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Should every apartment or flat have a balcony?

Maybe, but we need balconies done right.

Apartment balconies can be wonderful things; having a café au lait on the one designed by Le Corbusier at the Unité d'habitation de Marseille was an experience I will treasure. On CityLab, Linda Poon writes A Lesson from Social Distancing: Build Better Balconies and makes the case for them, speaking with Brent Toderian:

“There are a lot of benefits to balconies from the perspective of livability, lovability, mental health, and the enjoyment of living in urban settings — even before the pandemic,” says Vancouver-based city-planning consultant Brent Toderian. For one thing, “they connect homes in higher-density cities to the streets and to the outdoors.”

Poon says, “Balconies symbolize new kinds of freedom — to embrace social isolation without feeling trapped, and to enjoy fresh air without worrying about breathing in the virus.” But really, much depends on the balcony and the building. Toderian talks about the different kinds of balconies, such as the “Juliet” balconies that are really just windows with a rail around them; in Lisbon, they are great for drying clothes. The usual North American balcony is about six feet deep, which Toderian thinks is enough to “comfortably fit tables and chairs, and maybe even a grill.” In fact, I always thought that was too shallow, and that it was picked because it was economical with reinforcing steel.

Make them outdoor rooms.

In my short career as a real estate developer doing a small building overlooking a park, I made all the balconies eight feet deep, which I thought was the minimum one needed to properly furnish it. I also put water for plants and a gas line for barbecues on every one, another reason I lost a fortune on this building. So all the owners had a big quiet balcony overlooking a park, and all they have to listen to are the million dogs.

Building next to highway with glass balconiesWho would sit on that balcony? /Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But just a couple of blocks away, you have shallow balconies hanging over an elevated expressway; go out on it and you have noise and pollution, and on the higher floors, the wind, and even on the one day per year that there are bikes instead of cars and there is something interesting to watch, not a person on them. Are these balconies useful, even in a pandemic? I am not so sure, especially given the cost. Because the pandemic isn't the only crisis on the table.

Gimme a thermal break.

Perhaps the most famous balconies in North America are on the Aqua Tower in Chicago, which John Lorinc described as “a cascading sequence of asymmetrical fins that project from the façade.” On the other hand, Professor Ted Kesik described them as “architectural pornography: Take your clothes off, attach a series of highly conductive fins, like the kind they put on motorcycle engines, to the skeleton of your body, and go stand outside in January.” That is what these balconies are, radiator fins, heating up Chicago and every other city that permits them. They also make the interior of the apartment uncomfortable, with a really cold floor for the first three or four feet, cold enough to promote condensation and mold.

There is a solution; it's called a thermal break. You can see the cold (refrigerated) outside balcony with the ice cream in the foreground and the warm interior in the background. But it is not required by law in North America and it is expensive. As a representative from the manufacturer Schöck told me a few years ago,

The customer wants hardwood flooring and a granite kitchen counter and for that they pay. No one is interested in the R-value for windows or the balcony. As long as the energy prices are so low in North America and the clients buy what the market provides, it is doubtful that there will be a change in thinking about energy efficiency.

Learn from Vienna

courtyard with gardenCourtyard in Seestadt Aspern/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In Vienna, every balcony has a thermal break, and every apartment has a balcony; it is a requirement for fire safety on buildings under eight stories, where they only have one stair in the center of the building. The exterior walls are fire-rated so if there is a fire, you go out on the balcony and get picked off by the fire department. But they are deep and comfortable; here you see they are even supported by their own columns instead of being cantilevers. That makes it much easier and cheaper to do the thermal break – it is almost free-standing. They are not hanging over a busy street or highway like they usually do in North America, where single-family zoning means apartments aren't allowed in the nice parts of town.

Balconies done right.

balcony set up for dinner with dogMy daughters balcony, 8′ wide, big enough for dinner and dog/ Design Workshop Architecture, photo Emma Alter/CC BY 2.0

So, to circle around to the original question, should every apartment or flat have a balcony? Brent Toderian concludes by asking “how to do them well now that we've had this learned experience from being forced to stay home?” He's known for his phrase Density done right; I am going to paraphrase him and say we need Balconies done right. Yes, apartments should have balconies, but they should be built right, deep enough to use, and with a thermal break. The buildings should be the right height (not so high that you can't be heard singing or banging the pots for the health care workers) and in the right place, not on noisy main streets or hanging over highways.

Unite d'habitation de Marseille exterior showing balconiesUnite d'habitation de Marseille/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Learn from the master.

Maybe, but we need balconies done right.