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


  1. This is the building height of most traditional European cities and it works really well. You can conceivably live without an elevator, so providing just one keeps costs down too. Human scale. I’m disturbed that in Vancouver they are mostly relegated to smelly, noisy dangerous arterials.

    Personally I find their repetitive nature a positive attribute in the streetscape. Most of us like the scale and feeling of Gastown and Yaletown which are similar. It also opens up the possibility of prefabricated units stacked on site which can increase quality and reduce costs and waste. It doesn’t actually take a lot of variation to create enough visual interest. Often trying too hard to be different feels erratic or even childish.

    As mentioned, another great advantage of this building form is that it is easily constructed in wood. So long as it comes from well managed, sustainable forestry operations they sequester carbon and require far less carbon emissions to construct. Wood construction has come a long way in terms of fire prevention, durability and reduced noise transmission. Wood construction also has thermal advantages that reduce energy loss through building assemblies. And it’s more easily deconstructed than concrete.

    This form is more likely to play a larger role in housing affordability. But it is not what you tend to get in SkyTrain corridors.

  2. Important to note that Jane Jacobs was quite charmed by Vancouver’s tower and podium development. New mass timber design allows wood high rise. Hybrid concrete and conventional wood can take you to 8 storeys in many jurisdictions.

    Conventional wood frame is cheap, cheerful and quick. Good carbon sink vs embodied energy and CO2 of concrete. Shrinkage is an issue. There is absolutely NO way to have low-rise and mid rise buildings without elevators. Never.

    Moisture remains the enemy in the temperate coastal rainforest – remember the holy 4 D’s of wood frame design 1) Deflection … especially over windows; 2) Design – THIS IS FOR YOU URBAN PLANNERS – don’t mess around with (or demand) overly articulated buildings with lots of joints and extrusions and stepping floors with multiple roofs or even green roofs (uninsurable) .. just don’t. See all the old wood frame buildings that still perform well in Vancouver? They are all essentially “boxes”; the ones covered in algae and rot have complicated designs with lots of joints and corners just begging water to seep into the envelope. 3) Details – keep them clean and waterproof – talk to the people who have to execute the design; and lastly 4) Drying … assume the face of the building will fail; waterproof what’s behind and let the water and vapour out.

  3. Excuse me Mr. Shouting person: urban design is obviously not your forte. Urban planners are not the cause of building envelope failures. For the answer to that it is best to look to the project developer. In the mean time advancing technological understanding continues to drive the construction industry forward in ever more efficient and active responses to current social needs. For example, we have the recent emergence of a new architectural form in the city, the modular factory built affordable housing unit which has great potential for rapid affordable housing delivery. Can’t wait to see all the wonderful and colorful archi-sculpture that this system will create across the urban landscape.

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