Going Dutch: Multifamily Housing Design Insights From the Netherlands

Arthur Erickson Travel Award 2022 - Report © Philippe Fournier 2023. All rights reserved.

Arthur Erickson Travel Award 2022 - Report

© Philippe Fournier 2023. All rights reserved.


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Going Dutch

Multifamily Housing Design Insights

from the Netherlands

Arthur Erickson Travel Award Report

By Philippe Fournier


Special thanks to the Arthur Erickson Foundation for

sponsoring my trip.

Completed in fulfilment of the Arthur Erickson Travel Award

Travel Dates: May 3 - 15, 2023

The Netherlands

© Philippe Roy Fournier, 2023

Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 2023



National home prices





disposable income


1980 1990 2000 2010 2020

Canada house prices vs disposable income growth since 1975.

Canada’s Housing Crisis

Canada is experiencing a severe housing affordability

crisis, reflected both in skyrocketing home prices and

rents relative to incomes in almost all major cities, well

above the ‘affordability’ benchmark used by the Canada

Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) at 30% of

household income going towards housing costs.

There is consensus among experts that this crisis is due

mostly to a chronic shortage of housing supply. Per a 2021

report by Scotiabank, Canada has had both the highest

population growth and lowest per-capita housing stock in

the G7 for years. The CMHC estimates Canada would

need an estimated 22 million housing units by 2030 in

order to restore housing affordability to all Canadians,

but notes we are only on track to have less than 19 million

at current rates -- a shortfall of almost 3.5 million.

As one measure to address the crisis, municipal and

provincial jurisdictions across Canada have begun

reforming longstanding zoning practices in order to

allow denser forms of multifamily housing to be built in

neighbourhoods where they were previously forbidden.

Since the mid-20th century, common practice in most

Canadian cities outside of Quebec has been to zone

most land exclusively for single-family homes. Since

urban land is inherently limited, this practice effectively

caps the housing supply and inflates housing costs as

demand rises.

The ‘Missing Middle’

These reforms have so far heavily focused on permitting

‘missing middle’ styles of housing into these infill

neighbourhoods: defined as the range of multifamily

housing typologies between the extreme scales of high

rise towers and single family houses. These include

multiplexes, townhomes, terraced housing, cottage

courts, and mid-rise apartments. In October 2022,


Topic of inquiry: ‘Missing Middle’ housing typologies

‘Missing Middle’ Housing

the government of Ontario kicked off this paradigm

shift by announcing it would allow up to three units

of housing as-of-right on all residential land in the

province, overriding local and city bylaws. The city

of Toronto quickly followed up with a bill to legalize

four-unit multiplexes everywhere. The government of

British Columbia has announced its intentions to go

even further, allowing up to eight units on much of the

land in its major cities and even higher densities around

transit stops.

These ongoing developments present a major opporunity

for architects to shape the quality and standards of

multifamily homes as they become the ‘new normal’

in major urban centres. However, as the term ‘missing

middle’ implies, there is a general lack of extent quality

precedents for designers to refer to in most postwar North

America. Since the end of World War 2, urban planning

policies and mass production techniques enabled the

mass suburbanization of the continent, with single family

houses becoming an accessible option for the growing

middle classes. Canada developed in lockstep with its

neighbor to the south, and the detached house came to

symbolize the ‘Canadian Dream’ of personal success,

while denser multifamily housing typologies – relegated

by planning policies to a minority of urban land – became

associated with an implicit failure to live up to that dream.

To this day, detached single family houses are home to

a solid 52.8% of Canadian households, while ‘missing

middle’ buildings are home to approximately 35.3%.

However, much of this missing middle stock is in

Quebec, which for cultural reasons has always been

more comfortable with multifamily housing than English

Canada, and where housing remains significantly less



The Netherlands & Canada

Canada’s Households by Residence Type

In the face of this changing regulatory environment, I

wanted to visit the Netherlands because it has a particular

rich stock of ‘missing middle’ & multiplex housing,

along with ample examples for Canadian architects to

draw lessons from. EU data shows that up to 57.5%

of the Dutch population live in the category of “semidetached”

or attached terrace homes, 20.5% live in flats,

and only 17.3% live in fully detached houses. This is in

sharp contrast to Canada’s housing stock.

The Netherlands offers another interesting contrast to

Canada due to its low-lying geography and scarcity of

land, which impose unique constraints on its urban

development. Much of the country’s land had to be

dredged out of the sea before it was ever settled, and to

this day, new developments must always be carefully

engineered with flood control and efficiency in mind.

Thus out of sheer necessity, urban planning is given a

level of attention and urgency in the Netherlands not

found in many other places.

