Missing Large Housing: buildings larger than the midrise blocks of apartments over garages, but smaller than the billionaire towers.

Missing Large Housing

Alfred Twu
6 min readMar 9, 2021

Missing middle housing — fourplexes, townhouses, etc — is great for most places. However, in places like Palo Alto, where land is north of $20 million an acre, it’s time to look at Missing Large Housing, specifically, ways to build, plan, & finance big buildings cheaper.

Background: Main Street Needs More People

For all the stereotypes about individualism, Americans are social people. From block parties to music festivals to professional sports, many of us love being in a crowd.

New York City in the early 1900s. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Book_Title-_from_%22Views_of_America%22_portfolio_(5711503468).jpg

However, as we’ve grown rich and want more living space, we’ve outgrown our Main Streets and their surrounding neighborhoods.

Now, not only is there a shortage of housing, there’s also a shortage of customers for local businesses. As a result, a low-rise Main Street that used to have enough people to support lots of stores no longer does today.

Main Street 100 years ago: a crowded building with apartments above a store. Main Street today: an apartment with just a couple people above a closed store.

The places where Main Streets are still thriving are ones where there’s still overcrowded housing: college towns, immigrant neighborhoods, and tourist towns, where hotel rooms provide high customer density.

San Francisco Chinatown. Photo by Alfred Twu, CC0

For most of us Americans though, we like to have more space than a bed in a shared room. Having a successful local economy should not mean having overcrowded housing.

There’s a difference: Overcrowding — too many people in each home. Density: enough homes for all the people.

And therefore, if Main Streets are to stay in business, there needs to be more living space above. A lot more.

Main Street 100 years ago: crowded, low rise buildings. Main street today: uncrowded, but stores closed. Main street tomorrow: Tall building with spacious housing and active businesses

How much housing space does it take to support a business? On average, 600 square feet of housing (a one-bedroom apartment) for every 10 square feet of retail. This doesn’t mean 60-story buildings — not every street needs to be a shopping street, but it does mean a lot more.

a typical household of two will need 10 sq ft of retail, 100 sq ft of office, 600 sq ft of housing

The go-to method for urban housing in the US today is the mid-rise podium building. It typically has 4–5 floors of apartments above parking and stores. This design can be costly, requires large sites, and when limited to major streets, there aren’t enough people in the city to support enough businesses to fill the storefronts.

4-over-1 and 5-over-1 podium apartment buildings in Pasadena, California. Photo by Alfred Twu. CC0

Let’s look at some other ways to do it.

Small Lot Redevelopment: From 1 Home Into Many

When most land in a city is already divided into small lots with individual houses, even if zoning is changed, larger buildings come slowly since most homeowners don’t have the money or skills to be a builder.

In Greece, this led to Polykatoikias being built using the antiparochi, or “Supply in Exchange” system. The homeowner supplies the land, and in exchange gets a few apartments in the new building.

Polykatoikia: Homeowner provides the land, homeowner gets a few apartments in new building, builder pays for construction cost of entire building and also gets a few apartments.
Small Lot Redevelopment: Polykatoikia
Polykatoikia in Athens, Greece. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/13/The_building_complex_of_the_former_Hellenic_Military_Academy_from_Lycabettus_on_February_1%2C_2020.jpg George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

In Vietnam, narrow lots — some just a single room wide — led to the row house going high-rise. Known as tube houses due to their shape back when most were single-story houses, this pattern went vertical as families grew wealthier, allowing extended families that had previously crowded into a single floor to spread out across many floors.

Shophouses in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. By Nick — https://www.flickr.com/photos/34517490@N00/49056978668/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85000896

Building Groups

In Germany, building groups — baugruppen — is a system where a group of friends gets together and become the developer for a building that they’ll all live in. In addition to cost savings from pooling resources, there is also an opportunity for greater customization.

For those who want more shared space in their custom community, cohousing includes shared spaces such as playgrounds, a clubhouse, or gardens.

