While the most common reason to build upward is a compressed lot, sites in larger cities are also becoming more irregularly shaped as urban areas grow more complex. Residences in expanding communities often straddle mixed-use areas where homes may be next to retail or fabrication shops, which often means designing around local setbacks and easements. The benefit of these urban locations, though, is living closer to the amenities a city provides like mass transit, shopping, and dining—a trend popular with young professionals.
Of course, if you have a more traditional site that isn't driving your layout, you may opt to build skinny to take advantage of views or counter a steep site. Common to areas with sensitive water sheds or flood plains, the ground floor is elevated with piles allowing the water to flow beneath, thereby driving a taller design.
Likely, the most beneficial reason to go for height is a reduction of site work. By minimizing your home's footprint, more of the site can be left in its natural state, which saves money and reduces water runoff. Whether you are challenged with a tight site or your dream home resembles a tree house, this roundup of homes highlights the many reasons to consider building up rather than out.
1. A-to-Z House
Architect: Spiegel Aihara Workshop
Location: San Francisco, California
From the architect: "The A-to-Z House proposes an alternative to conventional approaches for expanding an outmoded San Francisco home. Perched on a hillside in Golden Gate Heights, a modest single story 1934 developer vernacular structure had limited space and failed to take advantage of expansive views of Sutro Tower, Golden Gate Park, Sausalito, and the Bay. But rather than replacing or merely attaching to the existing structure, the A-to-Z strategy seizes upon the existing forms—scaling, repeating, and manipulating found objects into a contextual collection of structures comprising a dynamic home immersed in its surroundings."
2. Tower House
Location: New York
From the architect: "This small vacation house is designed as a stairway to the treetops. Keeping the footprint to a minimum so as not to disturb the wooded site, each of the first three floors has only one small bedroom and bath, each a tiny private suite. The top floor, which contains the living spaces, spreads out from the tower like the surrounding forest canopy, providing views of the lake and mountains in the distance, virtually the entire Catskill mountain range. The glass-enclosed stair highlights the procession from forest floor to treetop aerie, while the dark green enameled back-painted glass exterior camouflages the house by reflecting the surrounding woods, and dematerializing its form."
3. Totem House
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
From the architect: "A totem is sculptures within a sculpture. The totem in Totem House is a vertical gallery that exhibits John and Robert’s souvenirs from around the world. Each piece has been carefully measured and placed in a designated niche inside the Tower. An open wooden staircase connecting the three stories of the house gently circulates around the totem allowing one to observe the artworks from many different angles. During the day the skylight above the staircase naturally illuminates the totem, and at nighttime dedicated LED lights installed inside the niches light each piece. The totem naturally becomes the focal point in the house, as it is visible from every corner on all levels."
Architect: 510 Architects
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Located in the historic neighborhood of Church Hill, these skinny infill homes offer close proximity to walkable amenities and views to a wooded valley between Libby Hill and Chimborazo Park.
Architect: Works Progress Architecture
Location: Portland, Oregon
Located on Williams Avenue, a bustling, energy-filled neighborhood where the new melds with the existing character of the vintage homes. This modern home features a great livable layout where natural light floods in through the massive windows.
Location: Memphis, Tennessee
From the architect: "This urban residence is situated within a mixed-use development between the South Main Historic Arts District and the Mississippi River bluff. The small lot was carved from a recently completed development including a re-purposed warehouse into offices and four attached townhomes. The 3,750 sf home consists of four levels—a ground floor garage/office, a second-floor suite for the client’s mother and her caregiver, living and kitchen on the third, and a master suite on the fourth floor. The compact site exists between a railroad overpass to the North and an alley to the East, allowing shared vehicular access to the home. The overall massing is broken down using durable and low maintenance materials."
7. Lola House
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Lola House is a new single-family home on a once vacant, infill urban lot. The house reflects the industrial and working-class evolution of Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. With modern accents of red, the home features corrugated metal and cedar siding, a nod to the industrial heritage of the area.
Architect: nystrom + olson
Location: Spokane, Washington
From the architect: "Located adjacent to a wetland conservatory this residence is anchored to the hill and juts out to the park below. At 1,500 square feet, the simple form and taut metal skin houses a two bedroom two bath living space with a two car garage. A north facing inset deck area opens off the living room to bring the outside in with a view of the tree canopies beyond."
Architect: Francisco Garcia
Location: San Diego, California
This unique home takes advantage of its compact lot by building tall. The third floor's unique boat-bow balcony off the master suite offers a bit of whimsy overlooking this beachy neighborhood.
10. Modern Infill
Architect: BONE Structure
Location: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
From the architect: "Designed and built using an industrialized process inspired by the aerospace industry, BONE Structure homes offer unprecedented precision, architectural freedom, and energy efficiency. They produce minimal waste on site, are Net-Zero Energy ready and can be assembled within days."
Get the Dwell Newsletter
Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.