story Texas doughnut can get 50 or 60 apartments onto an acre of land, while the most aggressively engineered West Coast stick-and-concrete hybrid (two-story podiums are allowed now, along with other variations) can get almost 200. That’s not far from the range that the renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs deemed optimal for vital street life.”
Images: Niskian.com & integritystructural.com