Brazil's Skinny Residential Tower Can Be a Model for Marvelous North American Housing

Change the zoning and change the codes, and lots can happen.

Top of buiding

Pablo Gomide

Creative new solutions to building design are the talk of the urbanist community these days. Seattle-based architect Mike Eliason's published works and talks about European designs—like this post in Treehugger about single-stair buildings—are gaining attention. For example, Emily Hamilton, a senior research fellow at Mercatus, calls skinny buildings with single stairs "the building code reform that will soon be sweeping the nation."

front facade
The front facade of Brazil's Casamirador Savassi residential building.

Juliana Berzoini

That's why the Casamirador Savassi residential building in Brazil, designed by Gisele Borges Arquitetura, is so interesting. It's really skinny, fitting on a lot that's only 41.8 feet wide (12.7 meters), which in most cities would only be zoned for a single house. In many cities, the minimum legal lot size is 50 feet, yet here they are squeezing in 14 loft apartments and 24 studios.

Interior showing windows behind perforated skin

Leon Myssior

Building on such a small site has its share of problems, including privacy. The architects have covered the building in a perforated aluminum sheet, which "makes it possible to see through them from the inside out, where city views are exposed through the skin." That said, residents are guaranteed privacy since it's impossible to peep inside from the outside.

Second skin on building

Pablo Gomide

The exterior sheeting also keeps the building cooler, a sort of second skin. According to the press release:

"The skin covering the building also provides thermal comfort to the units. Away from the masonry, it provides shading of the fences and good ventilation through a mattress of renewable air. From that perspective, sustainability guided a large part of the project’s choices. Due to the reduced dimensions of the land, and minimal rooftop space for installing equipment or photovoltaic panels, it was necessary to find a solution that would avoid the entry of heat, to the detriment of an air conditioning project."
V at the base

Juliana Berzoini

It is built on stilts on the ground floor, which I thought looked a bit odd. But there is a reason for this: "Another highlight of the project concerns the challenge of placing the pyramid on the ground, touching the land lightly at a single point. Under the influence of Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer, a V-shaped pillar was created, which is widely used in his works."

closup of skin

Pablo Gomide

One could just imagine how the NIMBYs would react to something like this being dropped next door in most cities. But there is a real logic to opening up zoning codes so that we can accommodate more housing at that "missing middle" or what I call the "Goldilocks Density."

Sixth Floor Plan
The plan of the 6th floor.

Gisele Borges Arquitetura

But for this kind of building to happen, the building codes have to change along with the zoning. On a small site, there is simply no room for central corridors leading to two separate stairwells. The plans here demonstrate what happens when you have the freedom that not having this requirement gives you.

Have a look at this sixth-floor plan, with four one-bedroom apartments. Because there is no corridor connecting the two stairs, it is possible to have two units in the middle and get incredible efficiency. The units have natural cross-ventilation; combined with the shading from the aluminum skin, they can avoid using air conditioning.

Fourth floor plans of lofts.

Gisele Borges Arquitetura

It gets even more interesting on the lower, slightly wider floors with two-story units. The architects actually can split it down the middle and get eight units per floor, with four to each stair and elevator. There is living, dining, and kitchen on this level, and a stair up.

5th floor upper level
Plans of the 5th floor upper level.

Gisele Borges Arquitetura

The upper level has a lovely bedroom and a generous bath. If I were to put my old developer hat on, I would definitely lose the two-story void and get a second bedroom in there. The last project I worked on in Toronto originally had these double-height spaces, and we quickly realized that people would rather have the floor area and the bedroom than the void. But this is Brazil and not Toronto, and the market may well be different.

looking up at top

Pablo Gomide

But the main lesson from this building is that if architects and developers are freed from some of the restraints that we have in North America—from the zoning restrictions that keep out anything but single-family sized houses to the building code restrictions that are designed for much bigger buildings—they could create some marvelous housing.