I believe that the country’s reputation for excellent urban

design originates from this circumstance. Necessity is

the mother of invention, and a deep appreciation for the

value of land as a scarce resource is built into the Dutch

way of life. Another way this manifests is in the country’s

incredible status as the world’s second largest exporter

for agricultural products, aided by a technologically

innovative farming industry. Canada is about as close

to the opposite as can be; we have so much land that we

have long afforded to misuse it, contributing to many

of the urban and environmental problems we are now

grappling with.

Correspondingly, The Netherlands is a much more

densely populated country than Canada, at approximately

521 people / km 2 of land compared to 4 people / km 2 ,

respectively. When comparing at the level of cities, the

disparity closes, but can still vary widely depending on

methodology due to arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries.

One report by The Fraser Institute found Amsterdam was

Single detached: 52.8%

Missing Middle: 35.3%

Semi detached: 5.0%

Row house: 6.5%

Duplex flat:

Flat in <5 Sty. building: 18.3%

Flat in >5 Sty. buildings: 10.7%

Other: 1.5%

Dutch Households by Residence Type

Single detached: 17.3%

Missing Middle: 57.5%

Flat: 20.5%*

Other: 1.5%

Semi detached / Terrace: 57.5%

*Does not distinguish by building

height; most are in middle sized / lowheight

apartment buildings.


more densely populated than Toronto, at 4,916 people

per square kilometre compared to 4,457 in the latter. All

major Canadian cities in the study except Vancouver

ranked even lower. This is significant when considering

that Toronto has far more high-rise residential buildings

than Amsterdam, as well as far more land overall. It also

demonstrates that height does not necessarily equate to


Recognizing the difficulties of comparing densities with

different legal boundaries, another study by Demographia

compares global urban densities by the “built up land

area”, defined as “a continuously built up land mass

of urban development that is within a labor market

(metropolitan area or metropolitan region)...best thought

of as the ‘urban footprint’ --- the lighted area...that can be

observed from an airplane (or satellite) on a clear night.”

Under this methodology, several legally distinct cities

in both countries are considered one contiguous urban

area. For example, Rotterdam includes The Hague. I

believe this methodology more closely approximate the

“lived experience” of urban density, since interregional

travel is frequent. The chart below compares selected

urban regions with their findings:


Rotterdam - Hague





3,565 people / km 2

2,981 people / km 2

2,917 people / km 2

2,894 people / km 2

2,725 people / km 2

2,711 people / km 2

It should be noted from the outset that despite its

significant density relative to Canadian cities, The

Netherlands is also experiencing a severe housing

shortage and affordability crisis. Recent research

suggests the Netherlands is about 400,000 homes short

of its current needs. This underscores that good design is

not sufficient in isolation to address housing affordability

crises, and the Netherlands may even need to densify

more than its current housing base in some places to

sufficiently expand its housing supply.


Another reason I wanted to study The Netherlands’s

multifamily housing stock was a more academic interest

in this architectural niche. Montreal-based architectural

historians David B Hanna & Francois Dufaux have

noted that this range of housing styles have gone largely

ignored in architectural discourse:

“Where the discipline of architectural history has

had difficulty, is in dealing with the rest of the built

environment, typically 90% or more of the built record.

While middle-class housing, particularly single-family

detached, has had some success in benefiting from the

trickle down of theoretical concepts, particularly stylistic,

the field of urban vernacular housing has gone largely

unnoticed or considered to be not worthy of treatment…

…How does such a systematic blind spot arise? Perhaps

the obsession with single-family housing in twentiethcentury

North America has conditioned researchers

to ignore other forms of housing, excepting, of course,

apartment buildings because of their sheer bulk and

the fact that they tend to be architect designed. Perhaps

also superposed flats are seen superficially as merely

single-family type houses which have been divided into

two or three flats, ignoring the fact that they are a house

type of their own. Clearly what has been missed are

the deep cultural and historical roots of such housing

and their powerful significance in terms of generating

eminently habitable low-cost housing in dense yet

human-scaled neighbourhoods.”

--Montreal: A Rich Tradition in Medium Density


Hanna and Dufaux note that the vast majority of the extent

urban housing stock was not designed by professionally

trained architects. Cities developed incrementally and

bottom-up by small developers and handymen employing

local materials, know-how and improvisation. Yet out of

this incremental patchwork of trial-and-error eventually

came a corpus of heuristics that get passed through the

vernacular building culture: “rules of thumb” about

how to build housing efficiently with limited means

and sophistication. Canadian architect Brian MacKay

Lyons made this observation: ”vernacular is what you

do when you can’t afford to get it wrong.”


In the context of housing affordability, I see particular

value in revisiting quality historic examples of these

private “urban vernacular” multifamily housing types.

