If you’ve ever wondered why most new apartment buildings look like carbon copies of each other, there is a method behind the madness. 

In the 1980s, many American cities only provided a limited amount of space for the construction of multi-person dwellings. In places like Seattle, only a quarter of residential land was zoned for multi-story buildings while the rest was reserved for single-family homes. It wasn’t until 1986 that developers could begin building high-rise towers in the Emerald City.

Like Seattle, various U.S. cities experienced a boom in demand for affordable housing, but zoning and building codes remained an obstacle. In a more highly populated place like Los Angeles, developers had more room to construct high rise residential spaces, but they also had more codes to abide by.

In the late 90s, Los Angeles-based architect Tim Smith found a change in one of the city’s building codes as he sought ways to bring his 100 unit affordable housing project to life. The problem he faced was the cost of materials that were deemed suitable to build a high rise. The change in construction code said developers could now use non-combustible wood to construct buildings up to five stories.

Previously, developers were limited to just two stories.

Smith also had the idea to start with a concrete base which would make the building even taller. In 1996, he began construction on Casa Heiwa in Hawaii using what is now known as the five-over-one or one-plus-five construction style for the "type 5" wood frame construction over a "type 1" concrete podium described in the International Building Code.

East Coast Adoption and Beyond

On the East Coast, things moved just a bit slower. The room to build multi-story dwellings in a city like New York was limited with the already existing density and developers usually facing strict local codes.

The Federal Government recognizing the 2000 International Building Code would help lead the way for the type of construction to spread, allowing for updates to building codes across the country, including the crowded Northeast.

At the turn of the millennium, Smith’s five-over-one development plan really began to take off. Buildings were popping up, required to have distinct facades to keep large swathes of neighborhoods from blandly looking the same, but many were installed with similar cheap windows and side paneling. 

Demand for affordable housing steadily rose through the 2000s, and the now popular construction style allowed for providing 200 apartments where codes permitted in places like California. It was indeed a game changer for the housing market, but the downside, from state to state, the buildings typically looked the same. And there were other problems beyond the aesthetic.

Five-Over-Ones Still Pose a Risk

The National Association of Home Builders said that in 2017, more than 187,000 housing projects with more than 50 apartments were completed. It was the most substantial multi-dwelling construction boom since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking in 1972.

While the five-over-ones allowed builders to pull off the expensive, high-rise look with cheap materials, the use of noncombustible wood still posed its own set of problems. One of the major drawbacks for the material is that it expands and contracts based on the day’s weather. Temperature changes and moisture can potentially lead to major damages like leaks, ruined carpeting, and even massive holes in the structure. 

Add to that, though the wood is treated to be noncombustible, the material is still feared to be a major fire risk. In 2016, Atlanta suburbs attempted to ban the construction of wood-framed high-rise buildings, with detractors citing, among other issues, fire safety fears. Ultimately, the state legislature shut down the ban attempt in 2018.

Video produced by Ali Larkin and John Tejada. Article written by Lawrence Banton.

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