Stepped housing for steep slopes

Terraced house in Kauttua, Eura, Finland, 1937-1938. Photo by Maija Holma, Alvar Aalto Museum, Copyright 2019

A few years ago, the Salisbury Planning and Zoning Commission met to consider an amendment forbidding housing, or other building, to be constructed on moderate or steep slopes. While I appreciated the good intentions behind the proposed rule change, I spoke before the Commission opposing the amendment thinking it a poorly considered idea; it seemed to me arbitrary and a potential barrier to possible outstanding schemes for better housing on overlooked sites. My objections notwithstanding, the current Salisbury Planning and Zoning Code (302.1) now prohibits building on slopes exceeding 25%. But such slopes are common in the Northwest Corner and ought not to be ruled out as possible building sites. Perhaps the Planning and Zoning Commission might reconsider this regulation.

Although such properties seldom come cheap, housing developers usually try to find flat, treeless, easily accessible sites that can be built on quickly and inexpensively. Architects on the other hand (few of whom could afford expensive land) tend to seek sites, whether for themselves or others, which have been overlooked and can be acquired for a more modest price: often a leftover, steep hillside parcel.

Such a site usually offers possibilities for a more interesting design than a flatter site would. Of course the property must conform to zoning regulations and offer reasonable access, but in the right hands, a steeply sloping lot can often become an asset rather than a liability. One only has to remember the mountainside in western Pennsylvania where Frank Lloyd Wright created his most famous residential masterpiece, Fallingwater.

Steeply sloped sites can work for more than one-of-a-kind single family houses. In Europe, Japan and South America, some of the best multi-family housing has been built on mountainside slopes, some as “high” as 15 stories; but in reality, they are usually only one story high since they are typically fitted to the slope in such a way that each floor is at grade level. This permits the density of a small skyscraper with construction that is melded into the landscape. A progenitor of this type of building is the Mediterranean hill town, such as Positano, where individual houses attach to a steep hill and come together as a well-integrated whole fitting the slope.

An apartment building that steps back at each level offers a special bonus: the “roof,” or a significant portion of it at each level, can be an outdoor terrace for the level above.

The great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed a series of 11 handsome five-story apartment buildings on a mountainside, for workers at a nearby paper mill, in 1938. No elevators were necessary, access to the apartments is from grade at each level (see photo.) Unfortunately, only one building was completed because of the forthcoming war the following year and occupation of Finland by Russia. 

In a mountainous landscape such as the Northwest Corner, there are numerous steep hillsides that would make excellent sites for individual, single-family houses, multi-family housing, or mixed use buildings. One that comes to mind is a densely wooded parcel between the St. Mary’s Church parking lot in Lakeville and the dead end of Perry Street, downhill. It would seem to be appropriate for a small apartment building of several floors, each at grade, of either affordable or market rate housing. It might be accessible from either end. Another might be the open hillside just south of the former Chaiwalla Tea House on the west side of Main Street in Salisbury; this would lend itself to a mixed use building with commercial facilities at the street level and housing stepping back above. There are other potential sites for stepped housing in Lakeville and Salisbury and more in the hillier towns nearby.

For buildings of more than a few stories, the special ingredient of this type of structure is the inclined elevator. These are well known in Europe (i.e. at the Eiffel Tower) but are still rare in the United States. While more expensive than vertical elevators, they are becoming more common and being installed more and more in North America, the greater cost no longer being a major obstacle. In the housing shown in the photo, stairs and elevators were not needed, thereby reducing the cost of more difficult hillside construction.

Buildings that step back can be as varied as other types of structures; they can be large or small, narrow or wide, two stories or multi-storied. They can be designed to fit the particular site and program. But almost always they are visually a “low profile” solution; they don’t stick up in the sky, cast shadows on their neighbors or dominate their landscapes. They usually fit in to their surroundings extremely well.


Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.