By focusing not just on radical bespoke projects, but

rather on typologies that were mass replicated, we can

gain insights on how to improve the standards of mass

housing. “Dense yet human scaled” is a balancing act

that traditional Dutch urbanism does very well.


My trip took place from May 3 - 15, 2023. I spent roughly

half of the trip in Amsterdam, half in Rotterdam, with

a few short stops to Utrecht, Delft, The Hague and

Almere. The country is very small and well connected

by rail, making connections between even small towns

extremely convenient. Within cities, I was able to cover

a lot of ground with rental bikes and public transit.

My objective while travelling was to chronicle and

understand the housing stock from the perspective of

both an architect and layman resident, with an eye to

significant contrasts from Canadian building practices.

I made an effort to travel to very diverse and ‘off-thebeaten

path’ neighborhoods, to experience and compare a

wide cross section of housing types as well as the urban

fabric they were situated in. I particularly wanted to pay

close attention to details at the architectural scale that

impact the quality and comfort of residents.

One of the first and most significant observations I made

is that attached housing is the norm in the Netherlands,

not the exception like it is in Canada. Even in brand

new suburban developments (like Zesteinhoven on the

outskirts of Rotterdam, seen above) rows of townhomes,

semi-detached terrace homes or low-rise apartment

blocks are the dominant residential typologies. Fully

detached single-family houses are rare and generally

found only in very affluent pockets; and even these homes

tend to occupy smaller plots of land than their North

American counterparts. Private gardens and yards may

be provided at the rear of the home, but front lawns are

almost non-existent. Most homes open directly onto the

abutting sidewalk or street.

Attached housing has many advantages over detached


homes. Environmentally, they consume less land and

are more conducive to creating walkable compact

neighborhoods that obviate the need for personal

motor vehicles. The sharing of party walls reduces the

amount of exterior envelope that heat and energy can

leak through, reducing energy costs.

The ubiquity of attached buildings creates an urban form

of contiguous street walls, with ample ‘eyes on the street’

that discourage criminality. It also satisfies an innate

biological impulse that humans and other animals exhibit

called thigmotaxis, a preference to be near the edges of

things rather than exposed open spaces. Public streets

and plazas lined with hard street wall conditions feel

more like ‘urban rooms.’

The quality of the public realm in the Netherlands

is truly extraordinary. Ample space is given over to

pedestrians and cyclists rather than motor vehicles,

and traffic speeds are kept low on most major roads.

Aside from significantly reducing noise pollution and

increasing safety, it makes the street very pleasant to be

in. Because so many flats are accessible directly from

grade via direct door or walkup, without even requiring

an elevator or some other interior transition area, the

streets very much become an extension of the interior life

of the house, promoting sociability and neighbourhood

interaction. This sometimes manifests in creative ad

hoc interventions on the streetscape. One example is an

on-street parking space being enclosed and filled in with

dirt to become a planter for gardening, seen below right.

North Americans are often resistant to densification

efforts out of fear that it would erode their standard

of living. Canadians have the third largest homes on

earth, averaging 1948 ft 2 , while Dutch homes are about

two-thirds smaller at 1261 ft 2 , with even smaller units

in the big cities. Denser housing necessarily entails the

sacrifice of personal living space; however, this can trade

for potentially better location with desirable amenities or

other pleasantries exterior to the home itself. Ensuring a

high quality public realm makes this tradeoff even more

salutary, and can contribute to a residents’ higher sense

of satisfaction with their home as much as the physical

attributes and size of the home itself.


Serendipitous relationships between the street and home

life become less likely to occur as housing gets taller.

Research has shown that life in high rise towers tends to

make people more likely to feel isolated, anxious and less

sociable with their neighbours. The interior transition and

circulation spaces required in taller buildings function

as a significant buffer between the private life of the flat

and the public realm.

Across the country, I observed that there is a very high

baseline consistency of neighborhood quality. While

there are certainly poorer and wealthier areas, it was

not always immediately obvious when I had crossed

into either just by looking at the built environment.

Even remoter neighborhoods have high quality local

infrastructure, like fully grade separated bike paths, wide

sidewalks, modal filtering for traffic, parks, playgrounds,

contiguous street walls and proximity to frequent transit.

It was also rarely obvious when a building I was looking

at was public housing; they blend into the fabric of the

city, are well-designed and well-maintained.

This has significant implications for equity. Due to

the legacy of exclusionary zoning and car-oriented

development in Canada, the most walkable and connected

neighborhoods tend to have the most expensive housing.

