Following the slowdown caused by the economic crisis of 2008, the yearly number of completed apartments and houses has been rising since 2015 in Poland in response to the country's housing demand. This demand is significant, as there are only 376 dwellings per 1000 inhabitants in Poland, which is among the lowest values in Europe (Housing Stock and Construction 2022). The above-mentioned growth applies specifically to the number of apartments built by real-estate development companies for sale or for putting up for rent—projects that usually include several buildings significantly affect the urban landscape by their scale and development concentration. Since 2008, real-estate development companies, together with individuals building to satisfy their own needs, have built over 90% of the country’s newly-built homes. Only the remaining 10% (less than 4% in the last 6 years) are comprised of cooperative, social, social tenement, and company housing (Table 1).

Table 1 Number of apartments handed over for use

This research concerns single-family courtyard houses in Poland as a characteristic building block of urban design. The objective of this study was to understand the impact of planning determinants on the role of courtyard housing in the housing stock and spatial policy in Poland and to determine its possible influence on spatial order and construction operations (the housing market). What does the reception of courtyard housing in Poland reveal about the housing preferences of Poles and the ambitions of policy-makers? Can courtyard housing replace some of the substandard single-family housing designs located on minuscule plots currently present on the market, and thus contribute to improvements of the spatial order? What are the current determinants for the construction of courtyard housing in Poland?

To answer these questions, I first characterise this specific form of single-family development. Second, I present its genesis and the circumstances of its spread in Western and Northern European countries in the 1960s and 1970s. Based on the completed projects, I demonstrate the potential for the urban and architectural formation of single-family housing complexes of varying size, standard and ownership form, ranging from large complexes of affordable prefabricated social houses to small groups of comfortable residences. Third, I review the modest domestic literature on courtyard housing in Poland and compare it with foreign publications, proving the presence of this niche typology in Polish professional discourse. I confront the findings of domestic studies on the causes of the low popularity of courtyard development with the share of high-density single-family buildings in the total number of dwellings.

Afterwards, I present two notable Polish courtyard housing projects. As relevant literature and actual courtyard houses in Poland are scarce, I complement this section with interviews conducted with local experts. The analysis of the current planning determinants that affect the potential for contemporary construction of courtyard houses in Poland forms the core of my research. I conclude by discussing the general image of housing preferences and spatial policy provided by the reception of courtyard housing in Poland, the feasibility of contemporary courtyard housing projects and the prospects for their development.


The study employs a range of research methods: a bibliographic research of academic and professional Polish writing on courtyard housing supplemented by international literature (due to its modest amount); a review of traditional and online news resources; an analysis of urban and architectural designs (images, videos, project statements); field studies; an analysis of statistical data; interviews with experts in planning, architecture, real-estate development, and real-estate brokerage; an analysis of local spatial development plans (zoning plans) in force in Krakow; an analysis of applicable national legal regulations affecting the construction of courtyard housing in Poland. The research draws from methods and references of urban design, architecture, the history of architecture, building construction, housing and housing policy, and spatial planning.

The study combines quantitative techniques with a qualitative analysis of zoning plans. At the time this study was written, Krakow, the second largest city in Poland, had 183 zoning plans in effect. According to data for 30 October 2018, these plans covered 60.5% of the urban area (Planning in Krakow 2020). To determine the possibility of developing courtyard housing in Krakow areas covered by zoning plans, I analysed all 183 plans, which were acts of municipal law in force at the time of carrying out the study. This part of the study was based on examining which of the applicable local plans allow the construction of single-family houses in their provisions regarding new development while taking into account their different forms (semi-detached, terraced, group, courtyard). The procedure involved analysing the written sections of zoning plans for the words ‘single-family’, ‘semi-detached’, ‘terraced’, ‘group’ and ‘courtyard’, including their inflected forms if the provisions of the zoning plan authorised (or did not prohibit) a given type of development. It can be assumed that this approach provides reliable results as it corresponds well to the specificity of local development plans in Poland. Their provisions are featured in an urban plan (a drawing) and listed in an elaborate written section. Only those types and forms of development that are explicitly mentioned in the written section of the zoning plan may be built on a given site. If a given type of development is not mentioned in the written section of a zoning plan, its construction is not allowed. Studying the forms of development within Krakow’s zoning plans provides quantitative data on the development types allowed by policy-makers within the territory of Krakow. However, it should be noted that the methodology was not intended to identify the popularity of a given type of development as the result was considered positive when a plan permitted a given form of development on even a single plot.

