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"Real doors" give human scale to large apartment buildings

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."

"Real doors" in Portland. All photos by the author unless noted.

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:


Ground-floor apartment at Halstead Square in Merrifield.

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.

Tall stoops at Citron in Silver Spring.

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.


Ground-floor duplexes at the Market Common in Clarendon.

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.

"Real doors" with private yards at the Silverton. Image from Google Street View.

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.


These rowhouses at Eliot Tower in Portland have raised decks.

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.

Rowhouses with yards at the Meriwether in Portland.

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.


Less-than-great "real doors" at Lofts 24 in Silver Spring. Image from Google Street View.

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.

Check out these examples of "real doors" from around the region and country.

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.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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If you'd like an example from DC, there are "real doors" on several units in the new Flats At Atlas apartments on Bladesnburg Rd near Trinidad/H Street NE.

by Matt Ashburn on Jan 11, 2013 12:00 pm • linkreport

My building in Logan Circle has "real doors" on the ground floor units

by inlogan on Jan 11, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

And at The Foundry at the Yards.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 11, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

Back in my day we called them porches.

But snark aside this is a welcome development even if it does prove the superiority of the old ways. One of the reasons I relish the opportunity to move back to Richmond one day is the opportunity for an awesome porch.

by drumz on Jan 11, 2013 12:06 pm • linkreport

Also there are nice examples coming up down by Dunn-Loring across from the Mosaic District.

by drumz on Jan 11, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity, Matt, inlogan

I do like the ground-floor units at the Foundry. They have little fenced-off yards, which I appreciate. I'll also have to check out the ones at the Flats at Atlas - the last time I was over there, I didn't notice them (the building wasn't finished yet).


I do love those porches in Richmond. I mean, I love a lot of things about Richmond, but that's a good place to start.

by dan reed! on Jan 11, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

Interesting (and I think beneficial) trend here! But I still wonder why the real thing (large plats subdivided into 15'-40' wide lots on which many builders would self-evidently need to provide frequent entrances) is no longer really being done:

I notice that most "real door" buildings seem to lean towards being superblocks, and the self-conscious inducement of repeating stoops or doors is an understandable desire to overcome the urban design disadvantages of superblock-style development. So why not go the non-superblock route: has the old pattern of small-lot urban development become economically or politically infeasible or something?

by Marc on Jan 11, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport

So why not go the non-superblock route: has the old pattern of small-lot urban development become economically or politically infeasible or something?
There are places where there is small-lot stuff going on, mostly greenfield development like these houses near the Morgan Boulevard metro:

If you're talking about closer to the city core, well all that land has basically been build up once with the exception of a few large parcels.

If a developer comes into a big parcel that could be divided into small lots, if it's in the city core then it is near high-capacity transit and therefore can house many more people than small-lot development can handle. And you can make more money with a big building. So you build a big building.

by MLD on Jan 11, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

Agree with the overall point but I have to suggest: 'private entrances' or 'unit entrances'. All doors are 'real doors'. What else could they be? Unreal doors?

by renegade09 on Jan 11, 2013 2:00 pm • linkreport

Rational and irrational doors?

by selxic on Jan 11, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

Fire exit only doors that are never walked in and out of except in an emergency.

by drumz on Jan 11, 2013 2:18 pm • linkreport

MLD, maybe I should have used a picture of non-rowhouse narrow lot development:

I was thinking more of the kind of urban fabric in which narrow lots accommodate mixed-used stuff from 5 to 20+ floors. Is this also not really economical anymore?

I'd argue that, depending on the locality, superblock buildings might be the defacto development strategy because an accumulation of codes (like parking regs!), financing rules, and various municipal incentives seem to push that strategy (like combining multiple small lots and awarding the resulting huge parcel to a colossus out-of-town developer at the expense of a milieu of smaller-scale builders who would be able to work with smaller lots.)

Save for the occasional narrow lot infill project, even most new rowhouse developments are built en masse (the example you cited). Are there really no small-time developers who want to work with smaller lots on a finer grain (and make a profit at it), or is it because an accumulation of bad policy and practice has killed them off in favor of big orgs who can only work with enormous plats?

by Marc on Jan 11, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

drumz, fire exit only doors are still real in that they are tangible, demonstrating why it's not just a pedantic point: 'real doors' is just a terrible name for what the author is discussing. All doors are real doors, unless we're talking about 'the doors of perception'.

by renegade09 on Jan 11, 2013 2:32 pm • linkreport

As a follow-up, two examples of the municipal megadevelopment strategy I can think of off the top of my head are (1) the Superblock (yes, that is the official name!) boondoggle in Baltimore in which several viable narrow-lot buildings are/were collected and held by the city - at the expense of disgruntled merchants - to be combined into one large parcel to woo a huge developer to build a tower, and (2) the redevelopment strategy promoted by Baltimore in various blighted areas for a big-time rehabilitator to take control of hundreds of derelict rowhouses and rehab them in huge batches (Barclay, for example), rather than encouraging a milieu of smaller-scale guys to do this on a more piecemeal basis. I suspect the superblock/"big batch" strategy is promoted partially because it is easier for the city to administer such programs, but the results are often subpar (Baltimore is still waiting...)

by Marc on Jan 11, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

Front doors?

