Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ode to the multiplex: Québec's traditional urban housing

Like most kids in Québec born after the 1960s, the residential neighborhood where I was raised was defined by one particular type of housing: the bungalow. 

Canadian bungalows: one floor, wide...
...but shallow (note, that's 40 km/h, not 40 mph)
A one-story single-family house with a similarly big basement, a basement often sold unfinished yet finished by the owner later on, on a large lot. This type of housing was endorsed by the CMHC, the federal Canadian institution on housing and mortgages, that made architecture contests to encourage architects to think up new small single-family homes, then making the blueprint available to builders. These contests were pretty honest in admitting that they were attempts to invent single-family homes for the age of the automobile.

However, exploring the old neighborhoods of Québec, I could only notice that this bungalow's domination on housing in the suburbs is a recent development. The real traditional housing type in Québec cities is actually the multiplex: duplexes, triplexes and more. In fact, the CMHC did one contest only for multifamily housing, and that was for duplexes, a contest they did explicitly for Québec, where duplexes were common.

I've touched on this in the article comparing Montréal's and Toronto's modes of development, but I may have given the impression that this type of housing is only present int Montréal, which isn't the case. Though neighborhoods of multiplexes with shared walls is common only in cities, the truth is that detached multiplexes are common in essentially all Québec cities, big and small.

Montréal triplexes

Duplex in Boucherville, a former village turned into a Montréal suburb

Duplexes in the Old Terrebonne, a northern suburb of Montréal
Multiplexes and duplex in Shawinigan, in the Mauricie region

Multiplexes in Trois-Rivières

Duplexes in Victoriaville, a former rail station town between Québec and Montréal
Multiplexes in Beauceville... reminiscent of the low-rise apartment blocks in Japanese cities

Multiplexes in Charlesbourg, a Québec City suburb

Multiplexes in Saint-Georges, a small city in the Beauce region, south of Québec City

Duplexes and multiplexes in Alma, a small city in the Lac-Saint-Jean region

A triplex in Rimouski, in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region
Essentially, if you go on Google Maps, search for "church" in all Québec town and explore the area around them, you will quickly find multiplexes like these.

What defines the Québec multiplex?

Stratified multifamily housing in relatively small buildings

Yes, it's pretty evident, yet it's worth noting nonetheless. In much of North America, single-family homes are the norm, even in old working class cities. Cheaper housing is identified with smaller lots and buildings rather than opting for multifamily buildings, with these reserved only for the poorest of the poor. This may be a cultural thing, with Anglo-Saxon cultures generally looking warily towards multifamily housing. In the US, multifamily housing has sometimes been called "unamerican" or even immoral.

Same thing over in the UK, with typical working class housing being row houses rather than stratified housing. Which seems to indicate a probable cultural cause for this distinction.

The multiplex is a multi-family housing type, but its dimensions are more similar to single-family housing than to tenement blocks. Multiplexes tend to be 7 to 15 meters wide only (24 to 50 feet) and 10 to 20 meters deep (33 to 66 feet). They are built face to the street, just like single-family houses, whereas large tenement blocks, especially in suburbs or small cities, tend to be built far from the street, often facing other blocks rather than the street.

Sometimes owner-occupied

Large multi-family apartments in North America are often owned by relatively wealthy landlords, who will own many such buildings and have little to no interaction with the occupants, leaving a concierge to collect rents and deal with renters.

Québec multiplexes tend to function quite differently. For one thing, in many cases the owner of the building will actually reside in it, in the ground floor unit of the building, and rent out the upper units (and sometimes, the lower, basement units). This owner will have a regular job, owning only this building, dealing with renters on a personal basis. For the owner to reside in the building shows that there is little to no social shame in inhabiting it, otherwise, the owner would rent out the ground floor unit and use the proceeds to live elsewhere.It is not unheard of either for a multiplex owner wanting to sell to first approach long-term tenants and offer them to buy the building off of them.

