Horizontal Densification – Living Quality at a Low Cost

Courtyard houses and terraced houses are the central topics of a newly released publication on the forms of horizontal densification in domestic architecture. Besides the history of these building types, the various types, quality criteria and their implementation within the purview of the numerous concepts of urban development are dealt with in detail. The book, published in German with the aid of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), thus offers a unique review of a residential building type that – once again – assumes increasing significance in our society.


Forms of horizontal densification are accommodation units constructed side by side in which rooms that lie on top of each other belong to the same unit of flats. They are also an answer to the increase in uncontrolled development of one-family houses in rural areas and an alternative to vertical forms of densification – e.g. high-rise buildings – in the cities. In his newly published work “Low Rise – High Density. Horizontale Verdichtungsformen im Wohnbau” [Forms of horizontal densification in domestic architecture], Dr. Helmut Schramm of the Vienna University of Technology examines this variform domestic architectural type in detail.

Long Established, but Newly Discovered

Forms of horizontal densification are in their two most well-known types – the courtyard house and the terraced house – not new domestic building types.

The courtyard house, whose living quarter encloses a central open space, already has a 5000-year-old tradition. It originated in India and China and soon spread to large parts of the Middle East and Southern Europe. The origin of the terraced house is significantly more recent. Its first types already existed in the 16th century, but the great breakthrough only came in the 2nd half of the 19th century in the form of factory settlements for workers of large industrial companies.

Stop the Urban Sprawl and Retain the Quality of Life

Both housing types experienced a comeback at the beginning of the 20th century. Helmut Schramm explains the causes: “The rising desire for property, self-realisation, privacy and distance created ever-enlarging residential units that increasingly destroyed the rural space. Therefore, forms of horizontal densification became alternatives for new urban models.

The reason was that solutions were sought which fulfilled the personal requirements and at the same time enabled a densification of the housing unit.” But the saving of costs also made this method of construction favourable. It was possible to construct infrastructural facilities such as streets, drainage, electricity and water more concentrated and standardise the components. These forms of construction offered a high quality of life and economic advantages.

In his richly illustrated book, Helmut Schramm depicts the success especially of the terraced house through numerous European examples from the 1920s and 1930s. These include the workers’ settlement Kiefhoek built in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Les Quartiers Modernes Fruges in Pessac, France, planned by Le Corbusier, and the settlements of Törten or Dammerstock built by Walter Gropius in Germany, in Dessau and Karlsruhe respectively, in the same manner as the Werkbund Housing Estate in Vienna, Austria and the Weißenhof Housing Estate in Stuttgart, Germany.

In addition, Helmut Schramm elucidates by means of a comprehensive typology eight fundamental types of the courtyard house and six types of the terraced house. Interestingly, in his book Schramm also dares to determine the quality criteria of settlements and buildings that can be counted among the forms of horizontal densification. Schramm explains: “It is difficult to judge objectively the quality of a building. Not only is it perceived subjectively, but also altered by comprehensive influences. Nonetheless, I have defined such criteria also for better comparability of various types of domestic architecture.” These criteria are flexibility and variability, passage, spatial structure, privacy, the integration of garages and low energy concepts.

A chapter on the use of horizontal densification in the framework of urban development concepts and another one on strategy to cope with modern developments, like for instance communication technology, complete the impressive work. With the support of the FWF, Helmut Schramm was able to conclude the findings of his postdoctoral thesis appealingly and to present it to a large audience.

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