Friday, May 15, 2015

Traditional Euro-bloc: what it is, how it was built, why it can't be built anymore

Okay, so another subject I already touched upon before, the Traditional Euro-bloc that I first identified in my comparison between the different approaches to density and city-building. I just thought it was worth a better description.

The Traditional Euro-bloc (what I at first called the traditional European urban bloc) is a form of development that is present in almost all European cities and typically forms their densest residential and mixed up sections. 

Here is a typical example, in Prague:
A more recent Traditional Euro-bloc in Prague
Traditional Euro-bloc seen from the street, in Prague
So, what is the Traditional Euro-bloc? It takes the form of buildings built wall-to-wall, lining the street, that are typically mid-rise (usually 4 to 6 stories high, sometimes a bit more or less). They have little to no front setback, providing for a great sense of enclosure (maybe even more than most North Americans would like) but having the possibility of creating a cold, claustrophobic street scene if without commercial activity and with street parking. Since buildings are built at the property line, it creates an empty space inside the bloc, that space can be used in many different ways: a shared courtyard, parking, a park, playing fields, etc...

Older areas tend to have more chaotic streets, following geography rather than a plan, they also often have lower buildings, but their courtyards are filled with more buildings, so the total density is equal or more than the more recent areas.
Older Prague Traditional Euro-blocs, less straight streets, courtyards are mostly built out

From the street, buildings are a bit lower than in the previous images
This is the type of bloc that most tourists see in Europe, the type of bloc that many classical urbanists fall in love with and use as inspiration for their recommended solutions to urban problems. Though not very tall, they often have high to very high lot coverage and so have very high FAR. For example, even the example in the first image has a lot coverage ratio of 55-60%, so the FAR is 300 to 350%. They will often incorporate retail on the ground floor, and therefore be the classical mixed-use building: retail on the ground, residential in upper floors.

OK, so that's it for the form, but as I said, I'm rather a sucker for the process. How were they built? Well, I admit being privy to no in-depth research on this, but I think that by observing them, it is possible to deduce how they were built.

First of all, let's go back to the first image, note that despite certain similarities in height, form and materials, the block is NOT made of one large building, nor even of a few large buildings. No, it is in fact made up of a lot of narrow buildings about 12 meters wide (40 feet).
Euro-blocs are made up of a lot of narrow buildings, not of a few big ones
Why is this important? Because if buildings are narrow, it means that blocks such as this can be built progressively, they don't need to spring up at once, building the blocs can be a matter of incremental development. But if that is true, then there must be transitional areas still around where we can see some buildings having been built up and some others haven't. And indeed, looking at smaller cities, we can notice similarities between these blocs and blocs of smaller townhouses that are present in areas that were less central and less populated, and find areas where the two building forms coexist.
The bloc's basic design is already present, but some buildings are older, smaller, with only 2 stories, whereas buildings on the main avenue are deeper and taller, yet they have the same width, so can be built on the same lot
What this means is that it is very possible for areas to have begun full of attached single-family houses with 2 stories (or maybe even one, but they're rare nowadays), only to be progressively built up, either by being replaced or by having floors added to existing buildings. Of course, this process didn't need to come up all at once, which means that for a while, there would have been "pop-out" buildings taller than the rest, with walls built ready to welcome buildings of its own size later one.

This can actually be seen in certain areas, like...
A 3-story pop-out in a 1- and 2-story area
5-story pop-out near 2-story housing
Another pop-out
Now, it is important also to consider that these areas were largely designed before the 20th century, so before elevators and modern building techniques, in a time where builders were probably a guild of artisans who didn't have a lot of theoretical know-how, so they stuck to what they knew and used local materials. That explains the similar look of buildings built in earlier times, as opposed to today where construction companies can and do design buildings on computers and calculate loads to be able to come up with diverse models of buildings, using materials imported from everywhere in the world. The lack of elevator explains why height is limited to 4 to 6 stories, as stories over the third floor have less value than the 3rd and 2nd floors. The ground floor is unique in that it is worth more if used for commercial uses, but less if used for residential use (because of lack of privacy).

I know many urbanists and architects have eyes only for the ultimate form of Paris, central Prague, central Munich and others, areas that have already largely maxed-out their Euro-blocs, with similar-looking buildings over whole blocs...

