A Guide to Creating a Sustainable Living Environment in Apartments

Finnish Architects create a checklist that we all should be using.

Orsted Gardens exterior corridor
Orsted Gardens in Copenhagen by Lokal.

Hampus Berndtson

I have been looking at a lot of apartment plans lately, and I do not like what I see. After reading Michael Eliason's Treehugger post, "The case for more single stair buildings in the US," I learned how much nicer buildings could be if we did not have long double-loaded corridors. I have also often made the case for exterior corridors; both are solutions that allow for more ventilation and natural light.

Then there is this depressing trend of deep, narrow apartments with windowless bedrooms, justified by developer Bobby Fijan, the self-described "Bill James of Apartment plans" because they are cheaper to build. He tweets: "Some people want windows in Living Rooms & Bedrooms or a Single Family house with a yard and white picket fence. That’s great, and we should have those options. Others prefer to pay less in rent. So we need quad-plexes, SRO and apartments with windows ONLY in the Living Room."

As if there is nothing in between, you either get a house in the suburbs or you get filed in a deep drawer with a window at the end. He continues: "Windowless Bedrooms will play a *crucial* role in addressing the housing cost crisis in the United States. It's simple geometry. Size= Width x Depth."

To which I say: blech. We are better than that, and people deserve better than that. This is what happens when private real estate developers want to maximize profits—they minimize standards.

Every apartment has multiple aspects, kitchen windows, access to shared spaces.
Every apartment has multiple aspects, kitchen windows, access to shared spaces.

Helen & Hard

Writing in ARK, the Finnish Architectural Review, architect Sofie Pelsmakers and a group of architectural researchers at the Tampere University School of Architecture made a checklist of what should be in every housing project. They believe buildings should be more than filing cabinets for people. While we need denser housing, we need better housing.

"From the perspective of sustainability, a dense urban structure is considered to create benefits through the energy- and spatial-efficiency of apartment blocks, as well as through the availability of services, goods and public transport. In addition to these environmental perspectives, socially sustainable housing design must meet the criteria of basic housing needs, that is, to create a safe environment for people to pursue independent activities, social participation and live a healthy life."

Pelsmakers and her team said that we spend around 70% of our time in our homes. And with an aging population and more people working from home, that number may be increasing. They use the term indoor environmental quality (IEQ) to evaluate a number of different conditions, including access to daylight and sunlight, and connections to nature. There should be "seasonal awareness in support of residents’ health and well-being" and natural night-time ventilation. Windows are nice for that.

Plan depth

Sofie Pelsmakers, et al.

"The key design principles include shallow plan buildings and layouts, and windows in more than one direction, to enable good daylight, visual outdoor connections, winter solar gain and summer-time cross ventilation, while also supporting good furnishability and spatial adaptability. Ideally, balconies are spatially connected to the main living spaces."
Corridors and entrances

Sofie Pelsmakers, et al.

Double-loaded corridors are undesirable because apartments face one way only. "Particularly with deep apartment layouts, typically more than 6 metres, this creates poorly daylit spaces." That's just 20 feet; there is not a building being built in North America that is less than that.

"On the building scale, physical access from the apartment to shared spaces and urban nature supports social connections. Conversely, insufficient space and qualities of long double-loaded corridors discourage opportunities for neighbours to interact or spend time socially. Such spaces are also hostile to those having to navigate with prams or wheelchairs and might isolate a portion of the community. All of the social spaces, both in a neighbourhood and on the building scale, need to be physically and socially accessible for a diversity of people—meaning not just play areas for children but also adaptable and optional functions for adults."

Exterior walkway with bikes and furniture

Well Grounded Real Estate

You don't have to live in Europe to have this—Well Grounded Real Estate is building market rental housing in Toronto with exterior corridors and dual-aspect units. It is mass timber too. This building would pass the checklist.

The Sustainable Housing Quality Checklist may have been written for Finland, but it is a reasonable standard for just about anywhere. Yes, I know we have a housing affordability crisis, but it doesn't mean we should be building unhealthy, deep dark units opening onto dreary corridors. We can do better than that.

Download the big PDF of the checklist here.