How the Affordable Housing Crisis is Causing a Construction Design Lull

America’s housing designs have put cost ahead of aesthetics and have created entire cities of cookie cutter apartments. 
Joe Carter

If you think every apartment community these days looks pretty much the same, you’re not wrong. It’s not just your imagination—since 2009, America’s housing designs have put cost ahead of aesthetics and have created entire cities of cookie cutter apartments. 

While using the same layout design for every project puts more money in the pockets of contracts and developers, is the design homogeneity of apartments across the country really what’s best for America’s struggling housing market?

What’s The Five-Over-One Plan?

Take a walk down almost any city and you’ll see the exact same apartment community design. The construction design goes by many names: five-over-one, one-plus-five, podium buildings, wraps, or the Texas Doughnut. Whatever the name, they all follow the same rigid design specifications. Depending on the city’s building codes, they may require a modulated and varying exterior to avoid design repetition—but other than that, the structure is the same no matter the city you’re in.

Five-over-one buildings are a type of multifamily, mid-rise building. They’re constructed with four or five wood-frame stories building on top of a concrete foundation. This style of building construction became popular in 2009 after a change to the International Building Code. The revision allowed up to five stories of wood-framed construction instead of the previous limitation.

  • Cost-Effective. Compared to steel and concrete costs, constructing a podium-style building is much less expensive for the contractors and developers.
  • Quicker Construction. The repetitive style makes it easier for construction workers to finish the build efficiently. This keeps projects running on time and allows property owners to start charging rent quicker. 
  • Sustainable. Because five-over-ones primarily use wood and concrete as construction materials, they’re more eco-friendly than steel.  
  • Higher Resident Density. This housing design allows more units to be built in a single building, giving property owners more potential rent revenue.
  • Easy Material. Wood is much easier to work with than steel or concrete. If contractors make a mistake, it can quickly be fixed. And since working with wood often doesn’t require unionized trade workers, contractors can find labor easier and much cheaper. 

Problems With Five-Over-Ones

On the surface, the five-over-one style may seem like the best option for contractors and developers. But being able to build something quickly and cheaply usually doesn’t create the best environment for the people actually living in the buildings. Some common problems five-over-one buildings face include: 

  • High Fire Risk. The downside to building an entire building with a wooden frame is the increased potential for fires. Many cities have called for stricter fire safety regulations for this style of wood-framed buildings since there have been instances of large fires in five-over-one plans. 
  • Mold and Mildew Damage. This is a big problem in cities like Seattle that have a rainier climate. Since wood expands and contracts with the weather and the humidity level, wood buildings are prone to cracking. This makes these buildings prone to water damage—and often costing massive amounts in insurance claims and repairs. 
  • Bland Style. This mass-produced style has led to a homogenized style in cities around the country. Architects and developers have sacrificed unique styles and designs for lower costs and higher tenant density.

Five-Over-One’s Impact On Affordable Housing

While the five-over-one design may not be the most exciting design style in architectural history, it does serve a much-needed purpose. 

Cities all over the United States are currently struggling with an extreme shortage of affordable housing. The increase in demand for both single-family housing and apartments in large cities have driven the cost of housing up significantly. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the United States needs a minimum of 7.2 million more affordable housing units in order for all Americans to have a safe and stable housing option. But the traditional rule of allotting 30 percent of one’s income to housing is long gone—it’s not uncommon to see rent-burdened households forced to spend more than half of their income on rent. 

America’s affordable housing crisis has forced the compact construction style to be a necessity in large cities with limited amounts of available space. 

Take a look at Seattle. Around three-quarters of Seattle’s residential land is zoned for detached, single-family homes—leaving only one-quarter of remaining property to house the majority of people. This means that new apartment communities are forced to build in small areas of the city and to hold more people. Since the five-over-one design allows more residents to live on a smaller patch of land, many people see the dense shared housing to be the solution to rising housing construction costs and rent problems. 

Even though construction styles like the five-over-one help to provide cheaper housing to more people, fixing the affordable housing crisis will be an uphill battle for many cities. Addressing zoning limitations that restrict multifamily developments and dense single-family developments, high developing fees and problematic permitting restrictions are only part of the affordable housing solution. It will take long-term collaborations between governments and developers as well as extreme policy changes for the American Dream to actually be achievable by lower-income families and households—five-over-ones are just a small piece of the puzzle.

Is Cutting Construction Costs Worth It?

Housing design styles naturally change over time. But every state, city and borough used to have its own unique architectural flair. Unfortunately, the change to constructing larger buildings with smaller units for a lower cost comes at a price. Every era is often remembered by the architecture it leaves behind—and this era’s architectural style probably is better off forgotten. 


Joe has over two decades of experience in the construction industry. From putting in man-hours as a laborer to managing entire construction crews across North Carolina, he is passionate about helping others create safer, more efficient work sites.