Barcelona

Barcelona from the street

London

Munich

Stockholm
However, it is important to understand that this is only the final form these neighborhoods took, they mostly had to go through transitions where a few buildings were taller than others, then ratios reverse and you had a few small hold-outs in a zone of taller mid-rise apartments.
In Lyon, one small hold-out in an area of 6-story high apartment buildings
So, to come back to the idea of urbanism focused on form or on process, focusing on the form of these Euro-blocs rather than the process through which they were built is, in my view, a mistake. They have emerged largely organically through incremental development, responding to economic signals and community needs, trying to replace that by a planner's dictates seems like a bad idea to me. But that's what happens when people want harmony and are ready to leapfrog stages of development heedless of economic realities to get it. Not that it cannot work, but it can also fail by making it so expensive and difficult to do that developers will pass on that opportunity and prefer to work in suburbs where regulations are less restrictive.

Can we build this today too?

Actually, the exact form of these Euro-blocs would probably be illegal, and adapting them to fulfill the legal obligations would make them much more expensive.

The primary reason is that these small buildings were walkups with, in general, 2 units per floor maximum, some are less than 9 meters wide (30 feet) and so have 1 unit per floor. They only had stairs to allow people to move from one floor to the other, even when they had 5 or 6 stories. They also were designed to be deep, to have windows both facing the street and the courtyard. Remember that exterior walls are crucial because windows are required for bedrooms and living rooms (either required by law or by buyers' demand).
Schematic of a possible walk-up building forming part of a Euro-bloc
The problem is that nowadays, regulations exist to impose elevators, sprinkler systems and concrete to buildings that are 4 stories or more in North America and in a lot of other developed nations. All of these are systems with very high fixed costs. For example, apparently the average cost of building an elevator for a multi-family building is around 110 000$ (source), and you also need stairs, for emergencies if nothing else, so it's not like you're replacing stairs by an elevator, you're adding an elevator to the stairs.

So you're piling on cost after cost, and losing some floor space every time. But if you have a small building with 4 units (a 9-meter wide, 4-story tall building) or even a larger one with 8, these fixed costs weigh heavily on each unit, making them much more expensive than they otherwise would be if the building was a traditional wooden-frame walk-up, up to 60% more expensive by my rough estimates. To solve the issue, you need to build more units per building so as to spread the costs around, and you can do that one of two ways:

1- Build higher, at 8 stories you can have twice the number of units you'd have at 4 stories, and an elevator's marginal cost per additional floor isn't that high
2- Build a much wider building, so that each floor is bigger and has more units, units sharing the same elevator.

In the first case, you go much higher, which is a marked departure from the traditional Euro-bloc. In the latter, the effect is less perceptible... from the outside, but the impact on residents is much greater. Whereas in the previous walk-ups the units had windows in the front and in the back, allowing for some natural air flow through the unit, the units in a wide building will have windows only on one side, making it harder to get good ventilation and proper illumination  (a famous issue with back-to-back houses, but one that is not often mentioned when talking of condo units with a similar layout)

Interior schematic of  a wide apartment building with a corridor separating front and back units in order to allow residents of each to get to the shared elevator
OK, to be fair, there is a design to combine the apartments that have windows on the back and front with a wide building, but it is a design I have rarely if ever seen outside of Japan. Basically, you have an exterior corridor on the front or back of the building, and windows open on that corridor.
Alternative design, rare (but more common in Japan) where a long balcony serves as an exterior corridor connecting apartments, with windows opening on it
Example of this design in Fukuoka, shared balcony on the front of the building, connecting apartments to the stairs and elevator

A view of the doors and windows on the front

In the back, private balconies, also note that the ground floor is used for parking
No matter what form they take, the big problem with wide buildings in developed areas is that, unless there are already big lots for sale, you can't just replace one small building, you have to buy a whole lot of them, and they must be adjacent to one another, so that you can replace them all in one swoop. That is very hard to do, especially if people own the housing, they may be reluctant to let it go, even if they are paid handsomely to. This slows down redevelopment to a crawl as the opportunities for redevelopment are very rare.

Regulations imposing harmony between buildings also make it much harder for redevelopment to occur, as they force entire blocs to be redeveloped at the same time, which is extremely hard to do, unless one uses eminent domain, or if there are abandoned areas in cities, old industrial areas or blighted neighborhoods, which by definition tend not to be areas where demand for housing is highest.

Emulation of the model outside of Europe

North American cultures mainly come from European civilizations, but they have distanced themselves from Europe over time. Older areas tend to be most similar to Europe, areas like Boston and Québec City.
Street from the old areas of Québec City
However, most North American cities, even in the 19th century, have departed greatly from this model, mostly with the addition of front setbacks and a tendency to eschew attached buildings in favor of detached ones.
Brooklyn, the attached narrow walk-up building model of the Euro-bloc is present, but wide streets and front setbacks have been added, with front stairs to create a buffer between the sidewalks and the buildings
From the sky, Brooklyn bears some resemblance to the Euro-bloc, but the courtyards are next to never developed and don't seem shared
Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie in Montréal: also with attached building, but 2 to 3 stories only, with  Québec-style exterior stairways, front setbacks, wider streets and private backyards, often with a back alley cutting the yards in two

From the sky, the blocs tend to be much longer than in Europe, courtyards are less developed
It is important to point out, I think, that most major North American cities were mostly built in the era of streetcars and trains, which allowed faster commutes that reduced the need to really optimize to the fullest the use of land. So there is also an economic reason why the European model wasn't copied completely, if not outright abandoned. As land was less valuable thanks to faster travel (in most cities anyway), they could afford to waste a bit of land for setbacks and buffers to suit the sensibility of North Americans, more used to isolated rural buildings.

Now, in most recent years, there has been a few outright emulations of the FORM of the Traditional Euro-bloc, but the process behind their creation has been completely different. Generally, a developer will seize upon a vacant or blighted large lot and build a few big buildings copying the Euro-bloc, if not outright a bloc-sized building. For example:

LOS ANGELES
Recent apartments built in downtown LA that copy the Euro-bloc form

This is the view from the street
This is a recent development in Los Angeles, an extremely controversial one. One of the projects of the same developer, built on the same design, was even victim of an arson while in construction, an arson attack that was thorough so that the entire building burnt down. Unlike the traditional Euro-bloc, it is not made up of small walk-ups, but is one massive complex with courtyards built inside. Taking a page from the North American condo lifestyle, many private amenities (pool, gym, etc...) have been built inside the project. Since it's one complex, it largely offers blank walls to the street and has been accused of being an inward-looking fortress (which is a criticism that could somewhat also be leveled at traditional Euro-blocs).

Utase, Japan
I've also chanced upon a weird example of Euro-bloc emulation in Japan through Google Maps. It was so glaring that I was able to find it while looking at a large zoom level.
I am not kidding, I spotted this neighborhood UFO from this zoom level, just by looking at patterns that can be seen here, the squares in the red circle do not belong there
The neighborhood is called Utase, or Makuhari Baytown, it was built in the mid-1990s on reclaimed land, so it was tabula rasa, planners could build whatever they wanted. What I've been able to find on it doesn't say if it was the work of one private developer or if the town atypically for Japan decided to create a master plan and direct its construction.

Makuhari Baytown
There are some pretty tall structures on one side... closest to the train station, but the blocs in the middle are more scaled to typical European sizes, but with a Japanese twist, following rules of protection of access to the sun and the huge sidewalks with little on-street parking the Japanese prefer. Buildings also have big balconies, another departure from the European style.
The central blocs of Utase, with big parking lot in background
As the last image shows, again, though it resembles the outline of the Euro-bloc, the composition of it is radically different. Rather than traditional narrow walk-ups built wall-to-wall, they have used very wide modern mid-rise buildings with elevators.
Street view of Utase, big sidewalks, not much place for on-street parking and balconies fronting the street
As I pointed out however, the Traditional Euro-bloc was developed in a certain context and is the result of the incremental development of central urban areas. This is a neighborhood that was built ex nihilo on reclaimed land, so disconnected from existing urban areas. It is relatively close to a train station... but not for Tokyo. The nearest train station is about 1,5 km away, or nearly a mile away. That is not bad from a North American perspective, but this is a Tokyo suburb, where most housing lie within 500 meters of 1, sometimes 2, train/subway station.

