Author: Steven Vance

Why courtyard buildings aren’t allowed in Chicago anymore

Chicago Urbanist Twitter was abuzz last month when renderings of a proposed construction courtyard building were published, given that the historical building typology hadn’t been built in Chicago in decades. Some wondered if this revered local home style was making a return.

I don’t think there will be a resurgence or resurrected trend in building courtyard buildings in Chicago, because of how the city’s building and zoning codes inhibit them.

Notes before I begin the analysis: a Chicago courtyard building is very similar, if not the same as, a housing typology that’s extremely common in northern Europe: the point access block.

And, Chicago has, at least, two variations of courtyard buildings:

  1. Large inset front courtyard (U-shaped building)
  2. Rear courts, often with exterior unenclosed porches or a rear yard

Chicago courtyard buildings, described

To describe the Chicago courtyard building, I compiled a list of why people like courtyard buildings, especially the type with the front courtyard based on conversations I observed on Twitter and by asking members of Urban Environmentalists of Illinois (thank you J.O. and P.B.).

  • They look nice, with all of the landscaping visible from the sidewalk. Landscaping isn’t relegated to the roof and can be seen by the public.
  • Everyone’s unit has a designated nice view, as every unit faces the inner court. Compare this to a double-loaded corridor where about half the units will face the street and the other half may face the alley.
  • The unit layouts are some of the best; the apartments have lots of natural light and all rooms have windows. The units are often “dual aspect” and with windows on two walls open a cross breeze can occur.
  • Courtyard buildings enable many different unit types within one development (studios and 1-3 bedrooms), which means there can be a decent mix of types of people (families and singles and couples.) This is unlike a building using a double-loaded corridor floor plan, which can only get many-bedroom apartments at the corners.
  • Most units are pretty quiet since some of the unit’s layout is not directly against street, not too noisy.
  • The point access block layout (i.e. 2 units per floor per stairwell) mean that even though buildings can be big feels small-scale and homey compared to having long hallways. You actually know people in your stairwell, not a bunch of strangers (this also means they utilize space for effectively than double-loaded corridor buildings, which has impacts on cost).

What do you like about courtyard buildings?

Zoning code conflicts

Courtyard buildings are difficult or impossible to build in Chicago for reasons 4-6 that I described in a previous post about how to amend the zoning code to allow “cottage courts” in Chicago. They are repeated here:

  1. Rear setbacks would need to be reducible, preferably without the need for a variation from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Because the houses are oriented to face a common green space at the interior of the lot (not at the front or rear of the lot), the rear of the house may be close to the side property line, violating the rear setback standard of ~30 feet. 
  2. Side setbacks would need to be combinable or eliminated as a requirement for courtyard buildings because the unbuilt space on the property is concentrated in the interior court.
  3. Parking requirements would need to be more flexible, both in quantity and in design, because otherwise the parking area would occupy a third to half of the property, minimizing the space that can be used for the interior court. To maximize the shared green space, parking requirements should be reducible for this housing type. The Chicago TOD ordinance may be relevant here, as it now applies in RM-5, and higher, residential zoning districts, but the courtyard building needs to be allowable in the RT-4 zoning districts (as these are for more common).
  4. Minimum lot area per unit standards can likely be met cost-effectively in the less common RM-5 and higher zoning districts. The most common residential zoning districts in Chicago are RS-3 and RT-4. The RS-3 zoning districts do not allow more than two units on a lot; in RT-4 zoning districts the developer would have to assemble so many lots to be able to get the unit count necessary to make such a building’s construction cost-effective.

Walk around Rogers Park, Lakeview, and Hyde Park – where it seems the most courtyard buildings were built – and you’ll see that most of them don’t have any car parking. And the ones that do certainly don’t have as many to meet current car parking requirements.

Building code conflicts

Note that “IANAA” (I am not an architect) and my expertise on building codes is always quite limited.

Exits and stairs. The Chicago building code generally requires a minimum of two stairs for buildings of an occupancy classification of R-2 (multifamily with four or more units, not including shelters); see section 1006.3.2 in the Chicago building code for info about two-exit standards.

The two exits must also be within a minimum and maximum distance apart from each other; this standard ends up requiring a corridor between the two stairs so that each unit can access either stair. This corridor eliminates rentable area and decreases the floor plan’s efficiency (a metric for architects and developers that affects the pro forma).

In the new construction courtyard building’s renderings at the top of the post, there are three interior stairs! See also the Standard 8-3 comment below.

Section 1006.3.3 in the Chicago building code outlines the single exit (single stair) conditions. Without going further into alternatives and exceptions, a three-floor three-flat can be a single stair building as long as the third floor doesn’t exceed 1,600 s.f. of floor area and the house has a sprinkler system ($$). You read that right…Chicago allows single stair for buildings with 1-3 units and 1-3 floors.