It is frequently that poorer citizens must seek housing

in more remote locations where necessary amenities

(like grocery stores) are scarce, or where it is very

inconvenient or dangerous to move around without a

car. Those who can’t afford to own or store their own cars

will depend on unreliable transit options or the charity of

others. This reduced mobility can negatively impact their

independence, job & business opportunities, free time,

physical and mental health and social integration. The

Netherlands shows that the tradeoff between affordability

and good location can be at least partly overcome with

proper neighborhood planning, and give poorer residents

more housing options by equalizing the distribution of

crucial infrastructure and resources that all people need.

A common sight on many residential buildings is a

beam with a hook and pulley projecting from the top

gable (left). These were traditionally used for hoisting

large objects in and out of the upper floors through the

windows. Nowadays, mechanical lifts can also be rented


to provide the same function. Accordingly, the windows

themselves are designed to be swung on multiple axes,

and easily unhinged, removed and repositioned when

complete. These methods show an opportunity to move

items throughout a building without needing built-in

elevators, which add significant cost to projects.

Materially, brick masonry is the overwhelmingly

dominant facade material in the Netherlands, with

concrete as the dominant material for structures and

party walls between attached buildings. Being fireproof

and soundproof, concrete reduces the two most common

discomforts of dense living: fire hazard and noise

pollution between units. Some of the most impressive

Dutch architecture, including the social housing

designed by the Amsterdam School, articulate brick

very creatively, such as with undulating facades and

coursework patterns. I was impressed by the diversity

of expression for such a simple and economical product.

As for interior materiality, exposed masonry and plaster

walls are far more common than the Canadian standard

of gypsum wall board.

Because of the country’s marshy land, up to a million

homes in the Netherlands rest on wooden foundation

piles. Depleted groundwater is leading to unstable and

rotting foundations in many places, and it is common in

old neighborhoods to see buildings that lean on extreme

angles over the sidewalk.

There is far less parking for private residences in the

Netherlands than Canada, especially in inner cities.

Canadian zoning laws frequently impose mandatory

parking minimums on housing projects, leading to an

over-building of parking lots and inflation of housing

prices due to the added construction costs. Parking in

the Netherlands is mostly kept to on-street parking and

underground garages. Personal driveways are found

in more suburban areas, but they are smaller, as are

European cars. Within the city, personal garages can

sometimes be found on the ground floor of terraced units

(shown left), but they are rare and found in relatively

new affluent developments..

By contrast, bike parking is abundant throughout the

country, both on and off-street. Bikes take up significantly


less space than vehicles both to drive and store, and do

not require designated level parking areas since they can

be securely fastened to almost anything. I would often

look at a large cluster of bicycles on residential streets

and then image how much built up space would need

to be demolished if every owner used a car for most for

their trips instead.

The significance of Dutch cycling culture on the quality

of both the public realm and housing architecture cannot

be understated. The cumulative urban space saved by

obviating the need for through-traffic and parking from

project to project has a compounding effect at the urban

scale, reducing the distances for trips and commutes while

increasing net living space at reduced prices. Significant

compromises are routinely imposed on North American

housing due to the need to accommodate vehicles, which

have also grown in scale since the 1980s due to the

growth of SUVs. Bicycles are much cheaper to own

and maintain than cars, making them more accessible

to lower income populations. They can also easily be

stored inside units without requiring separate garage

structures. Stairs can be fitted with rails to make it easier

for bikes to roll up. Cargo bikes with fitted carriages for

moving objects are seen all over the country.

Residents handle garbage by self-sorting it and then

bringing it to local neighbourhood bins with colorcoordinated

underground storage tanks. On trash day,

specialized trucks will remove the tank, take its contents

and then place it back in the ground. Centralizing

garbage storage this way helps reduce the amount of

stops taken by collectors.

For this trip, I identified two representative types of

missing middle multifamily housing for more in depth

analysis: ‘terraced housing’ and ‘point access blocks.’

I chose these both because they are so common in the

Netherlands and because they approximate the scale

of housing styles I focused on for my thesis project:

multifamily residential buildings of up to 3-5 stories.

These place them within the range of typologies pending

legalization in ongoing Canadian zoning reforms. They

are also inherently economical, modular forms, lending

themselves to the potential for mass production and

prefabrication techniques.


Terraced Housing

By far the most common housing type in the Netherlands

is terraced housing. These are multistorey attached

homes, often divided into multiple units, accessible

at grade by walk-up steps or doors directly from the

sidewalk. There are roughly two categories of terraced

homes: rijhuis (rowhouse) and herenhuis (townhouse,

also translated as ‘mansion’). Generally the distinction

is in the proportions: townhouses are tall and skinny,

while rowhouses are more squat.

The typical Dutch urban lot is 6m wide, and most

terraced homes that take up the full width of their lot.