There are a whole lot of incentives & requirements in the zoning code that push toward large projects. "Public use space" requirements, for example, and most of all the large expense of getting approval for mixed-use buildings which doesn't scale with project size. In Montgomery, mixed use development is explicitly forbidden on smaller lots.

by Ben Ross on Jan 11, 2013 2:39 pm • linkreport

The term "real doors" comes from Brent Toderian:

I think it works because these doors serve as actual primary entrances to their apartments—sometimes you can reach them from inside the building, sometimes not. The alternative ("fake doors?") would be when apartment buildings have ground-floor patios with sliding doors that aren't meant to be used as entrances (you can't open them from outside) or are fenced off so you can only access them from inside.

by dan reed! on Jan 11, 2013 2:42 pm • linkreport

What do you envision?

There are examples in DC where a small developer has bought and renovated a group of 3 or 4 rowhouses. But you won't see people tearing old houses down to build three the same size, because there's no profit in it.

As for why there aren't greenfield developments of small lots like that, it's because owners don't want to subdivide, and bigger developers can realize bigger economies of scale so they can outbid the smaller guys.

Why isn't there urban fabric in DC like that picture of SoHo?
1. There are places like that, in the older CBD:
2. High-capacity transit infrastructure is older and more widespread in NYC. So there are plenty of older (early 20th century) buildings that are 5-7 stories. In DC there was only bus service in much of the city until the 1970s, so the CBD stayed relatively low-rise, no massive influx of workers so no massive rise in height yet.
3. The height limit. In NYC it's not economical to tear down 7-story buildings en-masse to replace them with something that's 15 stories tall, because you can just find a big parcel and build a 40 or 70 story building. In DC it is economical because you can only go up to 12-13 stories. Heck, now it's even economical to tear down a 12 story building and replace it with a new one, prices are so high.

by MLD on Jan 11, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

I remember standing outside Lofts 24 while walking around SS with an architect and being dumbfounded by what, exactly, that door did. It sure looked like some sort of fire stair at the time; thanks for clarifying that it's access to those units.

Lofts 590, the first street-fronting building at Crystal City to include exterior apartment entrances, won a CNU Charter Award in 2007 largely for that fact. Those entrances create a huge contrast to the objects-in-space buildings surrounding it.

by Payton on Jan 11, 2013 2:44 pm • linkreport

Yeah, their might be a better name (hence my joke about calling them porches which is what they are).

by drumz on Jan 11, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport


I forgot all about Lofts 590! They're an excellent example of what I'm talking about, though it seems like the units don't have any private outdoor space.

by dan reed! on Jan 11, 2013 3:48 pm • linkreport

Lofts 590 is nice because they built around the perimeter of an existing tower-in-the-park. Odyssey, near Courthouse is another nice example, but rather than the street-facing units being a retrofit, the townhouses along Scott street were built that way at the same time the high-rise behind it was built. I think the backs of the townhouses share structured parking with the tower that is accessed via a back patio or deck.

by Bill Cook on Jan 11, 2013 4:29 pm • linkreport

I'm late to the thread, but here is a definite example of fake doors—it's not residential, though:

by David Alpert on Jan 11, 2013 4:48 pm • linkreport

View Larger Map

Two other great example of "fake doors" are on the 22 West building, where there are doors that lead to porches above, and the Whitman, below. The Whitman's massing where you can't see the huge building behind it, is admirable.

View Larger Map

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 11, 2013 6:49 pm • linkreport

What real benefit does this actually give to you compared to having to go into the building?

How does this effect the maintenance of the building? Say the maintenance people are going floor to floor doing stuff doesn't this kind of disadvantage them as they would have to go outside.

What about connecting with other neighbors in the building; its not as easy to leave you apartment/house then go inside the building and then up an elevator or stairs versus walking outside your door to elevator or stairs taking either to floor and then going to residence.

One thing bad about all those shown is the steps what about those in wheelchairs.

by kk on Jan 11, 2013 11:04 pm • linkreport

"I'm late to the thread, but here is a definite example of fake doors—it's not residential, though:"

A big problem with many of the 'classic' ('legacy'?) downtown buildings is they *were* built with numerous entrances that are now all closed due to security concerns.

by Kolohe on Jan 12, 2013 1:34 pm • linkreport

Dan - don't forget some examples from 1942. Parkfairfax (condo/rentals) in Alexandria, VA - everyone has their own door - lots of common green space (no fences) - considered high density in the 50's - spacious by today's standards.
What is old is new again.

by Kate on Jan 12, 2013 3:56 pm • linkreport

I don't know too much about them but I think when they tore down some of the older buildings in Crystal City on S. Eades between S. Eades and Fern they might have done something like this. Also, I think the Hine School project at Eastern Market uses that approach on 8th street - at least it looks that way.

by ET on Jan 14, 2013 2:37 pm • linkreport

I wish that rather than all this, we could just have a whole lot more ground-floor retail. I'd much rather look at shops and grocery stores and restaurants than blank apartment facades.

by MetroDerp on Jan 18, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

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