The presence of the owner tends to have a good impact on the building's maintenance, as if the owner lets the building go to waste, he will be trashing his own house. Also, in many large multi-family apartment buildings, the yards tend to be almost completely ignored, tenants have no real claim on them and use them very rarely, if ever. The owner could manage them, but as he desn't live there, what's the point? So yards become only buffers of grass without any active management, only the most basic maintenance. In multiplexes with the owner on the ground, the yard is almost like a single-family house's yard. The owner may have a small garden or some nice arrangement as they live on the ground and would enjoy it. Even when the owner isn't an occupant, the smaller size of the building tends itself better to an appropriation of the yard by the tenants, especially those on the ground level.

I have a suspicion that many cases of multiplex were ways for people to afford to buy a lot and build the house they wanted, by getting a supplementary income from renting out part of their house. In a way, multiplexes have similarities with secondary suites or granny flats and may be considered a particularly advanced form of such housing.

Each unit has its own door, or shares a door with only one other unit

This is one of the defining characteristics of Québec multiplexes. I mentioned it in the earlier Montréal vs Toronto article. Québec multiplexes tend to have little to no interior common areas, which allows units to have doors directly to the outside, giving them a more private feel. This often results in exterior staircases to the upper units. I mentioned how this was perhaps a result of regulations in Montréal in the earlier article, but this doesn't explain the presence of so many exterior staircases in multiplexes of many cities outside Montréal. It seems quite unlikely that the existence of these stairways are a result of Montréal regulations regarding setbacks, as there are similar multiplexes all around Québec, even in small towns where space was far from lacking.

The exterior stairway may be a result of owner occupation, as the owner would have wanted to have the impression of living in a single-family house, taking the stairway outside allows the owner to have a veranda for his ground level floor, a veranda that will not be shared with his tenants. This doesn't explain why they would build exterior staircases on triplexes that look like the owner never occupied the ground floor, except maybe "monkey see, monkey do". But not all multiplexes have exterior staircases, some have a secondary entrance on the side or even on the front.

What remains constant is the multiplication of doors, with each unit having its own door to the outside. Even when there is a secondary ground floor entrance with an interior staircase, the upper floor unit or units will often have a door on the upper floor, opening on a balcony. Balconies (on upper floors) and verandas (on the ground floor) are present on almost all multiplexes. This provides semi-private outside areas for units and they seemed to have been very frequently used at the time based on contemporary sources.


There is much to like about traditional Québec multiplexes. They are an extremely versatile housing form, able to offer from 30 to 100+ units per hectare, from 6 000 to 20 000 people per square kilometer. They can be duplexes, offering two big housing units like two bungalows one over another, or they can be multiplexes with 2 or 3 1-bedroom units per floor above one large 3-bedroom unit on the ground floor, etc... The multiple doors and balconies that characterize them and their narrow size means that they allow for a lot of individuality on residential street, every building may be different from their neighbors and offer housing choices that simulate single-family housing thanks to each unit having their own door to the outside. They avoid the blank walls of large apartment blocks.

A bloc of apartment buildings with parking lots
A bloc of multiplexes with driveways with roughly the same density and number of parking (in the more spatially efficient form of driveways)

The fact that they are small buildings create density without the risk of the "tower in a parking lot" syndrome. They also have distributed driveways, avoiding the plight of huge parking lots caused by tall and wide blocks.

There is also a potential economic advantage, as the greater number of buildings and the smaller size of buildings make the threshold to becoming a landlord much lower. This increases competition amongst landlords, as when there are only a few apartment blocs, there will necessarily be few people owning most of the rental housing stock, and building new blocs will require deep pockets, putting them out of reach of most people.


  1. I will say though, that while most American cities are single family home dominated, there are some cities with small scale multifamily.