Townhomes are often even skinnier in some older areas

like central Amsterdam, partly a product of historic taxes

on building width. Other historic policies, such as a

window tax in the Napeoloenic era, impacted the size and

placement of windows, with bigger windows becoming a

status symbol. The facades are articulated to be visually

unique with different brick styles, fenestration, paint,

door and stoop placement and especially stepped gables

at the roof. If the building has multiple flats, they may

be separately owned as condominiums or rented out as

separate apartments by the building owner. Though they

are formally very similar and form a contiguous street

wall, they are discrete buildings with discrete ownership.

This development pattern of one-off distinct buildings

lots allows for flexibility in the housing market. If

housing demand increases, the building interiors can

be renovated to add more units. Indeed, many of the

famous “canal houses” of inner Amsterdam were

began as single family homes for wealthy Dutch elites.

Conversely if demand falls, units can be merged and

partitions removed, without the essential outer shell and

structure of the building changing significantly. This

building type is inherently adaptable. Furthermore, small

discrete buildings are much easier to tear down and

replace at the end of their (shorter) lifespans than large

buildings, allowing for more frequent turnover, material

recycling and market liquidity.

Despite the very standardized typological template, there

is an enormous stylistic diversity for terraced housing

across the Netherlands. Historic traditional terraced







Unit Compositions

Above: A diagramattic example of a streetscape of

terraced homes shows their flexibility. Superficially

similar buildings on narrow lots can have very

different internal layouts and accomodate signifcant

densities. Assuming a standard footprint of 6m x

16.5m, this example houses 12 households (1881 m 2

Gross Floor Area) on 396 m 2 of land, for a Floor Area

ratio of 4.75.










homes in areas like central Amsterdam were developed

piecemeal, and so are highly individuated from property

to property with ornament and architectural expression.

New developments of terraced homes tend to be planned

in bulk as cohesive blocks with more visual consistency,

modernist aesthetic sensibilities and spare use of

ornament. However, these too are often individuated

with masonry treatment, colour, window placement

and other gestures, as seen in the examples in a new

development in Delft, below.

One of the most common and charming ways historic

townhomes articulate themselves is the number and

placement of exterior stairs, stoops and doors. Sometimes

doors to ground floor units or basements are provided in

the stoop itself. For a country famous for its flood risks

and rainy weather, split levels and basements suites are

surprisingly common, especially in historic Amsterdam,

often requiring extremely steep steps from the sidewalk

to be accessed (see right). Sometimes these are covered

by trap doors or large barn doors.

The amount of address numbers on the exterior walls


and doors provide a clue to the number and size of the

units inside the townhome. Addresses with a lettered

suffix indicate that there are multiple units accessed

from the same exterior door, which typically opens

to an interior common stair used by upper floor units.

Family sized units (2> bedrooms) may span two storeys,

with an interior stair in between -- usually open-tread

or radial to conserve floor area. For units split between

the basement and ground level, it is common to see the

open tread stair provided near the front windows, leaving

a double height space to maximize the natural lighting

between the two storeys. This also helps enable buoyancy

ventilation between the lower level and higher windows.

Most units span the full depth of the floor, maximizing

natural cross ventilation and lighting on the front and

back, reducing lighting and cooling loads. For this reason

it is also typical for the floor hosting kitchen, dining and

living areas to be an ‘open concept’ floor plan. If I looked

through windows from the street, I can usually see the

rear windows and yard. Private rooms like bedrooms

are typically loaded at the rear, on storeys out of eye

level to passerby.



Catwalks around void

provide double height

skylighting below

Terraces from bedrooms

Rear yard grade is a

half-storey lower than

at sidewalk

Unit 1 (2x bed)

Unit 2 (2x bed)


Door to Unit 1

Utility Rm

Door to Unit 3

Door to Unit 2

Unit 3 (3x bed)


In Rotterdam, I was able to stay at the home of my work

colleagues, drawn above and right. The home is in a

classic 6m wide, four storey historic vernacular herenhuis

initially built in 1901, located near Rotterdam Centraal

station just outside of the area bombed in World War 2.

Being able to stay there gave me a perfect opportunity to

see what these homes were like as actually experienced

by a resident.

The building is actually a triplex, with my 3-bedroom

unit occupying the top two floors. The first striking

thing is how well maintained the property has been kept,

despite its age – these homes were built to last. One of

two front doors at grade opens to a steep staircase, with

a landing shared by the doors to my unit and the secondfloor

neighbour. My door then opens to another steep

staircase which winds at the top into a bright, doublestorey

atrium space between the kitchen at the rear and

living room in the front.

