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August 17, 2020

How Multi-Family Housing Can Survive the Pandemic

As the result of the pandemic, there has been a big shift in multi-family design. Many are reluctant to ride on an elevator with strangers. This puts a major crunch on density. Even a shared stairwell is viewed with suspicion. Is there adequate air flow? And whatever you do, don’t touch the handrail. If there’s a door – bring something to avoid touching the handle. Then hope you don’t run across other people in the stairwell.

The other demand is for private outdoor spaces. We all need fresh air and sunshine but during the pandemic, many common, shared outdoor spaces were closed off. Then as these common spaces became available, you still had to wear a mask. Suddenly, even the smallest balcony became a giant, mask free assets. But balconies were falling from favor from many builders because of their cost and maintenance issues.

So, is multifamily housing and density doomed? In a word, no. However, a different approach may be warranted. There are thee forms of attached housing, all feature private means of egress and private outdoor space. They are Paired Villas, Townhouses, and Stacked Flats.

Paired Villas

Often viewed as attached single family, paired villas offer private entries, light on three sides and private outdoor space. We’ve seen them both with front loaded and rear loaded garages. Single story, two story and even three-story solutions are being developed.

We’ve also seen them as garage-less, one bedroom, one bath units with surface parking – nicknamed horizontal apartments. The paired villas we’ve seen have been both for sale and for rent.


Long thought to be only a “for-sale” choice in housing, we are seeing an influx of townhouses for rent. But to achieve density, the town-homes are getting narrower. As narrow as 16’ and 18’ wide, with and without garages, two and three stories tall.

Townhouses with front-loaded garages offer private outdoor space to the rear. Alley loaded townhouses offer better density and front porches. Front porches are a great way to create social distancing without social isolation. But I do love adding second floor decks at the rear for private outdoor space.


Side note: We once did a project that was four story, back to back town-homes. Wow. Talk about density. But with three flights of stairs to traverse just to reach the owner’s suite, these units were for the young and athletic, not just the “young at heart”.

Stacked flats

We often think of stacked flats as multi-storied buildings served by elevators or common stairwells. But adding private first floor entries for second floor units offers the social distancing without any common corridors. Add an option for a private, residential elevator and you’ve accommodated an additional buyer profile – including 55+ single, divorced, or widowed women. Interior, framed construction stairwells are also less expensive than noncombustible common stairwells. Additionally, this means little or no common areas in the building at all.

For outdoor living, it is important to stack the outdoor spaces to minimize the possibility of water intrusion into the downstairs unit.

Limiting your stacked flats to four-unit buildings offers the advantage of light from three sides and increased density that comes from stacked units.

So, there are several ways to achieve multi-family units that are acceptable in our post Covid-19 society. Now the question for multi-family builders is how long will buyers be elevator and common corridor phobic? Only time will tell.

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This post was written by Housing Design Matters