Long corridor. The minimum corridor length and the sometimes-extra stairs require a bigger building footprint (increasing construction cost compared to a building without corridors, like the point access block), which is already constrained by parking mandates and inexplicable zoning code setback requirements. See section 1007.1.1 in the Chicago building to learn about how far apart exits need to be.

It’s not actually the multiple stairs that are the space hog…it’s the corridor that’s required to connect the multiple stairs.

Setbacks. Fire separation distance is different than a zoning setback. The building code allows buildings to abut (touch) adjacent buildings but the fire protection standards on that side of the building are increased. No windows could be built on a wall that has zero setback, so natural light and vent requirements for bedrooms would have to be provided through light courts and placing bedrooms at the front or rear of the building.

Do you know of some other regulatory standards that affect the development feasibility of courtyard buildings and point access blocks in the United States?

Illinois might join the country’s league of states adopting land use reforms

Illinois House Representative Kam Buckner (26th district) has introduced three bills that would adopt land use reforms across all or a lot of the state. This is a trend happening across the United States to address twin crises of low housing construction and limited affordable housing caused in large part by individual municipalities restricting new housing.

I’ve summarized the three proposed bills below. If you would like to help get these adopted, join the Urban Environmentalists of Illinois.

Allowing accessory dwelling units

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are apartments and small backyard houses that are built to provide on-site housing for family members, or generate additional income. They are usually allowed by amending zoning codes to add design parameters that treat them differently than apartments, detached, or attached houses and exempt them from typical density limitations inherent in nearly all zoning codes.

Buckner filed HB4213 in November 2023, which would disallow any unit of local government in Illinois from prohibiting ADUs, which most governments in Illinois do through various zoning rules (the main one being that a residentially-zoned parcel is only allowed to have a single building).

A bill like this has already been adopted in California, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire (at a minimum).

Coach houses are one type of small backyard house, common in Chicago. This one in Lakeview was built in 2023.

Lifting parking mandates

Buckner submitted HB4638 in January 2024 to get local governments out of the business of forcing a minimum number of car parking spaces at developments near transit, which are currently established without any rationale. You might say the amount of space cities require businesses and apartment buildings to provide is based on vibes.

My letter to the editor describing the benefits of not requiring so much parking everywhere was published in The Daily Line this month.

There are so many better things we can do for a community than dedicating land for car parking.

Allowing more than one home per lot

Most municipal zoning codes in Illinois have a zoning district called something like “R1” that allows one detached house on a lot, often setting a very large minimum lot size that must be assembled before construction can begin. Municipal leaders then apply R1 broadly within their municipalities’ boundaries, effectively banning condos, townhouses, row houses, and apartments – the most affordable kinds of homes to buy and rent.

Buckner introduced HB4795 in February 2024; it would apply to the state’s eight largest cities and require them to allow at least a “duplex” (two-unit house) on every parcel that allows a detached single-family house.

Naperville would be one of the covered municipalities; the city allows two-family dwellings in R2 zoning districts and slightly more homes per lot in the higher-number R zoning districts. Their B1 neighborhood shopping district also allows multi-family housing.

My letter to the editor in support of this bill was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on February 26, 2024.

But the Naperville zoning map shows how prevalent R1 and its friends the “E” estate districts are: the vast majority of the city is zoned to allow only single detached houses.

Letter to the editor: Illinois cities shouldn’t have the ability to impose parking mandates

My letter to the editor was published as guest commentary in The Daily Line

State Rep. Kam Buckner’s bill to stop cities from mandating specific numbers of off-street car parking at homes and businesses in transit-served areas should be celebrated. These mandates increase the cost of housing, take up land that could be used for just about anything else (like, more housing), and, because of how they facilitate more driving and require building more curb cuts than is truly necessary, make it harder to walk, bike, or ride the bus to run errands.

A massive parking garage at the new Malcolm X College on the Near West Side of Chicago.

I rent my home and I like the idea that there are only enough car parking spaces in the building for people who really need to have a car close by and are willing to pay for it. This means that the cost of providing parking for everyone in the building is not added onto my rent. 

Currently, every municipality in Illinois with a zoning code has a different idea of how many car parking spaces are required at bars, restaurants, townhouses, bowling alleys, and cemeteries. City planners don’t have the training or expertise to project the demand for parking. In other words, they don’t know more than home builders and businesses do about how many parking spaces each project needs.

In the place of mandates, cities should let home builders and businesses choose how much parking they believe they need to serve their tenants, employees, and customers.