The 6-story high Euro-blocs tend to have been built over time, in areas that were already in the heart of cities, full of services and retail. This was built in a relatively secluded area, as a result, parking had to be provided. The Euro-bloc form is not really friendly to cars as it offers little parking, often taking place in the street, an impossibility in the Japanese regulatory context. The result was instead huge bloc-sized parking lots as seen in an earlier image, or even elevated parking garages built in the "courtyards" of the blocs.
3-story elevated parking garages built inside the blocs surrounded by tall towers
You can see the parking garage between the nearer and farther towers
So this shows one issue with copying the form without necessarily looking at the process and the economic reasons why that form exists in the first place. If you just build it anywhere because you like how it looks, it won't necessarily perform as well you would think. Still, I've got to admit, that area (well, the mid-rise parts) look pretty damn nice, especially the Japanese-style streets and the balconies. But looks are one thing, function is another, I am not sure this area is quite as successful as traditional Japanese-style developments in encouraging non-motorized modes of travel.

Conclusion

So that was my take on the traditional European urban form of development, as I understand it. Again, it is important to keep in mind that the form that it took was due to the economic and technological realities of European cities. That form makes perfect sense in that context, but it may not be adequate in other contexts. This is the pitfall that many urban-minded people fall into, they come into contact with that building form, whether on trips to Europe or while in school studying urban planning, and they decide they like that form, then push for it.

Euro-blocs often have 4 to 6 story limits? OK, but those limits were due to the absence of elevators and regulatory environment that allowed wooden-frame 4+-story walk-ups. Nowadays, it's largely not possible to build something like that. At 4 stories and more, we are often required to use concrete, have elevators and sprinkler system, which pile on costs and make the typical building seen in Euro-blocs uneconomical to build, so if you want the Euro-bloc logic to function, you have to allow buildings that allow these higher costs to be diluted on more units. So being too focused on copying the form may severely handicap our ability to build cities that respond to people's needs and ambitions.

10 comments:

  1. In my section of Stockholm, the built form is traditional euroblock, but it's already early 20th century rather than late 19th; my building is from 1907. The courtyard is not shared with other buildings, but can still be (and is) used by people in my building. The main building has an old elevator, and four apartments per floor, with windows on just one side. The entire block seems to have buildings of this form.

    In New York, as you note, the courtyards are indeed not used - not even individually. Tenants don't usually have access to them, only building superintendents and such do. More fundamentally, the buildings are deeper and narrower than in euroblocks. For example, go to the East Village and look around. The typical lots in the late 19th century were 6 meters wide and 30 deep, and buildings would use about 25 meters of depth, give or take. There were two apartments per floor, but they were front and back, and not side by side; pre-Law, there were windows on just one side, with the lighting problems that you'd expect. The Old Law mandated an outside window on every room, so the buildings were slightly indented to provide side windows opening to air shafts; go look at 7th Street between First and Second Avenues for a lot of examples. The side windows don't provide much lighting, since the buildings are close together, so for most illumination and wind the buildings effectively have one side; this is not considered a problem in New York nowadays.

    The exterior corridors exist in Vancouver. I don't remember where exactly, but I would see them from the Burrard Bridge. I think of them as mainly a California feature, but this may be truer of hotels than of residential buildings, I'm not sure.

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    1. Indentations, light wells, and the like are common not just in New York but in Europe too. Some places will have a single big courtyard in a city block, like in the Prague example, but you'll often have various attempts to add density inside this courtyard. Ex Vienna:
      https://www.google.ca/maps/@48.2053062,16.340651,69m/data=!3m1!1e3
      You'll see similar formats in Lyon, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam... Sometimes you'll see smaller courtyards, rather than being city blocked sized (ex 100x300ft) you might have several courtyards per block, shared by 1-4 buildings each, with the courtyards being maybe 20-80ft across.
      Paris:
      https://www.google.ca/maps/@48.8511768,2.3744599,137m/data=!3m1!1e3

      Light wells are common too, I think especially so in Spain. Ex
      http://www.notesfromspain.com/2008/05/
      From what I recall of a relative's apartment in Paris, the living room and master bedroom faced a smaller courtyard, and the eat in kitchen and 2nd and 3rd bedrooms faced light wells.

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    2. I think I know what you mean regarding California, the kind of mid-century low-rise apartment buildings with outdoor corridors. Buildings like this?
      https://www.google.ca/maps/@33.968938,-118.367301,3a,75y,120.45h,94.85t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1shpnSPTnXELGDkUiZSlZd6g!2e0!6m1!1e1

      These sorts of "shared balconies" are just limited to California and Japan though, you also have them in Budapest where they are in fact combined with mid rise courtyard apartment buildings. The typical layout of a mid rise apartment building in Budapest in my experience is you have a lot that's about 60x100ft. The courtyard is about 20x40ft, and starts about 40ft from the street and ends about 20ft from the back of the lot. The building is built right up to the lot line on all sides, except maybe for small light wells at the back corners of the lots shared with adjacent buildings.

