Page D1.2 . 02 March 2011                     
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    Nice and Narrow


    All the units have a street-facing main door, spacious rooms, and studios on ground level to encourage an engaging outdoor atmosphere. In the living room, a vertical opening facilitates the entry of daylight. The bedroom is situated next to the roof terrace. This project is an innovative interpretation of the back-to-back townhouse concept that one can find in old European cities, most notably among English terraced housing.

    Building Widths and Building Types

    A key question when discussing narrow houses is — what is considered narrow? The answer is based on historic precedents, which have been influenced by site conditions, cultural traditions, and technology.

    On Amsterdam's Singel Street, for example, there is a habitable unit whose front measures 3.3 feet (one meter). This, of course, is an extremely narrow space, probably a leftover gap between two structures.

    Analyzing a room's dimensions to ensure its proper functioning is one process for determining the best width of a dwelling. Highway-transit regulations could also be a consideration. When prefabricated, a unit with a width ranging from 14 to 16 feet (4.3 to 4.9 meters) can be shipped from a plant to a construction site without a front- or rear-car escort. A wider structure would be more expensive to deliver.

    The minimum width of a dwelling also depends on the creativity of the designer. Past designs show that a 12-foot (3.7-meter) structure built on one to three levels can contain basic amenities.

    It can accommodate a living room and kitchen on the ground floor, two fair-sized bedrooms on the second, and two more rooms in the basement or attic. The wider the design, the easier it is to fit functions within it. For my purposes here, dwellings up to 25 feet wide (7.6 meters) qualify as narrow.

    Narrow houses can be detached, semidetached (attached on one side), or attached on both sides to form a row. When constructed in rows, they are commonly planned as part of a multistory, multifamily, high-density project.

    Since their introduction centuries ago, and even more so today, their attraction has remained their groundedness. Whether used by one or several occupants, the design offers easy access to a back or front yard. Unlike apartment living, where a number of occupants share the main door, parking garage, outdoor spaces, and hallways, narrow townhouses offer independence and privacy.

    The trade-offs include the narrow width, which can restrict interior flexibility, and reduced natural light to middle units. Front and rear yards also tend to be smaller compared to those of detached dwellings.

    When cost-effectiveness is sought, choosing a suitable type of dwelling is a high priority. With a cottage, for example, the cost is lowered by building two stories on a single foundation, reducing land and infrastructure expenses. Another option, known as the "stuck townhouse," offers further savings by placing two-story dwellings on top of one another. The savings, however, depend on the size of the overall footprint. Choosing a narrow design for these building types would lead to further cost reductions.

    An alternative to a narrow single-family building is a multifamily layout with independent dwelling units. This type is known as a duplex when split in two, and a triplex when used by three households. By combining the design attributes of the single-family with "the plex," additional housing types emerge, such as the fourplex, which is essentially two attached duplexes.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Avi Friedman is an architect, professor, and director of the Affordable Homes Program at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He received the UN World Habitat Award in 1999 and has served on the National Housing Research Committee of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Friedman is author or coauthor of The Grow Home, Planning the New Suburbia: Flexibility by Design, The Adaptable House, Peeking Through the Keyhole: the Evolution of the North American Home, Room for Thought: Rethinking Home and Community Design, Homes Within Reach, and Sustainable Residential Development.

    This article is excerpted from Narrow Houses by Avi Friedman, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.



    ArchWeek Image

    West 8's master plan prescribed dense rows of narrow, low-rise townhouses, along with a few larger apartment buildings. To ensure daylight access, the master plan required interior voids for each townhouse block, comprising 30 to 50 percent of the parcel's area.
    Photo: Ger van de Vlugt

    ArchWeek Image

    Borneo Sporenburg site plan drawing.
    Image: KCAP Architects & Planners

    ArchWeek Image

    South (top) and north (bottom) elevation drawings of the Stuurmankade block by KCAP.
    Image: KCAP Architects & Planners

    ArchWeek Image

    The Stuurmankade 266 to 304 housing block north elevation, seen from the Sporenburg dock.
    Photo: Ger van de Vlugt

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    Floor-plan drawings comparing narrow houses from several places and time periods.
    Image: Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

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    Section diagrams illustrating several spatial typologies for narrow houses.
    Image: Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

    ArchWeek Image

    North-south section drawing through one townhouse in the Stuurmankade 266 to 304 housing block.
    Image: KCAP Architects & Planners

    ArchWeek Image

    Narrow Houses: New Directions in Efficient Design by Avi Friedman.
    Image: Princeton Architectural Press


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