I was instantly impressed at how light and spacious this

floor felt despite being only 6m wide. Large windows

on the front and rear facades light the front and back of

the home, while skylights above the atrium funnel light

into the centre. On the top floor, bedrooms are provided

at the rear and front, separated by a catwalk around the


4th Floor

Unit 3:

(x3 bedroom)









3rd Floor

Unit 3:

(x3 bedroom)




Kitchen /



2nd Floor

Unit 2:

(x2 bed)

Living /

Kitchen /








1st Floor

Unit 1:

(x2 bed)







Living /

Kitchen /





Unit 1:

(x2 bed)



Hall / Living






perimeter of a void in the floor which brings light below.

Since the units span the full floor plate, cross ventilation

is possible. The unit also has a balcony off the dining

room and a short roof terrace on the top floor.

This representative Dutch townhome would not be legal

to build in Canada, for at least two reasons related to the

access staircase. First is that Canada’s national building

code requires that multi-unit residential buildings above

two stories must provide a second means of egress from

all units in case of fires – the strictest in the developed

world. By comparison, building regulations in the

Netherlands for single-egress buildings up to five stories,

or a finished floor level 12.5m. This seems to be allowed

here because the entry to the top unit falls on the second

storey landing.

Second is that the steps of the stairs themselves are much

steeper and shallower than Canadian building codes

allow. Stairs providing egress must also be rectangular,

while the top unit interior stairs between floors 2 and 3

have tight winders at the top (below, right). Radial winder

steps are very common in Dutch homes because they

take up significantly less floor area, but are also more

dangerous to walk. Users must walk towards the outer

edge of the treads, which narrow towards the wall they

rotate around.

All of this reliance on steep stairs to achieve density

poses obvious problems for people with disabilities and

other accessibility issues, who must seek units level at

grade, closer to the ground, or in much larger buildings

which provide elevators. North American building codes

generally require elevators in residential buildings as

low as three to four storeys for accessibility reasons;

however, the significant costs make them less economical

to provide the shorter the building is, where cost is

split across fewer units. Along with the second egress

requirement, this is a significant source of the ‘missing

middle’ phenomenon in Canada.

Images, Counterclockwise from top left:

1. Common stairwell from street.

2. Interior stairwell in top unit, from common stair

3. Second interior stair within top unit, spanning the third and

fourth storey.

4. View from atrium room into front living room.


The top floor unit I stayed in is a 1940 ft 2 3-bedroom,

spacious enough to accommodate more beds if renovated.

This places it on the very large end of the spectrum for

Dutch homes, which average 1261 ft 2 , though it also

makes it almost identical to the average home size of

Canada, which is 1948 ft 2 . Unit 2 is a 2-bedroom, 1048

ft 2 unit that spans the full second storey of the building,

with the living and cooking area occupying the front

room and bedrooms at the rear. Unit 1 is a two storey,

2174 ft 2 2-bedroom unit that spans the first finished floor

(a few feet above grade) and the basement. An open riser

staircase connects the two levels via a double height

space in front of the street level windows. The owner of

this unit has full rights to the rear yard, which can be

accessed off a deck from the first floor.

This constitutes a family-sized home, yet takes up

significantly less land than a comparable fully detached

house would in Canada. It is also on a very valuable

location, just footsteps away from Rotterdam’s main

train station. One of the reasons many Canadians

express preference for single family houses in suburban

contexts is because they make up the overwhelming

share of family-sized options on the market. Enabling

the reintroduction of missing middle alternatives would

improve the viability of more family sized units in more

areas. This one building shows the diversity of potential

mutlifamily configurations in the same basic footprint.

Dutch bedrooms tend to be much smaller and narrower

than standard practice in new Canadian projects,

sometimes even less than two metres wide (enough

room for a twin bed or bunk bed, so appropriate for

children). They also typically do not provide built-in or

walk-in closets; instead residents are expected to provide

their own vanities or wardrobes for storage. Bed frames

with millwork drawers are common. Similar to North

American norms, Dutch flats with multiple bedrooms

will have at least one ‘primary’ bedroom that is larger

than the others. Narrow bedrooms can also double as

home offices, workspaces, utility rooms or storage.


Point Access Blocks

The second main typology of missing middle housing

that I investigated are what Seattle-based architect

Michael Eliason defines as “Point Access Blocks:”

These are residential buildings where groups of units

are arranged vertically around a single common stair.

These grouping can then be repeated along the length

of the building to form a visually consistent mass along

an entire city block. These are visually distinct from a

street wall of attached rowhouses because the facade

is articulated with a regular window and door pattern,

appearing as one large building rather than similar but

discrete buildings on discrete parcels of land. In the

Netherlands these point access blocks are mostly 4-5

storeys tall.

Significantly, these buildings are ground oriented and

have little or no interior corridors, lobbies or elevators.

