How Should Apartment Design Change Post-Pandemic?

Architectural firm Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter shows how it's done in Norway.

Oslo Apartment complex
Oslo apartment complex.

Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter 

Apartment design is done differently in Europe than it is in North America. Architectural firm Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter recently completed a lovely project in Oslo that highlights those differences.

In North America, most apartment buildings have a corridor running between two dreary enclosed fire stairs, with a bunch of elevators in the middle. This was done so that in the event of fire, each floor is separated from the other, and there are two means of exit in case one is blocked. The corridor is pressurized so that smells don't travel from one apartment to the next, and so that if there is a fire, the smoke is kept in the apartment. As Robert Bean's tweet shows, it doesn't always work. It's a design approach that is required for almost every building, no matter what height. Even in lovely little buildings like this five-story project in Boston.

The problem with it in the coronavirus era is that everyone is forced to share that narrow corridor, the pressurizing could be moving the virus from the corridor into apartments, and nobody wants to get in the elevators with other people, especially since they are often much smaller than office building elevators.

Oslo Apartments
Oslo Apartments.  Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter

As I have noted before, it is done differently in Europe. For buildings like these that are six stories, they can have big open spaces with walkways running around for apartment access and glorious, desirable stairs in the middle.

Stair inside
Stair inside apartment. Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter 

The architects describe it in V2com:

The project has prosperous and well thought internal common areas which create a positive and worthy common framework for the residents. Inside, there is a robust material palette where the cast-in-place concrete walls create a modern but timeless expression together with a warm oak material used for the floors and ceilings and wrapping up the staircase.

All the residential units are fire-separated from the corridors and there is usually a big hatch at the top of the open space that opens to let out the smoke. The building is low enough that all the residents can be rescued by the fire department by the cute little Euro ladder trucks.

Building Section
Building Section. Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter 

When I have written about this before, readers always mention the Grenfell disaster in London, but it was a much taller building, there was no central vented space, and the exterior windows and cladding were all flammable plastic, so the standard advice to stay in place was exactly wrong. It is not a relevant comparison to a six-story brick-clad building. Really nice brick, too.

Brick detail at entrance
Brick detail at entrance. Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter 
The buildings have a site-adapted limited material palette with brick exterior. The use of hand-crafted bricks was the most important aspect of the project architectural facade expression. It is an historical material which can be assemble manually in a very sculptural way and define the project’s identity. The selected bricks have been hand-baked so that they get a very specific structure and rough texture. The façades of the new buildings celebrate long craft traditions, with handmade bricks that play on layers with modern lines, and large windows from ceiling to floor.
Stair detail
Stair detail.  Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter

Then there is the coronavirus. When you step out of your apartment here, you are in a corridor that overlooks a very big volume of air. The stair is inviting and generous. The building is not so tall that most people can walk up and down and avoid the elevator.

Glorious Stair
the Glorious Stair.  Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter

And what a glorious and glamourous stair it is. I know doing a design like this in North America would make every building inspector and fire chief have a nervous breakdown, but it makes it so much easier to design little "missing middle" type apartment buildings. It encourages people to take the stairs. It probably has better air quality. Europe is full of these little buildings and they are not firetraps. It's such a shame that one can't even consider it here.

Front facade
Front Facade.  Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter