Why are condos usually just 2-3 levels?
April 3, 2006 3:13 PM   Subscribe

I notice that in the US condos are rarely more than 3 levels (except in a very few places like NYC). In many countries that I have visited, condos are usually 5 levels up to high rise buildings. If condos are built to reduce the land cost per unit, wouldn’t it make more sense to build additional levels? Or other costs such as those invested in parking structures will push the cost per unit further up? If so, is 2-3 level the ideal cost for developers and buyers? I guess my question can apply to apartment complex too. Your thoughts will be greatly appreciated.
posted by dy to Society & Culture (17 answers total)
Best answer: I'm not sure about the US, but in Canada (which I'm guessing has similar codes) all buildings over 4 stories have to have a concrete structure, while smaller buildings can be framed using wood.

Here in Calgary, we're going through a condo-building boom, and generally you see boutique 4-story complexes or big, 40-60 story towers.
posted by sauril at 3:24 PM on April 3, 2006

Best answer: Two things occur to me: some cities have zoning to limit the height of buildings in many areas, in order to avoid the canyons effect at street level, and also North Americans are still prone to feeling we have wide open spaces to move into, which people in some other parts of the world do not.
posted by zadcat at 3:29 PM on April 3, 2006

The "ideal cost" depends on a several factors, including the cost of the property itself, topography, and soil.

I grew up in Central California, where the land is flat, loamy, and (relatively) inexpensive. Almost all the houses were single story, and even apartment complexes rarely had more than two stories. It was cheaper to build single story homes than multiple story ones. Loamy soil doesn't make good foundational material, so the soil would have to be augmented for taller/heavier buildings.

Now I live in Seattle, where land is expensive, the topography is very hilly, and the soil is glacial till, so density is higher. Land is so valuable, in fact, that single story homes within the city limits are being bought by developers, razed and replaced with multi-story triplexes or fourplexes (that is, a group of three or four single family homes, each home with three stories). Glacial till is a great foundational material, so it's cheaper to build a multi-story building.
posted by luneray at 3:30 PM on April 3, 2006

I live in Canada and Sauril is right about the concrete-wood issue. Another factor is demand. In much of North America, there is still undeveloped land available. Due to car culture, many people are willing to spend a lot of time commuting to their home in the suburbs. Many people seem to prefer commuting to a big suburban home over walking to a home in a downtown area. In some countries, downtowns were designed for live/work situations. However, because the US/Canada had a lot of heavy factories and plants, cities were built to separate work and life. As a result, not many people have wanted to live downtown, where land is more precious. So there hasn't been a huge demand for condos, which take advantage of demand for a precious share of that land.

But things change. Vancouver, Canada is going through a boom and the downtown core has changed. See here: Vancouver 1978 to 2003 photo transformation
posted by acoutu at 3:32 PM on April 3, 2006

Maybe the really high buildings are only economically feasible in areas with scarce supplies of land (NYC etc.). But if there's something most US cities seem to have in abundance, it's land - so maybe there's no need to build high, when most of the time you can just move one lot over?

My two cents...
posted by AwkwardPause at 3:33 PM on April 3, 2006

In Brazil:

Any Engineer (even computer engineers) can plan buildings of up to 4 stories. Of course, this is theoretical, and I don't believe someone would hire a non-civil engineer to plan a multi-story building, but, nevertheless, this is a fun fact to share :)

Also, buildings with more than 4 stories MUST have an elevator. In a 4 story they can provide only stairs. Everything around here (houses included) is made of concrete, so I don't know anything about regulations like sauril said.
posted by qvantamon at 3:34 PM on April 3, 2006

Around here in CT, most towns and/or cities have 3- or 4-story zoning limits on height. You aren't getting a variance on that to build a 10-story apartment building.

Also, at some point you need to add elevators and that is very expensive.
posted by smackfu at 3:35 PM on April 3, 2006

I live in Northern Virginia near DC and I can think of many multi-storey condos. But, till recently, this was not really necessary because there was a lot of land. The DC suburbs are still spreading out and unlike, say, London and NYC, there is still land to build on. In DC, no building may be taller than Congress but there is no such restriction over the river in N. Va.
posted by TheRaven at 3:38 PM on April 3, 2006

We have high rise condos here in Chicago. I'm about to move into a 5 story one (not considered a high rise), but there's tons, especially along the area bordering Lake Michigan, that are 30+ floors.
posted by twiggy at 3:48 PM on April 3, 2006

I think it's got more to do with the number of units developers want to build rather than number of floors.
posted by rschroed at 4:04 PM on April 3, 2006

I think your premise is probably flawed - How do you know which buildings you see are condos? My impression is that in most major cities in the US, condos are everything from 4-unit buildings to multi-hundred unit high-rises.

That being said, out in the 'burbs, high-rises are generally not as popular because people move there in part to escape dense urban living. With which other countries are you specifically comparing the US? I seem to recall similar development patterns in most major European cities I have seen.

"The Power Broker" talks about high v. low density development at length, though only examining the case of New York City and its suburbs.
posted by mzurer at 4:05 PM on April 3, 2006

Steven Landsburg has discussed this one. Kind of.
posted by etc. at 4:40 PM on April 3, 2006

Best answer: The big cities here in Texas are having a boom in high rise condos. Nonetheless, the cost of land is so cheap relative to the cost of construction that the high-rises tend to be priced out of the reach of most people -- they are intended for the wealthy who want a luxurious hassle-free in-town lifestyle. Affordable housing tends to be spread out and low-rise. Although they are very high-visibility, these high-rise units represent a fraction of the market here.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:33 PM on April 3, 2006

Best answer: In some areas, building codes say that buildings that are taller then 3 stories have to provide alternative exits in case of fire. So a lot of buildings are three stories tall so they don't have to have dual exits or fire escapes. I'm not sure if this is in the Universal Building Code or not, but I'm pretty sure a lot of states follow this.
posted by jefeweiss at 5:33 PM on April 3, 2006

Also, you'll find that across the US, terminology such as "condos", "townhouses" and "co-ops" (to some extent) don't describe the structure of a facility as much as it describes the way it's governed. I live in a condo building in Chicago (15 floors, btw); I rent from an owner in the building, who owns the apartment and is able to vote in building association meetings (the association takes care of common area responsibilities - front door staff, maintenance, etc.). My mom lives in what is also called a condo but it's a single-family unit (with three floors) attached to four other units in a block formation. Her condo association manages parking and snow removal, and that's about it. My uncle owned a townhouse in a townhouse association that did similar.
posted by cajo at 8:00 PM on April 3, 2006

What qvantamon said about elevators. And buildings with elevators need to be a whole lot more rigid than those without, meaning it's uneconomic to build small ones.
posted by cillit bang at 2:15 AM on April 4, 2006

Best answer: Here in Milwaukee, there are several 20+ story condos currently under construction. In fact several 20+ story apartment buildings have been converted into condos to make quick cash for developers. It really depends on the location. Obviously in a downtown area, a tall condo tower makes more sense because the value of land is higher but if you are in places where the land value is lower, it doesn't make sense to build. Taller buildings = higher construction costs. They also require specialized union construction workers to build, which means that you can't have cheap, unskilled laborers working on them like with 2-story wood-frame buildings.
posted by JJ86 at 6:24 AM on April 4, 2006

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