Most units can be accessed by walking from grade, either

from direct doors onto the sidewalk, from an exterior

common stoop inset from the front facade in an alcove,

from an exterior catwalk on the rear of the building, or

from landings on an enclosed common stairwell that is

enclosed but articulated into the front facade.

Block with Stoop Unit Access

In most of North America, building codes effectively

forbid this circulation layout. For example, in addition to

the second egress requirement for three storey buildings,

the Canadian building code requires that the two required

exits have a minimum travel distance from each other. In

most cases this requires all units to open onto ‘doubleloaded’

interior corridor with a fire escape on both ends,

which in turn makes it nearly impossible to design units

with two parallel exterior walls. This limits opportunities

for natural cross-breezes and sun lighting to regulate the

interior climate, and reduces the net leasable area of the

building. More floor area is given over to unoccupied,

artificially lit circulation spaces, which also must be

mechanically climate controlled at cost to the owner.

Halfway lengthwise between two ‘point access’ stairs

will be a structural wall vertically spanning the full

height of the building, which doubles as the party wall

between units on each side. The width of these structural

Block with Enclosed Stairwell to Units

* Red indicates unit doors.







Unit 1 Unit 2 Unit 3 Unit 4









Typical Floor Plan Template - Access Point Block

























Living /

Kitchen /




Living /

Kitchen /


Living /

Kitchen /




Living /

Kitchen /


3-bedroom unit layouts: Common rooms along width













Cl. Cl.

Cl. Cl.













Living /



Living /


Living /




Living /


3-bedroom unit layouts: Common rooms along depth


The diagrams above show the general layout of a standard point

access block with 9.57m wide structural bays, and two potential

unit layouts that would accomodate family sized three-bedroom

units, assuming the same window placements. Exterior mounted

balconies are frequently provided at the rear of the site.


bays will vary from project to project, but provides the

organizing logic within which units can be configured in

many different ways. For blocks with enclosed stairwells

running the full building height, usually two units can

be provided per floor per stairwell. A demising wall

between the units will be provided along the midpoint

of the width of the stairwell, extending from the stair

to the rear wall.

When an inset stoop is provided as the means of vertical

egress, the stairs will usually reach the second level,

running lengthwise deep enough into the building that

the alcove becomes dark. Usually the facade is articulated

with glazing or voids running the height of the space to

allow more light to penetrate.

The point access block circulation arrangement allows

for much more diverse unit layouts than double loaded

corridors. Units can span the full floor plate form front

to rear, enabling cross breezes and deep natural light

penetration. Unlike units in North America that open

onto single loaded corridors, there are always at least

two exterior walls for bedrooms to abut, rather than one.

Common areas (kitchen, living, dining) can be provided

as one open concept space lengthwise along one side

of the building, or depth-wise through it. Mechanical

ductwork, plumbing and electrical layouts can become

much more efficient.

These block style buildings usually enclose the perimeter

of a full city block, creating private courtyard conditions

in the rear as seen below, bottom. These courtyards

may be common space for all residents of the block, but

usually are parceled to provide outdoor yard and garden

space for ground floor units. This example at the bottom

of this page shows a mix of both approaches, with a

playground for children and ping pong tables as well as

fenced private terraces.

Point access blocks may not always have elevators to the

upper floors units, making them less accessible to people

with disabilities and the elderly. However, accessible

grade level units can be provided with direct doors

from the sidewalk. The potential for a wide mix of unit

compositions allows for a mixing of demographics as

well. This gives home seekers a wider variety of suitable

options across wide areas of the city, rather than forcing

them to cluster in specific neighborhoods where zoning

permits a diversity of type like in North American cities.


Rotterdam and Amsterdam are urbanistically and

architecturally very different cities. Partly this is because

Amsterdam is the older centre of Dutch wealth, but also

because Rotterdam’s core was heavily bombed in World

War 2, leaving a blank canvas for redevelopment. As

was the spirit of the time, much of this redevelopment

was oriented to accommodate cars and traffic flow, and

while advancements have been made to reclaim some

of the streetscape for people, the increased presence of

cars and wider right-of-ways for them makes Rotterdam’s

public realm noticeably louder and less pleasant than

central Amsterdam. Compared to Canada however, it

is still an extremely accessible, compact and walkable

city. There are fully separated cycle paths on most major

streets, extensive tram connections, and a very dense

multifamily housing stock. This makes it a more useful

analogue for Canadians to study how to successfully

pedestrianize postwar car-oriented urbanism.

Amsterdam’s building stock is more traditional,

historic and ornamented, whereas Rotterdam embraces

modernism, sharp edges & eccentricity. This manifests

in the housing stock as well, as there are far more highrise

and block style housing developments in central

Rotterdam, while Amsterdam’s core is characterized by

its density of highly individuated, low-rise and humanscale

townhomes providing more visual stimuli for

passerby. The stripping of articulation in the facades

and massive, wall-like massing makes the public realm

of central Rotterdam feel colder than central Amsterdam.