    There's lots of "2 flats" and "3 flats", although I think these are mostly 4 units each,-87.651783,3a,75y,197.9h,99.06t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sur9G8uawlwv2fXHNDLlafw!2e0

    And not just the flat roofed buildings, some of the gabled roofed buildings are multi-family, this one even has a spiral staircase! (spiral staircases are rare in Chicago though, it's mostly indoor common stairs or maybe 2 entrances next to each other),-87.654109,3a,75y,178.97h,92.01t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sCsqpe9b6uBjdRoJDLjNwcQ!2e0

    In Boston and much of New England, even small towns, you have the "triple deckers",+MA/@42.315064,-71.101153,3a,75y,332.48h,96.95t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1soKI_KS9oQH7zmp643ssaxA!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x89e3652d0d3d311b:0x787cbf240162e8a0

    Not sure if San Francisco have a name for theirs, but there's a lot of buildings like this,-122.435327,3a,75y,15.16h,95.23t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1ssgHmKYh6UXd-gYgJ7pDzpA!2e0

    In New York, those of Manhattan are more on the large side (though a lot are not huge but more around a dozen units),-73.985491,3a,75y,211.4h,122.84t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sVwA47PXVmEFbQ5XqWnObWg!2e0
    But Brooklyn and Queens are full of 2-4 storey buildings, and while some might look like row houses, I think most are functionally multi-family,-73.943081,3a,75y,86.66h,99.6t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s-_HjV5kNlwqy8ELm4Paydw!2e0
    Denser parts of New Jersey too, both new,-74.168966,3a,75y,196.71h,93.22t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sHpWbZKPxKIgS86WO30P3XA!2e0
    And old,-74.15742,3a,75y,213.02h,102.61t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s_xcS0vvjL6qu2ABzgZTlhg!2e0

    In some cities a lot of it is post WWII

    Vancouver Specials (mostly duplexes),-123.042066,3a,75y,206.11h,87.98t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sg3GS-hT3NGlKxcDZYsttRA!2e0

    Lots of these peppered throughout Toronto's more working class and middle class neighbourhoods,-79.494836,3a,75y,340.97h,95.75t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1svxmIekZ3egEnzs0BuZG8kw!2e0
    Some are a bit bigger (8 units?),+ON/@43.693163,-79.454801,3a,75y,169.99h,93.52t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sW_bff4iJ2cuwhcro4f2x3Q!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x89d4cb90d7c63ba5:0x323555502ab4c477

    LA too (and San Diego, Oakland and Miami are similar), though my guess is these are less likely owner occupied.,-118.29761,3a,75y,119.02h,96.26t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s8XZJjcaCc1qB97F67wT9_w!2e0

    Even Detroit has loads of duplexes,-83.124923,3a,75y,163.6h,84.85t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s1XwPSeaBZx9BKATshmKmpQ!2e0
    Or at least had, they're mostly in the more central neighbourhoods, which are losing population fastest (about 85% pop loss since 1950, compared to about 40% for the post-1920s single family neighbourhoods). Many midwestern cities have these, even here in Kitchener-Waterloo there's a few.

    I would agree that Montreal is one of a few areas where small apartments (2-5 units) are very common though, along with Chicago, New England, San Francisco, New York City and NE NJ. New England might be the only place where you can find them in significant numbers in small towns though, and not just the big city.,-71.093997,3a,75y,253.46h,96.23t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sxo_fconvcJKdmadiOVBkJQ!2e0

    1. If I gave the impression that there was no small-scale apartment buildings in the rest of North America, then I've given the wrong impression. They do exist, but if you check out my comparisons between Montréal and Toronto, you'll see that the census is quite clear how rare low-rise apartment buildings are in Toronto, where they form less than 20% of the housing stock, versus nearly 75% in Montréal.

      The main points I wished to convey were:

      1- How frequent these are. They aren't only housing for very big cities, but common even in small villages.

      2- Their particular form with verandas, balconies and exterior stairs, which seems to be nearly unique in North America for low-rise apartment buildings.

      3- The fact that every unit has a door on the outside rather than a door opening on an interior public space.
      4- How they are often owner-occupied.

