Bloomberg’s Feargus O’Sullivan has been writing an interesting series on housing in world cities. He took a look at Brussels Belgium where instead of opting for tall apartment buildings as a 19th century solution to housing many in the downtown, stone and masonry decorated single family homes were adopted. These houses are tall, thin, and all have entranceways directly onto the street frontage.

These houses are fittingly called “maison de maitre”  or master’s house, for their size and facade splendour and were built and lived in by the “wealthy bourgeois”. Like the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, these houses are not grand mansions for the truly rich aristocrat, nor were they as plonky as a standard townhouse. The main floor had three large reception rooms with dividing doors that could open, an open space concept way before its time.

 “The result is an interesting hybrid, combining floor plans reminiscent of London townhouses, plot sizes similar to old Amsterdam and servants attics like in Paris — all brought together with an elaborate, unmistakably Belgian decorative style.”

There’s a lot of ornamentation on the front facade of these structures which can be kindly called a “baroque streak” but were largely influenced by the aesthetic movement.

While Brussels did try a Paris redevelopment plan in their downtown similar to Baron Haussmann’s in the 1860’s, the locals hated “Haussmann-style” apartment living.

They hated it so much that no one tried to build apartments in the downtown again until the 1970’s, leaving downtown Brussels with much the same feel as Buenos Aires in Argentina, where older buildings still dominate the historic downtown.

As middle classes moved to new houses being built outside the city’s historic walls, Brussels’ “maisons de maitre” grew less popular with many of the houses being split into apartments. Redevelopment of roads and destruction of heritage buildings came to be known as “Brusselization”.

But in a surprising twist, the middle class came back to the centre city and the Maison de Maitre enjoyed a new popularity. Why? There was no run of investment in the downtown housing to make it out of reach of residents, with an entire house costing less than a one bedroom apartment in many larger American cities.

There is also less competition for house purchases in Brussels, with few international European Union workers competing against locals for purchase. A  Maison de Maitre house can cost as low as 600,000 Euros (930,000 dollars Canadian).

The YouTube video below shows a real estate offering for a maison de maitre and gives a sense of the house’s plan and interior.

Image:Lapresse

Comments

  1. I’m not sure what is “plonky” about a “standard” townhouse.

    However, it is interesting to note how scale often adds both functionality and a certain ability to achieve diversity and articulation in both facade design and configuration of space when urban design parameters are limited by the objectives of addressing the street and creating ground-oriented access. In Vancouver and its suburban neighbouring municipalities, there is some aversion to variations in building height. In most townhouse zones, achieving a design similar to those Brussels’ townhomes, would be impossible because of building height limits. Limiting overall height, when one is attempting to design functionally, means compressing floor to ceiling height in multi-storey buildings, often limiting the ability for diversity on the facade. A floor to ceiling height of 13 to 14 feet also allows for a much more livable space internally when a dwelling unit width is limited to a dimension less than 20 feet. Our prescriptive zoning limits height such that maximum floor to ceiling height is about 10 feet.

    Of all places, Houston, Texas has seen a wonderful transformation in many inner-city neighbourhood over the last decade or so with the infill of three and four-storey (plus roof deck) townhomes. There is a lot of diversity. Many are quite narrow – 15 to 16 feet wide. Others are 20 to 24 feet wide. They have no zoning code that is so prescriptive in limiting things like height, bulk and FSR. They have setback requirements and fire/life safety requirements.

    Friends from Canada live in Houston’s Museum District. During a number of visits, I’ve enjoyed strolling through their residential neighbourhood and seeing all manner of design for infill townhouses. The neighbouhood retains its residential character. There is more age and income diversity.

    We are so restrictive in our cities. We are also focused on achieving objectives that have little to do with creating housing people can afford and creating comfortable neighbourhoods. One such meaningless objective is the outcome of a mathematical equation referred to as “F.S.R.”. Views of distant mountain-tops, uniform setbacks, window to wall ratios, etc. dominate the discussion. We wonder why we have a limited supply of housing that people desire and sky high housing prices.

    Let architects design.

    Editor’s Note: “plonky” was a spell correct word for “platform”.

    1. Yup! I think that the best-functioning major city in either Canada or the U.S. is Montréal, where nearly the entire city is 3-level attached housing. And very little of it comes *remotely* close to achieving the beauty of a typical larger Parisian apartment building, and that’s totally OK! 🙂 And I also agree that “standard” townhouses” are not “plonky.” 🙂 What’s important is that low- to middle-income people can find housing!!

      And FSR is almost always called FAR (floor-area ratio) in the U.S. I hadn’t heard “FSR” in so long that I had nearly forgotten what it was! 🙂

      And I totally agree about areas like Montrose in Houston that are becoming incredibly urban, diverse and walkable! People really need to see it!

      Cheers,
      Tim

      Editor’s Note: “plonky” was a spell correct word for “platform”.

  2. “A house can cost as low as 600,000 Euros (930,000 dollars Canadian).”

    … which, if these houses are the dominant housing type in the city (versus condos or apartments), means that Cdn$930,000 is also the entry level cost of a home in Brussels? or have condos and apartments taken root?
    Or is the middle class population base still in “new houses being built outside the city’s historic walls,”?

  3. After I had to install an entranceway wheelchair ramp for my late wife I’ve become very wary of any housing form that requires navigation of stairways to access various parts of the residence.

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