By prioritizing car ownership and usage, parking mandates perpetuate reliance on fossil fuels and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, removing such requirements can incentivize the use of public transportation, cycling, and walking, consequently reducing traffic congestion and air pollution in our cities.

Without parking mandates near transit service, cities will be freer to allocate land in ways that support sustainable transportation, including making room for more housing to be located near transit and in walking distance to essential shops and services.

I look forward to debating the specifics of Buckner’s bill and getting it passed this year. 

-Steven Vance, Chicago, urban planner

[P.S. Buckner has another bill, HB4795, to prevent Illinois’s eight largest cities from having residential zoning districts that disallow multiple units.]

Chicago proposes prohibiting gas for heating & cooking in new construction homes

Update: The Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance (CABO) was sent to the rules committee today, 1/24/24. It will need 26 votes to be re-referred to the environmental protection and energy committee. [Per Heather Cherone]

Ordinance: O2024-0007305

Name: Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance (CABO)
Purpose: Improve indoor air quality, reduce heating costs, and reduce the city’s contribution to climate change
Mechanism: By amending the Chicago Construction Codes, new construction residences would not be able to have most types of combustion [1] used as the source of energy for cooking, water heating, and space heating [2].

The bulk of the code amendment is shown below.

The Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance would amend Chicago Construction Codes section 14N-R6.

This follows a previous building code amendment that required that any new construction housing built with combustion appliances also has the necessary electricity infrastructure – like higher amp circuits and higher voltage outlets – to enable swapping appliances for electric-only models. The Chicago Energy Transformation Code took effect November 1, 2022.

Many buildings are already being built all-electric because of the cost savings for builders and tenants, simpler designs, and the desire by some tenants to have cleaner indoor air. ComEd has an electric homes program that pays builders up to $5,000 per unit for going all-electric.

I believe that most tenants will realize at least a small improvement in their living arrangements by moving from a place that uses gas for heating and cooking to a place that is all-electric. In fact, I think they will ultimately appreciate the lower energy costs – the most significant cost change is the lack of a $30-50 monthly customer charge from Peoples Gas.

Additionally, much of the costs of buying and installing electric appliances in new construction homes (and renovated homes) is being subsidized by the Inflation Reduction Act.

The ordinance’s next steps are to be assigned to a City Council committee, passed out of that committee, and passed out of City Council. The ordinance’s standards would be effective 12 months after passage and apply to building permit applications filed on and after that date.

Show your support for the ordinance by contacting your alderperson, and submitting petitions from the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition and Sierra Club Illinois.


[1] Appliances that use a fuel source that when combusted emit less than 25 kilograms of CO2 per million BTU would be permitted, as would the combustion of wood in a fireplace or for cooking purposes.
[2] Combustion fuel used for “emergency and standby electricity” is excepted.

Show expansion of transit networks over the decades using Transit Explorer

Yonah Freemark just launched the biggest expansion of transit network mapping on Transit Explorer and I built a new feature for TE that allows users to visualize the size of a network by decade from 1970 to today.

When looking at a region of the world, change the era of transit network that you’re seeing by selecting a decade from the dropdown menu under the “Change the era” heading. In a moment, the map will automatically refresh.

I’ll show you three cities:

  • Salt Lake City
  • Hong Kong
  • São Paulo

Salt Lake City

The Utah Transit Authority opened its first modern light rail line in 1999 from Salt Lake City to the southern suburb of Sandy. It opened the second line, from downtown Salt Lake City to the University of Utah, in 2001, in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Some games and ceremonies were held at the university. FrontRunner commuter rail opened in 2008, and the third light rail line, to the airport, opened in 2011 and various line extensions opened in 2013. A BRT route that opened in 2018 in Provo is also mapped but not shown while a BRT route in Salt Lake City is shown under construction in 2024.

View Salt Lake City on Transit Explorer

Hong Kong

In 1970, the only rail transit that Hong Kong had were a tramway on Hong Kong Island and the East Rail Line, which opened in 1910 and was electrified in 1983. Every decade since there was a new line or two on the Hong Kong MTR network, culminating in the ten lines you see in 2024.

View Hong Kong on Transit Explorer

São Paulo

In 1970, São Paulo’s metropolitan network, Metrô, didn’t exist, but it had six regional train lines operated by three railroads – these kinds of trains are shown in brown on Transit Explorer. The metro, shown in blue, began in 1974, and now has six lines (including one monorail line) while the regional train network was modified to five lines. São Paulo saw its first bus rapid transit (BRT) line added in 1988, but added four more BRT lines since then – just five of the over 900 bus routes operated by EMTU.

View São Paulo on Transit Explorer