Concrete Panel Construction

Invented in the mid 20th century, prefabricated concrete panels save costs by mass production, as well as shifting work from construction sites to a factory floor. Concrete panel buildings reached their height of popularity in Eastern Europe during the Communist era, and still exist in large numbers today. For example, in Czechia, 1 in 3 people live in a panelak. They continue to be built today, including in the United States.

By Rovibroni (Barna Rovács) — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5879387

Modular buildings

While panel buildings only prefabricated the walls, modular buildings come as pre-assembled rooms. While modules are also long and narrow to allow them to be trucked to the site, they are wider, taller, and better insulated than shipping containers.

By Abastav — www.abastav.cz, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24662426
Modular building in Czechia, By Abastav — www.abastav.cz, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24662426

Mid-rise modular buildings use load-bearing modules stacked directly on top of each other, while high rises attach modules to a frame.

By John M, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14087837 Nearing completion at Victoria Hall A landmark is reached as a mobile crane has been brought in to remove the tower crane used for lifting in to place the modular accommodation units. The crane has been a feature on the skyline since September 2008. The residence for students at Wolverhampton University is due to be completed in August for the new academic year. This will be the tallest modular building in the coun
Modular housing at Wolverhampton University in England. By John M, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14087837

Mass Timber: Cheaper and Greener than Concrete

Even when modular, concrete and steel are expensive materials that require a lot of energy to make. As a result, most housing in the USA is built using wood — 2x4’s and plywood. Structural strength and fire hazards limit conventional wood buildings to several floors. Recently though, a new system has been invented: Mass Timber. Also known as Cross Laminated Timber, it involves gluing wood into giant beams and slabs that can be a foot thick, and is strong and fire resistant enough for high rise construction.

In the 2021 International Building Code, mass timber buildings will be allowed to have up to 18 floors.

Mass timber building in Brumunddal, Norway. By Øyvind Holmstad — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79435356

Social Housing & Public Sector Developers: Stimulating the Construction Industry with Economies of Scale

One challenge the private housing market faces is the boom and bust of the business cycle. During the boom, labor and materials get expensive, and during recessions, suppliers go out of business and many workers change careers, slowing the recovery. Homebuilding in the US collapsed during the 2008 recession and has yet to fully recover.

A public sector developer stabilizes the market, providing the steady demand needed for investment in modular building factories, job training, and material suppliers. It can also ramp up construction during recessions as part of the stimulus.

Construction capacity showing boom and bust and collapse of private capacity during recessions, while public sector developer can do counter-cyclical stimulus

In the past, the US government subsidized suburban housing with cheap mortgages and money for highway construction that brought lots of land within commuting range. Nowadays, transportation projects — both road and rail — are popular during recessions as a way to save jobs and stimulate the economy.

In addition to infrastructure that helps get people to work, stimulus could also build homes close to jobs. With a large economy of scale, public sector developers pass savings onto residents and can cross-subsidize some homes to be even cheaper for low income residents.

Social housing: middle and upper income pay full price, which is still less than private housing. Low income residents pay less.

Large social housing complexes contain more than housing. Like any large planned development, they are often built with businesses, schools, parks, transit stations.

Alt Erlaa in Vienna, Austria. By Manfred Werner — Tsui — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5277077
Alt Erlaa in Vienna, Austria. By Manfred Werner — Tsui — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5277077

Satellite cities

At the very large scale, there is the satellite city. More than just a bedroom community, these are real cities with a downtown, anchored into the regional economy by a large institution such as a college, government agency headquarters, or medical center.

Map showing a satellite city a 15–30 minute train ride from the main city, with housing, businesses, and an anchor institution such as a college.

Satellite cities do not have to be brand new. They can be grown from an existing suburb. Large sites such as shopping malls, golf courses, or train station parking lots are good locations for building a new high density core for a satellite city.