This underlines how the scale of buildings has a dramatic

psychological effect on our perception of comfort.

Uninterrupted masses feel oppressive and overbearing.

Building narrow and low, rather than wide and tall, is

an alternative way to achieve density.

Mixed use developments are the norm in the Netherlands

and seem to be permitted on most urban streets, not

just major arterial roads as is common zoning practice

in Canada. For both block style and townhome style

multifamily homes, commercial space can be provided

at grade level with residences on the upper floors.


Final Conclusions:

The Role of Architects

Architects unfortunately have a limited role in general

housing affordability, which is determined by a large

variety of factors outside of our control. We seldom

get to choose our own projects, let alone their sites,

programs, construction budgets or the laws that govern

them. But we do play one incredibly important role in

the homebuilding process: shaping the perception of

spaces within these constraints. We influence the flow of

circulation; the progression of spaces; the dimensions of

spaces; the heights of the ceilings; the look and feeling of

the materials; the color of the paints; visibility and light;

the transmission of sound; the flow and temperature of

air; the concentration of sunlight, etc. These experiential

details can be overlooked in architectural discourse in

favor of grand aesthetic and formal gestures, but they are

of enormous importance to the occupants of residential

buildings. They constitute the metrics that people use to

gauge satisfaction with their living situation, and thus

the most essential considerations when designing mass

housing economically.

Such details become even more important in the case of

denser multifamily buildings now demanded in Canadian

cities. As Hanna and Dufaux noted, their perceived

inferior status in North American culture coincided with

a lack of critical attention from architects. This results in

many buildings that are extremely unpleasant to live in

or degrade rapidly, which reinforces thes stigma against

them from the broader public. Designers have a crucial

role in intervening to find the right balance between

comfort and economy.

Since people spend an inordinate amount of their lives

in their homes and attach them with sentimental value,

they choose them with immaculate attention to detail.

Will I hear my neighbors through the walls? How easy

to clean is the flooring? Is there enough room for my

future children? Can I watch them play in the living room

while I cook in the kitchen? Can I get a cross breeze in the

summer? Will I keep in heat in the winter? Will the roof

leak when it rains? More than anything, architects are

in the business of curating everyday human experience.


As Canada and other jurisdictions begin to reintroduce

multifamily living to infill urban contexts, architects

will play a major role in alleviating the stigma against

them. We can incrementally build a body of precedents

that demonstrate dense housing can be just as liveable

as the detached house idealized by the Canadian Dream.

In order to achieve this, the most important metric we

can measure projects by is the satisfaction and comfort

of residents.

Common complaints against multifamily buildings

in North America in favor of detached single-family

housing are a lack of privacy, lack of outdoor space, poor

soundproofing between units and inconsistent interior

climate control. While access to private yard space may

be dictated by urban land values, the other complaints

are relatively simple to address architecturally. There is

no shortage of ways to acoustically insulate walls and

doors between units. Balconies and terraces can provide

private exterior space while windows and skylights can

provide natural lighting and ventilation. Furthermore, the

more convenient and pleasant the location, the less likely

people are to begrudge forgoing private pleasantries like

a yard. This makes quality of housing closely linked to

the quality of the public realm outside the door.

My observations also make clear that the regulations

architects work with, from building codes to zoning

laws, significantly restrict their ability to improve

occupant comfort. As noted, most of the building stock


I analyzed here in the Netherlands would be illegal or

cost-prohibitive to build in Canada for one reason or

another. Therefore, another important role for architects

is using their professional status to push for reform of

regulations that degrade the quality and feasibility

multifamily developments. A major push for allowing

higher single-egress buildings is underway in Canada

and the US, and jurisdictions like British Columbia

have announced intentions to consult on this change.

Based on my experience on the Netherlands, I believe

further reforms in Canada to the following regulatory

parameters would have particularly broad and major

implications for urban housing quality and affordability:

• Zoning laws on lot coverage, lot sizes, parking

requirements, setback requirements, density limits,

roof lines, podium heights, and mixing of uses

• Codes on egress, stair size and shape

• Elevator requirements: re-assessing needs and


• Envelope and energy efficiency requirements:

especially quantifying & incentivizing savings from

passive design techniques

• Height limits for mass timber buildings

My trip to the Netherlands was an incredible experience

I’ll never forget. The beauty and igenuity was so

ubiquitous, it was almost hard to believe. The lessons

for architects are endless, and I hope Canadians will

adopt them while we face down our housing challenges.


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