Houses have their perks: a yard, a private entrance, and a sense of individuality. Apartments have theirs as well: they’re affordable, low-
maintenance, and have lots of shared amenities. What if you could get best of both worlds? Apartment communities being built in the area are doing just that with something called “real doors.”
What are “real doors”? Basically, it’s when a multi-family building contains ground-floor apartments or rowhouses with private entrances opening directly to the street. Instead of walking by blank walls or loading docks, you’d pass doors, stoops, porches and more importantly, people.
This is by no means a new idea, but “real doors” have become especially relevant as a way to give large buildings human scale. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl notes that our field of view doesn’t go far above eye level, so most pedestrians only pay attention to details at the street level. You might think you’re walking by a block of rowhouses, but they could just be the base of a high-rise.
"Real doors” also make streets safer by providing more “eyes on the street.” They give residents the privacy and individuality of a house with the communal amenities and low maintenance of an apartment. And they allow architects and developers to provide so-called “missing middle” house types that could accommodate families, like rowhouses, in areas where land values are so high that they’re not economically feasible.
I got to see the benefits of “real doors” firsthand in Philadelphia, where for two years I lived on the ground floor of a 100-year-old house that had been turned into apartments decades ago. My roommate and I had affordable rent, just enough space and a doting landlord. We could also walk out from our living room to the front porch, out to the street, and around to the back yard, which made it feel like a house.
"Real doors” have become part of the design culture in places like Vancouver, where former planning director Brent Toderian jokes that they’re great for trick-or-treating. Residential projects across Greater Washington have started including them as well, especially in White Flint, where it supports the urban design goals of its Sector Plan. Two projects being built there, Pike + Rose and Archstone Old Georgetown Road, will include them.
However, not all “real doors” are created equal. Done poorly, they can look like an afterthought, feel anonymous and compromise privacy. Let’s look at some examples from around the area and the country:
These are “real doors” at Halstead Square, an apartment and retail complex being built in Merrifield. (Check out some more pictures.) These doors belong to single-story, one-bedroom apartments, and each one has a little stoop and an address number. The floor-to-ceiling windows are nice, but they’re so close to the ground that people walking by can easily look in.
At Citron, an apartment building under construction in downtown Silver Spring, “real doors” help it relate to the single-family homes across the street. The ground-floor units are high enough to be private, which would’ve been a nice opportunity to expand those stoops into porches.
These ground-floor rowhouses at the Market Common in Clarendon each have different-colored doors, giving them their own identity. The building as a whole has similar materials and detailing as the actual rowhouses at the end of the block, helping it blend in.
These “real doors” at the Silverton in South Silver Spring are set back from the street, which provides room for a semi-private, gated patio with enough room for a table and chairs. Though they have big, low windows like Halstead Square, the trees help give shade and privacy. I might have made the doors themselves more distinctive, perhaps with a different paint color or frosted glass panels.
The best “real doors” I’ve found are on the West Coast. This is the Eliot Tower in downtown Portland, a tower with two-story rowhouses at its base. Each house has a front deck raised several steps above the street, and you can see how each deck has a tree or some leafy plants for privacy and visual impact.
At the Meriwether, a tower in Portland’s Southwest Waterfront, there are ground-floor rowhouses set behind little yards. Not only do they provide a buffer from the street, but they appear to be part of a bioswale that collects and filters runoff water before it heads to the Willamette River, a few hundred yards away. You can see each house has decks on multiple floors, giving it plenty of outdoor space. And residents have them their own, judging from these hot pink Adirondack chairs.
Believe it or not, this is the entrance to two ground-floor condominiums at Lofts 24, also in downtown Silver Spring. Other than the welcome mat outside the door on the right, there’s no indication that people actually live here.
Rather than a house, this feels like the entrance to a storage unit. There are no street numbers, no individual open space, and no buffer from the street. The only landscaping are bushes that cover the windows.
While these examples aren’t perfect, they show the opportunities and challenges of providing “real doors.” The scale of development in many urban neighborhoods has gotten bigger, but humans generally remain the same size, so we still have to design to that scale.
Not only can “real doors” make otherwise big buildings feel more comfortable, but they can make safer and more visually attractive streets and offer people a desirable mix of house and apartment living. That is, if we do them right.
This content was originally developed for the Friends of White Flint blog.