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:
- Large inset front courtyard (U-shaped building)
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Learn more about legalizing point access block developments and single stair reform.
- Referring to the Standard 8-3 design that I commissioned Josh Mings to draft for Chicago Cityscape there are two variations: one has three stairs without a corridor and the other has two stairs with a corridor.
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?