Unified Volumes


The studio recently did a design session to generate different ideas for a new project that will explore greater density in infill housing. Instead of designing for four units with small backyards, the studio looked at the lot and imagined situating six units, each with 25′ x 25′ sq ft. footprints. Each one would provide for an office and garage space on the ground level, with an open living space as the primary use of the second, while the most private spheres would be located on the third. Given the densification, rooftop spaces, which have become more and more trendy (especially in places like L.A., but also in San Francisco), seemed optimal as well. In this case, the lot would require a row of three units in the front along the street and a row of three in the back.

The trick and task of each design was to achieve a plan that started with a larger ground level space, while the second level floor plate could be smaller but carved out to provide additional open space in exchange – achieved potentially as a cantilevered extension, or some sort of inset space that would push out elsewhere in the rear. The studio wanted to devise ways of facilitating ideal circulations within these precise spatial parameters.


Form and space were open. Ideally, the floor plans would be varied with some relationship between them, but unique in their own right – so, nuanced variation, not six completely different places; or, a copy of themselves rather than a mirror. One smooth edge and one striated edge; a symmetry between their varying angles. The basic question of how these units would optimize privacy, light, and air flow between them while balancing potential for a kind of shared public space came up, so as not to just turn out six separate homes sharing a tight lot but something loosely communal. How could the requirement for group open space be treated on such a small and tight lot without crossing too much into anyone’s particular yard space?

The main themes that united the designs were the structural and rotational twists and plays with the three stacked boxes that in essence sought to erase and transform the basis of ‘stacked boxes’ into a singular form itself connected by a relationship of added and subtracted volumes. Rather than stacked boxes, the overarching concept morphed into an alteration of stacked balloons and volume identity.


Playing with offset shapes, multiple frames, angular facades, experimental rotations, one proposal imagined a kind of Bento Box wrapping of a central staircase flirting with different abstractions of shapes that would push and pull different voids through out the space along a blended axis. The units’ facades would relate adjacently by inverse repetition – where one void would be pushed out on the second floor, the adjacent unit would reflect with space pulled in on that same floor.


The intrinsic enabling of this design conceptually served as a kind of hub for the rest of the studio’s other propositions to come together in entirety and form a kind of matrix that allows each unit to respond to it’s varying context based on its location in the grid and relation to contextual elements – i.e., a driveway, the sun, a yard setback. The bento box concept of shifting parts merged with ideas of responding to contextual elements and other aspects, such as variable openings and inflected boxes, reflected an underlying basis for the studio’s interchangeable output.



One design began with the possibility that all six units would be connected rather than completely separate, toying with the task of preserving individual lot spaces and yard space while coming together to form a larger collective space between them. By staggering the unit faces at repeated angles it imagined a symmetry that would widen the shared space between the two rows, offering both functional and aesthetic gains. The next stage of this design would consider ways of connecting the units without becoming side-by-side lofts, perhaps through a series of conjoined gaps to give certain interconnected nodes of both separation and singularity.


Progressing the angled unit facades, another design deployed a similar “Salk Institute Effect” to break up the standard ‘corridor look’ normally experienced between two rows of units. It addressed concern for central units that lose the benefits of corner spacing by turning the secondary levels of the units into a set of matching trapezoids giving each unit (including those in the middle of the row) a promontory, and thereby their own individual corner. By taking advantage of angled floor plates one could also maximize open landscape and minimize a driveway, which theoretically might afford a stronger axis of corridor space to function more dynamically, or with other purposes. The trapezoidal volumes could allow for distinct points of shaded structure and cornered openings that might activate certain peripheral spaces around a more central core as well.

Most of the studio’s ideas shifted the boxes in some way depending on specific relationships desired between the other units, and the floors. For instance, another proposal envisioned the bottom level being carved to allow an upper level to have a larger footprint, oriented towards the sun so that overhangs and outdoor shaded areas could be generated for more outdoor usage. As a byproduct, each unit would gain its own distinct entry through a specific carving pattern, so as not to simply repeat entries serially.



Building on the idea that these are individual buildings that could still be connected someway, another set of sketches rotated the entire site to a particular solar orientation. Rather than treating individual units with the same mirroring, replication, rotation, and twists in orientation, each one as a separate building would be designed with the same helio-flow paradigm in mind optimizing light access, solar shading, and solar orientation so that they all performed equally in terms of their usability, solar performance, and natural ventilation. There would however be a lot of things that could be varied through out a uniform scheme.

The interest was in exploring an angled space on the North West corner of each unit to receive morning light, but also be shaded from afternoon sunlight. The precise angle would allow for the space to retain a constant soft light through out the day. This corner shaving provides opportunity to engage different spaces and views, and also invites different spatial elements to step up and rotate around themselves in a square plan so that units wouldn’t require the same floor-to-floor height, but rather could be squished, extruded, re-balanced – in other words, exploring the balloon effect. Different uses and spaces would emerge from higher head-heights and could be expanded, threading the entire space with new cross-volumes of open and private space. With one row of units engaging the street and the other engaging the backyard, the center units would be more free to expand in between. Each unit, however, would be virtually the same but altered only by slight rotations to give a kind of flexibility between the outer and central unit’s volume.



Breaking from the angled box strategy, yet another idea moved away from carving out and instead banded the unit and started to subtract spaces along those bands. The goal, afterwards, was to push a re-insertion of the programming back into those bands as a means of defining the unit by a new form of skin. Essentially, the idea provoked potential for volumes within the space to be connected vertically somehow, whereby a more correlative centralized volume later could be insinuated and used to connect all of the banded verticals together.

By the end of the day, it was clear that the most intriguing aspect of the initial ideas were to in some way re-angle and amplify certain edges, inflate different edge potentials, and make corners into newly inhabitable open spaces on their own. It was a good session. The studio is only just beginning this project, but the collective desire to erase the ‘stacked boxes’ and create a more singular space through an interrelationship of shared volumes that could generate a new shape, oriented by something more site specific, was a formative start.

In the process, the designs perhaps unwittingly explored adaptivity as a design language: rather than design having to conform to a density requirement, could density itself be remade in some way to adapt to design? What kind of new balances between separate and connected, grounded and elevated, vertical/horizontal could be achieved on a lot of this size with more units than initially imagined? While adaptivity generally means conforming to a site condition, could a site condition be made to adapt to a certain design, or a design premise: in this case, the (non)centrality of a unifying volume distributed through a relationship between multiple volumes?

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