      Then along the courtyard, you'll have shared balconies on each floor wrapping around, connecting apartment entrances to a staircase usually at the back of the courtyard. The buildings are typically 4-5 storeys, so with the numbers I gave, this would yield 25,000-30,000 sf of built space, the vast majority sellable (thanks to exterior corridors/balconies) so about 30-40 units, ground coverage of 83% and FAR of 330-420%.

      Here's some examples
      http://eladolakasbudapest.hu/lakas/5-millio-9-millio-lakas/budapest-vii-kerulet-elado-lakas-38-m2-1-szoba
      http://www.budapestarchitect.com/text/gebouwmaand/2011juni_en.php#.VVaaVFqd6kg
      If you search körfolyosó in google images you should get several images, that's the Hungarian word for these shared balconies, roughly translating to "circular corridor".

      BTW pop-out buildings are very common in Spain, whether that's 4 and 8 storey in a city centre or 1 and 3 storey row houses in a small town or suburb.

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    3. I also stayed in a small hotel in Prague where the light well was covered, so it was like a skylight, here's a picture-
      http://www.residenceprague.cz/cz/galerie/#!prettyPhoto[gallery01]/1/
      I believe the glass at the bottom is the ceiling of the restaurant on the ground floor. This building is from the Medieval times.
      Probably covered light wells like this are pretty common.

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  2. I'm just about 100% certain that European mid rises are not wood-frame. Most of Europe basically ran out of trees at the time these were built, and everything, including single storey houses were built out of masonry. I think in much of Europe, this is still the case today, my impression of Hungary and Croatia was that most new buildings are built out of "bricks" like these:
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Porotherm_style_clay_block_bricks_angle.jpg

    Of course if everything is built out of masonry including low rise, mid rises aren't at a disadvantage. BTW you can build 4 storey wood frame in Ontario now, and soon 5 storey, and in the US I think even 6 storey buildings can be wood frame. For somewhat taller buildings, it seems like ICFs have the potential to cut construction costs significantly, they're really taking off in Kitchener-Waterloo.

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  3. Something else to consider when asking "what was the process" is just how city taxes were handled when these buildings were constructed. In a lot of US cities in the 19th century, property taxes were levied simply based on the linear feet of lot frontage. That encouraged narrow deep lots to minimize the frontage, and it also incentivized maximizing the amount of building because the tax was a fixed rate no matter big or valuable the building was. Charleston, SC I'm pretty sure levied their taxes on built frontage, not lot frontage, so you get very skinny and deep houses with side yards. I've heard of some places (in Europe?) that would tax based on the number of windows or even window panes, and all sorts of unusual criteria. I've never come cross any good resources for finding more information like this though, certainly nothing comprehensive, but it would add a significant insight into historical development processes.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Daylight robbery! http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Window_tax

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  4. Charlie Gardner had a post about the development a while ago http://oldurbanist.blogspot.com/2012/01/city-blocks-spaces-in-between.html

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  5. Your claim that Euroblocks grew organically is not true in the case of 19th euroblocks since they grew on a pre-planned foundation as a response to rapid population growth. Two prominent examples are Georges-Eugène Haussmann's preplanned 19th century Paris and
    Ildefons Cerdà's Eixample in Barcelona.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haussmann%27s_renovation_of_Paris
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eixample

    Both of these city-scale projects were built during the street car era. I think you're confusing the old towns built during the middle ages and renaissance with the European grids (in Paris and Barcelona for example) built during the street car era/industrial era.

    You also claim that 19th century designers' knowledge and materials were limited. This may be true, but lack of variety is present in the modern era. It is more economical to copy-paste the same designs and the materials used are always the same (concrete and steel). Large modern buildings often lack facades and are covered in glass precisely because the load-bearing structure was moved inward and the outer walls lost their significance. Modern condo buildings are mass produced, are built on the same principles, and with the same materials. Visit downtown Toronto.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwvmru5JmXk

    You also propose higher buildings are more economical now. This may be true, but they are also more difficult to maintain and run. Elevator operation and maintenance is not free. Pest control is much easily done in smaller buildings. Maybe, there is an optimum height somewhere between the Euroblock's 6 stories and St James Town's (Toronto) roach infested towers with bouncing elevators.

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