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More on the great balcony debate

My super scientific Twitter balcony survey has revealed that most people seem to like balconies and terraces. Out of the 257 people that voted (not a huge number), 77.4% said that if they were in the market to buy or rent a new place, they would probably want a balcony or terrace. I realize now that my wording could have been more precise. Either way, the results seem to suggest a clear preference.

But there are all sorts of reasons for why you might want to avoid building balconies: energy performance, upfront costs, long-term maintenance, usability at high elevations, overall aesthetics, and so on. In fact, I once had an architect turn down a job because they don’t typically work on residential buildings and, when they do, they refuse to work on ones that have balconies. He told me that they don’t want the liability.

But then what inevitably happens is that the sales and marketing team joins the design meeting and says, “yeah, we hear what you’re saying, but people like outdoor spaces.” And then the great debate starts. Okay, so what percentage of the suites should have an outdoor space? What about a sliding glass well? I think so-and-so is doing it on their project. Yeah, but they’re real expensive and they leak air.

The reality is that there are many buildings without private outdoor spaces and there are many cities where it is common not to build them. Moreover, my Twitter survey doesn’t really tell you exactly how people might behave when they’re about to make a purchasing decision. What you really want are data points and things like A/B tests.

Let’s take for example two typical/identical 600 square foot suites, with the only difference being that one has a balcony and the other doesn’t. Now let’s say that the one with a balcony is selling for $1,400 psf or $840,000 and the one without a balcony is selling for $1,350 psf or $810,000. Will some of the 77.4% that voted balcony/terrace possibly buy the $810,000 suite? Of course. Because it’s less expensive.

So how does one go about making the right decision when it comes to designing for outdoor spaces? Well, in some cases, you won’t have a choice. We have had instances where the City has asked us (okay, forced us) to remove all of the balconies on a particular elevation because they didn’t fit with the urban design aesthetic that they wanted for the streetscape. That always pisses me off.

That aside, my view — and this is just my opinion — is that you can’t generalize when trying to make this decision. You need to carefully consider who your customer is or will be. I’ve written before about the divide between investor demand and end-user demand in residential buildings. It impacts design, and outdoor spaces are no different.

If you take for example Junction House, it is a predominately end-user building. That’s who we thought would be buying and that is who bought. When the team was designing the two-storey House Collection, the intent was to create a kind of substitute for low-rise housing. And so these homes had to have outdoor spaces (they have terraces). This was never a question or a debate.

Similarly, one of the reasons why One Delisle looks the way that it does is because the team set out to create unique terraces, as well as varying outdoor spaces, all throughout the tower. The thinking was, “people like terraces in mid-rise buildings, like Junction House, so let’s figure out how to do that in a high-rise building typology.”

At the same time, we have suites with Juliet balconies at Junction House and it is certainly true that the above recipes may not be suitable for every project. Again, there are lots of buildings without private outdoor spaces, including ones that have sold during this pandemic. One of the things that I have also discovered is that common area outdoor spaces and nearby green spaces can have an impact on whether or not people feel they need private outdoor space.

All of this to say that one size does not fit all. Which is probably why this topic remains such a great debate.

Note: I am making a distinction between balconies and terraces. Balconies typically cantilever out from a building and are not insulated. Terraces, on the other hand, are typically a roof condition in that they sit above a conditioned space. This usually means that the concrete slab will need to get “built up” with insulation and paving. A drainage system will also be required.

Image: Junction House

1 Comment so far

  1. Trebecca

    This is a really great post. I would just like to add, I specifically moved to a more expensive apartment with a balcony due to the outside areas of the one I was living in (large parking lot, litter, smokers) being undesirable. I wanted to be able to get fresh air and sunlight into what tends a small dark tunnel (most apartments I’ve lived in) without disturbing or being disturbed by others. Not living near any metroparks or bike trails also played a role in my decision making.
    It should be said though – at least in my experience, nicer areas have balconies, where lower-income housing and poorer areas don’t. It’s almost as if the balconies themselves (or the availability of other types of green spaces nearby) are indicative of the type of income level/race/education level you can expect to live there. People who can afford it have balconies with two chairs, an umbrella and some flowers, and those who can’t afford to pay or spend the time enjoying their little slice of the outdoors typically don’t. It’s easy to deny, but it’s typically the style of the built area that tells us all we need to know about the people who live there, even if we’re just passing through.


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