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Take advantage of compact building design

Multi-story buildings provide more space and potential funding for amenities like parks and preserve areas. (Image from WaterColor in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida).


Why are “compact” buildings important?

While the word “compact” might make life sound cramped or unpleasant, the intent of this principle is to improve quality of life and environmental outcomes. There are many complicated and unforeseen tradeoffs involved in building the large, low-rise buildings that dominate the suburbs. Compact building design can save money, energy and time while making places more livable. Compact buildings use land efficiently and wisely, allowing residents to be closer to work, school and businesses thereby reducing commuting times and aggravation. Efficient use of land also can provide more room for the things we care about, like parks, bike trails, playgrounds and environmental amenities. Most importantly, efficient design makes efficient use of our time thereby providing more leisure time to spend with friends and family. Compact buildings play a critical role in developing dense, livable communities.

Compact buildings can provide a very high quality of life. This residence in the Cotton District of Starkville, MS integrates interior and exterior spaces creating a manageable courtyard garden and a compelling adjacent porch. The home is reminiscent of the Charleston single house style originated in Charleston, SC.

What is density and why does it matter?

When planners, designers or developers discuss “density,” they’re usually talking about the number of housing units per acre of land. Obviously, this is a number that has to be reviewed carefully because there are places where much of the land shouldn’t or can’t be developed. While there is no magic number when it comes to units per acre, the overall idea is to try to make towns and urban places efficient, livable and dense to reduce the amount of spread into the suburbs and surrounding rural areas. These surrounding areas often contain critical farmland, natural areas and wildlife habitat. Creating density in towns and urban areas helps to preserve these areas for future generations, but it also can help to create an improved quality of life for residents.


Make efficient and appropriate use of space

More space isn’t always better. The larger our homes and properties are, the more time and money is required for commuting as well as furnishing, cleaning, maintaining them. Smaller, well-designed indoor and outdoor spaces can often provide greater satisfaction. Would you like to spend your weekends cleaning, maintaining and repairing? Or have more free time to spend with friends and family? It’s easy to forget these tradeoffs when choosing a place to live, but our happiness depends on understanding the long-term consequences of our design and development choices both individually and as a community.

Consider the long-term consequences of development decisions

Inefficient use of land has long-term impacts in the form of additional infrastructure costs for roads, bridges, utilities and police and fire protection. Efficient, compact design can help to keep everyone’s tax burden lower by reducing the amount of infrastructure required. While it may be tempting for communities to develop on inexpensive land in suburban or rural areas, the true cost of such development must be weighed and carefully considered. This is especially true for civic facilities like schools, libraries and public buildings that can be used to promote compatible private development when located properly, but can be a long-term liability when the location isn’t carefully considered.

Locating civic buildings in the existing town center provides spillover effect as employees and visitors dine at local restaurants and shop at adjacent stores. The Oxford Mississippi Courthouse Square has local, state and federal government offices in close proximity.
Use multi-story buildings to define space, create character and keep streets active

One of the ways that we can distinguish Main Street or downtown from the rest of the community is through the use of multi-story buildings. Taller buildings create a more well-defined, urban and distinct spatial character. For downtown streets and retail districts, it’s useful to consider the ratio of building height to street width. The basic idea is that the wider the street is, the taller the surrounding buildings need to be to create a well-defined character for the street. Typically, the upper floors are used for either office or residential use; these residents and workers provide regular customers for downtown businesses and help to keep the area safe and active even when businesses are closed.

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