The desire for something “new and innovative” often stands in the way of proven and successful practices, especially when it involves changing zoning and building regulations. This is painfully true for Los Angeles and its chronic housing shortage.
Not a month goes by without another conference where people debate and analyze how to drive down the cost of new construction, and thus speed up the rates of new housing production. These discussions often focus on construction, zoning obstacles, and finance—which is fine as far as this line of inquiry goes, but it’s incomplete. What’s missing is a different question: Are we even trying to build the right types of housing?
The prevailing market has settled on less than a handful of complicated and costly building types. Because of those limitations, only a few developers are active in creating new housing stock. The assumption seems to be that the investment-driven developer model deserves support, if only because the need is so great. But there’s also an alternative view, of a different—and less expensive—city of equal or higher quality. It’s a city that largely gets built with different buildings and alternative development models.
Recent construction in Los Angeles suffers from a glaring absence of a building category called “missing middle construction.” Until about a hundred years ago, it made up the majority of urban structures. The buildings shown below were once typical in virtually all of our cities.
One example is the row house, one of the most important building blocks of a high-quality, dense, compact, transit-oriented urban environment. Yet the row house has a similar, but slightly larger, cousin of equal importance: the small-lot multifamily urban apartment building, as part of a larger perimeter block urban form. Buildings of this type once dominated American cities. These structures are small, simple, and efficient, and do not have (nor do they need) many of the technical systems considered even the bare minimum in our current housing market.
In the more distant past, these buildings were often referred to as “tenements” and gained a reputation for overcrowding and slumlike conditions. In response, Los Angeles banned row houses by passing a yard ordinance recommended by the FHA in the 1930s. Before the ordinance was passed, the city planning commission commented, “There is no regulation to prevent the development in sunny Los Angeles of the undesirable row houses so characteristic of densely populated Eastern cities.” What was once meant to improve the quality of life in cities has now, after many decades, turned out to be a self-inflicted wound. Rather than regulate unscrupulous landlords, Los Angeles chose instead to eliminate building designs—and thus the best chance to provide quality urban infill housing in growing cities for the lowest possible cost.
In today’s Los Angeles, these buildings are rare, and even more rarely constructed from scratch. However, these small-lot buildings remain the most common multifamily type built in compact cities all over the world. Here is one contemporary example:
This is a small apartment building in Malmo, Sweden. It is six stories tall and contains seven apartments. There is no car parking; on-site parking is difficult to provide and expensive to build on small parcels. But to require parking with every development—regardless of size—is merely a choice made by L.A. planners. Parking can also be a responsibility of the community and be provided through market mechanisms off-site. These solutions are often called “parking benefit districts.” Physically, this means parking on surface parking lots and/or in shared garages close by. European cities have found even more creative solutions, where cars are parked below the streets, in the public ROW. A great exam ple from another city, Munich, shown below, just celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
In Malmo, the apartment building does provide ample parking—for bicycles. Malmo encourages cycling. In spite of inclement weather, it has been ranked the fifth-best city for bicycling in the world by the Copenhagenize Bicycle Friendly Cities Index. Add to this a stable and reliable transit network, and the number of cars that need parking in a neighborhood shrinks to manageable numbers.
This building is also light on mechanical equipment. Other than a minimal bathroom exhaust, it has no mechanical building ventilation. When compared with the typical double-loaded–corridor building in the U.S., this represents a substantial simplification. There are no corridors; every apartment naturally cross-circulates air through windows on opposing exterior walls. As part of a perimeter-block urban layout, the block includes an open, green courtyard on the interior of the building block. The air coming from the block interior is fresh, and the environment is quiet, prompting people to frequently leave the windows open.
The structure offers high environmental sustainability and construction standards for minimal investment. The apartments are entirely passive and achieve high levels of energy efficiency and comfort without requiring sophisticated mechanical or electronic systems.
In development terms, the ratio between livable space and support spaces (like corridors) is called “floor plate utilization.” This building is almost 100% efficient, a number unreachable in U.S. multifamily construction. Buildings of this type traditionally feature one stair. Combined with an elevator that runs in the middle of this stair, it represents the sort of prototypical European apartment building one often sees in movies.
The Malmo building has a single set of stairs, located on the building exterior. This is a concrete building, where fires are exceedingly rare. Traditional U.S. buildings managed the second means of egress through the street-mounted fire escapes, a practice that might deserve some revisiting. The main day-to-day vertical circulation is a single large elevator, which drops people off right in the apartment—very similar to how elevators in Soho lofts operate in New York City.
Each apartment, every level, has an individual outdoor deck containing at least one foot of soil, where residents can plant their own gardens.
The building utilizes its site efficiently. Different from floor plate utilization, planners measure urban density through something called floor area ratio (FAR). It measures the ratio between the built space in a structure and the building site area. This building achieves a relatively dense FAR of between 3 and 4. In the U.S., this kind of density is usually reserved for large podium-type developments with about six stories of building on top of elevated open space. There are no setbacks in the front of the Malmo building, nor on the sides, but there is common at-grade open space in the courtyard of the building block. Much of this common space is used for community gardening.
Projects like this would not be fully code complaint in many American cities. But if we’re serious about addressing the housing crisis, especially in Los Angeles, we need to consider changing many of the rules governing building. Here’s what would need to be changed to make a building like the one in Malmo possible in L.A.:
1. Count parking as part of FAR to encourage underground facilities.
2. Minimize or eliminate onsite parking requirements for small multifamily projects.
3. Allow market mechanisms to determine the amounts of parking provided.
4. Embrace alternate stored-vehicle management mechanisms (parking districts, high-density mechanical garages, etc.).
5. Focus on large-scale urban form over multiple properties.
6. Eliminate front- and side-yard setbacks.
7. Define perimeter blocks with mandatory street walls and open interior courtyards.
8. Work with fire departments to allow window rescues from taller upper-level floors, or reinvent fire escapes.
9. Encourage passive ventilation in apartments with operable windows on opposing sides of the building.
10. Facilitate quick and easy as-of-right approvals for small structures up to nine apartments.
11. Reform CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act, a legal tool much abused by NIMBYs to delay or stop developments) to allow these structures, or create planning documents that have individual buildings like this pre-cleared.
12. Exempt small buildings from design guidelines. The core intention of design guidelines is to create design variety at a small walkable pedestrian scale. Building on smaller lots will automatically achieve this, with many different owners creating unique architectural expressions.
While no direct line-item comparison for construction cost is available, between projects here and overseas, it is easy to understand that simple buildings like the one in Malmo are less expensive to construct than the complicated structures we call multifamily housing. But just because the building is simpler and cheaper to erect, there is no guarantee that consumers will see lower prices, or more product built through the usual channels. An investment-driven development market has little incentive to satisfy consumer demand when doing so lowers the profitability of recently completed projects. If the goal is to build enough housing at lower cost, the city needs to address these issues and invite additional people to the table to build new housing stock.
The lack of affordable housing is an opportunity to solve a longstanding problem in Southern California. But building a different city cannot happen by way of the same old rules and same types of buildings. In addition to tackling large and complicated projects, the city needs to focus on simpler, smaller buildings, and allow them to be built and financed quickly by locals or directly by the future users. This is how cities were constructed in the past and are still successfully being created today. If Los Angeles can join this movement and create missing-middle buildings, it will likely become a better—and less expensive—city to live in.