      Now, it's just my opinion, but I think the Québec multiplex has many advantages over the types of duplexes or triplexes you indicated, thanks to the presence of a lot of semi-private areas and individual doors which avoid giving the impression of blank walls.

  2. Well Toronto is not the city that I'd describe as having the most among cities outside Quebec. I guess I might as well post the results from checking the US Census data, it goes by number of units rather than height.

    SFH+Rows: 28.9%
    2-5 units: 31.3%
    6-49 units: 21.4%
    50+ units: 18.2%
    Other 0.2%

    New York City:
    SFH+Rows: 16.2%
    2-5 units: 23.6%
    6-49 units: 28.8%
    50+ units: 31.2%
    Other 0.2%

    Los Angeles:
    SFH+Rows: 38.6%
    2-5 units: 11.7%
    6-49 units: 35.5%
    50+ units: 13.8%
    Other 0.5%

    San Francisco:
    SFH+Rows: 32.4%
    2-5 units: 21.9%
    6-49 units: 30.0%
    50+ units: 15.4%
    Other 0.2%

    SFH+Rows: 17.9%
    2-5 units: 38.5%
    6-49 units: 29.5%
    50+ units: 14.0%
    Other 0.1%

    SFH+Rows: 20.0%
    2-5 units: 45.2%
    6-49 units: 20.7%
    50+ units: 13.9%
    Other 0.1%

    SFH+Rows: 22.9%
    Lowrise Apts: 50.4%
    Mid/Highrise Apts: 26.6%
    Other: 0.2%

    So most of these cities are not as different from Montreal as Toronto is. Boston and Newark are actually quite similar to Montreal. Probably Boston is most similar:
    -2-49 unit buildings at 68% of the total
    -Common not just in Boston but much of New England, in Providence, Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, Lynn, Cambridge, Somerville, Worcester , Fall River, Portland (ME), Brockton and probably several more
    -Verandas and doors opening to the outside... not always but relatively common
    -Don't know how many are owner occupied

    FYI regarding verandas/balconies, in Chicago and LA I think they're pretty common too, but usually facing the back (Chicago) or side or interior courtyard (LA). Exterior stairs seem to be unique though.

  3. One of Cincinnati's rather unique features is the great number of 4-unit apartment buildings that were constructed in the 1930s through 1950s, a period of time when very little construction at all was happening, let alone multi-family. They're roughly the scale of a good sized single-family house, so they blend in pretty well in that respect, and while many of the later ones take on a pretty unassuming colonial revival or sometimes stripped down tudor revival style, the majority of them are a modern art deco design that's very distinctive.

    The layouts are fairly typical, with a front entry door and interior stairwell that the units are accessed from, and they're usually one bedroom apartments, so they provide very affordable units even in the more exclusive neighborhoods. Also, there's so many of them and they're fairly inexpensive, thus many of them are owner-occupied. They're good buys from a financial perspective since the rent of the other three apartments is enough to cover the mortgage on the building, basically allowing the owner to live there rent-free. They don't have the whimsical exterior staircases of the Canadian examples, but considering their small scale and versatility (they can usually fit four garages in the basement, and surface parking for four cars even on-site isn't too difficult), it's unfortunate that they don't get as much love or admiration as they deserve.

    1. The whimsical exterior staircases of the Québécois examples... in Canada outside Québec, exterior stairs are nowhere to be found. There may be a few ones around, but I've tried to find some on Google Maps and couldn't.

      Interesting about Cincinnati, especially since they are in relatively suburban settings. I think there's not enough love for low-rise apartment buildings with 2 to 6 units in a 2- to 3-story format. These buildings can easily "fit" in single-family areas for those who care about uniformity (I don't, but oh well). Each building requires few parking spots, so they don't need huge parking lots, they can more easily build an urban fabric. It's really too bad that in a lot of places, they lose out in zoning, banned from low-rise areas because they're multi-family housing, and banned from most multi-family zones for being low-rise and small.