Iowa City should reconsider the design of apartment buildings

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I recently received the spring edition of News From Northside, the newsletter of the Iowa City Northside Neighborhood Association, which leads to a discussion of the potential benefits of adopting forms-based code for the neighborhood.

As its name suggests, a shape-based code seeks to regulate the shape of an area, rather than the more traditional North American practice of using regulations to separate uses, such as homes and shops, each other. Theoretically, the use of form-based code rather than a more conventional code could allow a local government to codify “the walkable, human-scaled urban character of the Northside” while allowing for organic types of development mixed-use, such as the shops on the ground floor. next to the sidewalk with apartments above, which characterized urban neighborhoods in the United States in the early 20th century.

It is with this intention that forms-based codes have already been adopted in places in Iowa City such as River crossingsand have been incorporated into new neighborhood plans such as that of the South district. However, implementing the code in practice has had mixed results. When considering new apartment buildings constructed in accordance with this code, such as on the Block 600 South Dubuque Street, something seems “wrong” about them, even though they respect the urban standards of construction up to the sidewalk, have a beautiful exterior coating and are of a height comparable to the surrounding buildings.

So what gives?

What I think throws these buildings off (and by extension makes a lot of people worried about the denser development needed in Iowa City) is actually how deep they are – only relative to the narrow downtown buildings or the Summit Apartment Building completed in 1916, new apartment buildings in Iowa City are much larger, often taking up the entire length of a city block, from sidewalk to alley. The reasoning for this is not found in any of the new forms-based codes, but rather in the building code that governs how the interior of buildings should be laid out.

At first glance, the question seems to be quite innocuous – how many exits are needed in apartment buildings. The theory goes that when too many exits are needed, too much space is taken up by hallways and stairways, taking away living space in apartments. The most common way to do this is through a “double-loaded hallway”, with a hallway in the middle and units on either side, and stairs at each end of the hallway (think of the layout of a Hampton Inn ), with little possibility of cross ventilation through the building, multiple angles for natural light in each unit or natural light in the hallway.

Recent writing on the blight of large apartment buildings in the United States noted that, for the most part, two means of egress (and by extension, double-loaded hallways in practice) are mandatory in buildings over four stories . In Iowa City, building code language appears to be even more aggressive, mandating multiple means of egress in buildings with 10 or more residents, which could be accomplished with just a few 3-4 bedroom apartments. Further language indeed seems to require placing the two exits in opposite directions along a hallway – much like the problematic double-loading hallways described earlier.

I don’t know when this wording was adopted, but, for what it’s worth, my building during my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, the “Pink Palace” at 505 E. Burlington St. , was dimly lit, poorly ventilated double-loaded corridors, and by city ​​assessor data, was completed in 1983.

How does this fit into the built environment of the Northside in particular is a local case study of the impacts of the de facto imposition of double-loaded hallways in apartment buildings, during a development proposed to 400 N. Clinton Street. Amid the upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m not really sure of its development status (the most recent floor plans I have are from July 2020), but in many ways this project of development fits perfectly into the “investment-owned, densely occupied”. rental properties … which are excessively large and incompatible in size and character with neighboring buildings” warned in the previously mentioned Northside Neighborhood Statement of Intent Project. If completed, this five-story building would occupy the spaces of two houses.

Previously:It’s hard to chart the future of Iowa City’s prized Northside neighborhood

I find complaints about the height of this development to be largely absurd – after all, Currier Hall is literally across the street and has also been five stories high for its entire duration. 108 years of history. However, it would be fair to say that, like most new developments in Iowa City, the proposed building at 400 N. Clinton St. is, for lack of a better term, chunky.

Requirements that call for its floor plan to be laid out in a double-loaded hallway format, with apartments on either side of an interior hallway, result in an unnecessarily wide building with poor ventilation and limited access to the natural light. Space that could be used for apartments is dedicated to hallways and stairways, driving up prices. The apartments that exist in this building are entirely for single students and are not large enough to support a family.

This proposed development can be compared to the Summit Apartment Building at 228 S. Summit St., “the first walk-up apartment or building to be built in Iowa City” in 1916. Although having two staircases, they run parallel one to the other. and both terminate in a single means of egress in the central hall of the building. Also of comparable height (four stories), the provision of a single means of egress means the building is able to transform into a compact “U” shape, providing all units with abundant natural light from all four angles ( each “wing” of the building contains one unit on each floor).

The compact size of the Summit Apartment Building means that two copies of it could be placed on the same footprint as the proposed development at 400 S. Clinton St., with significantly better natural ventilation and lighting to boot.

Despite the design advantages of a single means of egress, the reasoning often given for mandating multiple means of egress and double-loaded corridors is fire safety. This should not be ignored, given the history of fires in urban areas since there have been cities.

However, Data of countries that routinely allow new buildings to be constructed with only one means of escape, such as France, Germany, and Austria, show that these countries have lower fire death rates than the United States, which always require several means of escape via stairs. fire safety Strategies in these places include regulating the location of buildings, orienting designs in order to let fire trucks pass, designing smaller and more agile fire trucks to weave through city streets, as well as the ability for balconies to serve as a second means of egress via a fire truck. scale.

The impact of building design with the opportunities presented by Iowa City’s form-based code, but still within the confines of its building code, is in effect to create a sham of historic forms of development that continue to thrive in places such as Central Europe, but also once existed right here in Iowa City. Like buildings from a century ago, shape-based code allows them to be built right up to the sidewalk, but unlike buildings from the era, new construction must also take on a puffy shape with poorer natural light. which also depends on energy. intensive mechanical ventilation, using space more inefficiently and viable only on larger footprints.

Vis-à-vis the twisting of the hands that often occurs when new apartment buildings are proposed in Iowa City, the problem to be solved is not the height of the buildings or even the density, but rather the forms allowed by the law. Today, the only type of mid-to-tall apartment building allowed in Iowa City seems to be one with a double-loaded hallway, with all the attendant problems.

In addition to a form-based code, removing building code requirements for multiple means of egress would be an important step in improving apartment buildings for everyone – more livable buildings, more affordable to build, more energy efficient. efficient and more able to fit into larger units that can accommodate families. Following in the footsteps of places like Berlin, Seattle now allows apartment buildings of up to six stories to be serviced by a single means of egress, opening up new possibilities for flexible and dense development on small lots. Maybe Iowa City should follow suit as well.

For now, this is my last contribution to the Iowa City Press-Citizen. For the past few months, I’ve been grateful to have this little corner of the newspaper every other week, for the beer money it’s provided as well as the opportunities it’s opened up not only to explore a variety of topics and issues in the local context, but also to connect and learn from everyone who has engaged with this column. This is not the end of my writing, however. Over the next year, I’ll be covering a similar topic as an Insight Fellow with The Gazette.

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