Ugly Housing

It’s called 5 over 1 construction. There’s a reason you see it everywhere - and a reason everyone hates it.

Denver Yimby: Ugly Housing in Denver

Also called a podium building, the “5 over 1” refers to 5 floors of wood framed construction over a concrete base, with the ground floor typically reserved for parking, retail, or resident amenities. It’s the cheapest way to build apartments in the US under the International Building Code, which allows for up to 5 stories of wood frame construction. These buildings further minimize cost by using easily-installed flat windows, fiber cement facade coverings called Hardie panels, and a process called rainscreen cladding to protect the wood frame from water damage.


Use of standard building materials and processes creates a recognizable aesthetic that is often wildly unpopular. Many describe it as bland, devoid of architectural detail, and an eyesore in cities known for ornate and historic building styles. These concerns are not unfounded - the blocky and homogenous structures can be a jarring visual contrast to the established cityscape.

If you’ve lived in or toured more than one of these buildings, you’ll quickly see a pattern in how apartments are laid out. Shapes and square footage of apartments are selected to maximize rentable space.


These buildings use the cheapest safe and legal construction methods and optimize for space. Because they’re built primarily in urban areas zoned for multi-family housing, they could provide an answer to an ongoing housing crisis in these areas. The cheap construction could translate to savings for renters and improve low-income housing availability, right?


Wrong. 5 over 1 buildings are marketed as luxury apartments. Unit interiors are designed to feel high-end, with features like laminate flooring and solid surface countertops that imitate their higher quality counterparts. The atmosphere of luxury is compounded with opulent amenities like resort-style pools, resident lounges and co-working spaces, and on-site gyms. They offer cordial perks like free coffee and social events for residents while simultaneously cutting essential corners to comfortable living.


Modern light fixtures are fit with the cheapest lightbulbs on the market, which go out within 2 weeks of move-in and require replacement by the resident. Showers are set to provide low water pressure and a lukewarm high temperature. Garbage disposals and drains are frequently clogged. Electrical outlets are disabled. Sinks leak. Faucets break.


Most importantly, apartments are not built with a reasonable expectation of resident privacy. Non-disruptive activities like vacuuming, walking in shoes, and playing ambient music can be heard through floors and walls. Residents are forced into a state of constant caution out of respect to their neighbors, further compounded by large numbers of people working from home.


Accompanying this manufactured affluence is a price tag not rooted in reality. Rent for these properties varies by city, but almost always exceeds the minimum wage monthly take home pay of $1,150. No concessions for affordable housing are offered. In my current city, $1,500 is on the low end of normal for a one bedroom apartment in an urban zoned 5 over 1 building. To afford this apartment, a person looking to spend 30% of their income on rent would need to bring home $4,500 a month in take home pay - 4 times the minimum wage.


Compounding exorbitant base rents, rent increases 3 to 5% every year. Residents are almost never renewed at their current rate, and are forced to pay this premium to maintain their current housing. To put this in perspective, the federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009.

Fast-casual architecture does nothing to solve the urban housing crisis. It prioritizes profit over people while masquerading as affluence. It enables gentrification. It blends the unique appearances of US cities into an amorphous and sterilized blob. It insults the profession of architecture with flat and generic non-design disguised as modernism.


Stay tuned for my next takedown of single family home construction in suburban Central Florida.


Reposted from Gillian M. on Facebook


This unchecked development of overpriced ugly and poorly built rental housing isn't just a Denver issue, it's everywhere you look.