Finding: Everyone Wants the Top Floor, of a Low-Rise

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A paper recently published in the Journal of Housing and the Built Environment could provide residential community planners with a handy rule of thumb. "Property price gradients: the vertical dimension" tests some economic formulas that have emerged among urban housing developers -- in particular, the principle that the higher the story, the higher a housing unit's market price.

Following a sophisticated analysis of housing prices in Hong Kong, the paper concludes that this rule holds, but with two big provisos: First, the "premium" residents will pay for living higher up diminishes steadily after the first few stories. In other words, the second floor is much more desirable than the first, but the twelfth floor is only slightly more desirable than the eleventh. Furthermore, the ground-floor baseline from which all higher-story premiums are calculated is itself heavily dependent on the building's total height. That is, the tenth floor may be a lot more desirable than the third, but the third floor of a five-story building is a lot more desirable than the third floor of a twenty-story building across the street.

In short, people would rather live toward the top than toward the bottom of a building, but they would prefer the building itself were shorter rather than taller. This finding may contradict prior formulas used by economists and developers to model apartment prices, but it makes perfect sense intuitively. To be above feels good: it's more secure, more light, more privileged. But it doesn't take much elevation to create this feeling of advantage -- and, on the other hand, high-rise buildings tend to feel crowded, sterile, or just plain overwhelming. Of course there are premium high-rise penthouses with stunning panoramic views, but only so long as other buildings don't rise higher. Meanwhile, most people are happy to have a view of the street, elevated a floor or two, just enough for a good vantage and light.

This helps us zero in on how to understand "human-scale" housing in practical terms. Architecture's vertical dimension does the most for residents by elevating them a story or two. Beyond that the downsides of height accumulate faster than the upsides. For residential communities incorporating space for commons facilities or for places of shared enterprise, there is a real advantage to using multi-story low-rise buildings and putting the ground floor to non-housing uses. This way, a higher proportion of the community's housing is desirably "on top."

Astute readers will note that this would in effect recreate the patterns of mixed-use city and town centers of the pre-war period, with shops and other public spaces at street level and a few storys of housing above. There is good reason why communities were built that way -- and every reason to take up the model again.

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