Characteristics of a typical courtyard house

Contemporary single-family courtyard houses, as built in European cities after 1945, are typically located on small (150–350 m2) square or rectangular plots, as single-, sometimes double-storey, usually L-shaped structures, whose central element is a courtyard (atrium, patio) open towards the sky and surrounded on two sides by the wings of the house (Weidinger 2007). The remaining two sides are typically the windowless exterior walls of neighbouring houses or privacy fences. Privacy is the key quality of a courtyard house (Macintosh 1973). The windows of the living spaces face an enclosed private courtyard which is as safe and intimate as any room in the house. Acting as a source of daylight and a link with the environment, the courtyard is the heart of the house and its spatial culmination. It is shielded from the wind, the view of neighbours and passers-by, and street noise, becoming an additional external room in summer, while in winter, it visually and functionally links all the rooms that face it (Macintosh 1973). In projects in Western and Northern Europe, courtyard dimensions and orientation are subordinated to the insolation of the house interiors (Pfeifer and Brauneck 2008). According to Bożena Romuzga (2020, personal communication), an interviewed real-estate broker experienced in courtyard houses, the courtyard house, due to the limited garden space in the courtyard itself is closer to a comfortable apartment with a terrace or a large balcony in a multifamily building than to a single-family house. A better floor area size than in the case of many apartments, safety, privacy, enhanced contact with greenery, and the potential to use the courtyard for recreation (Pfeifer and Brauneck 2008) make courtyard housing particularly suitable for families with children (Weidinger 2007).

Courtyard houses as building blocks of urban design

A courtyard house is essentially an urban type of dwelling. Courtyard houses typically form well-structured compact developments, comprising groups of several or more uniform buildings that connect on two or three sides, which makes it possible to achieve high (for single-family housing) planning parameter values, such as population density (150–175 p/ha) or housing unit density (30–35 u/ha) (Macintosh 1973; Pfeifer and Brauneck 2008) without sacrificing quality of life or closeness with nature (Mària Serrano 2011). Groups of courtyard houses (sometimes referred to as carpet-type developments) create a characteristic, casbah-like urban landscape with clear edges and a strong demarcation of public and private spaces. Repetition, seriation, spacing, and structuring are mechanisms used in an iterative process to establish relationships between single units (Mària Serrano 2011). Sometimes, however, it can lead to visual monotony on the street side. Despite urban uniformity, courtyard housing offers a great individuality of living (Seiß 2015). The layout of rooms can be designed to suit specific needs and tastes of residents as wings of the house are usually free of internal load-bearing walls and supports. Courtyard housing, due to its collective character, requires organised forms of real-estate development, such as real-estate development companies, housing cooperatives, construction groups, a municipality, or a housing rental fund. Only a coordinated construction project, featuring a complex of multiple buildings on a larger plot, makes it possible to place houses adjacent to one another, and thus to reap the benefits offered by this unusual form of development. Courtyard developments provide high-quality housing in combination with effective land use (Kottjé 2009), expanding the spectrum of single-family housing forms and enhancing the diversity of the urban landscape (Pfeifer and Brauneck 2008; Keil 2017).

Courtyard housing projects in Europe

The first contemporary European single-family courtyard housing designs and projects emerged between 1928 and 1931 and were the result of the pursuit of a new model of affordable housing providing space and comfort while addressing issues of light and ventilation (Mària Serrano 2011). Macintosh (1973) identified Hugo Häring, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Hilberseimer as significant contributors to the development of this type of housing. Due to its merits, courtyard housing gained significant popularity in Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, when the region faced housing shortages (Keil 2017; Perényi 2013). Several successful projects significantly contributed to this popularisation. The most notable examples include: a complex of more than a hundred courtyard houses in the Tuscolano district in Rome, Italy, built in the years 1953–54 (by Adalberto Libera); a complex of four courtyard houses for the 1957 Interbau fair in Berlin (by Arne Jacobsen); a complex of sixty houses in Helsingør, Denmark (known in trade literature as Kingo houses) built in the years 1957–1960; a complex of sixty-three houses in Fredensborg, Denmark, built in the years 1959–1963 (both by Jørn Utzon); the ‘t Hool complex in Eindhoven, Netherlands built in the years 1961–1972 (by Van Den Broek & Bakema); a complex of 235 units in Puchenau, Austria, built in the years 1963–1968 (by Roland Rainer). Prefabrication enabled the construction of large projects such as the Albertslund Syd housing estate for 5500 residents on the outskirts of Copenhagen from 1963 to 1968 (by architects Jørn Ole Sørensen, Viggo Møller-Jensen and Tyge Arnfred, who worked together under the name Fællestegnestuen, while Knud Svensson formulated the development plan and Ole Nørgård designed the landscaping). It featured almost 2200 single-family houses in a low-rise high-density development that included over 1000 courtyard houses. Despite its immense size and the problems resulting from the repetitiveness and monotony of such an extensive complex, Albertslund Syd has proven to be a success even if it lacked shared social spaces, which contributed to the isolation of its residents. Courtyard housing has also appeared in other countries, e.g. in Belgium, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden and Switzerland. At present, courtyard housing is not as popular as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, although its potential for achieving higher population densities can still address many housing problems in urban areas and their sprawling suburbs (Pfeifer and Brauneck 2008). The end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century produced some notable projects, including the Quinta da Barca housing complex in Esposende by Joao Alvaro Rocha and the complex in Matosinhos by Eduardo Souto de Moura in Portugal. Two further projects by Roland Rainer (in Tamariskengasse in Vienna and Neufahrergasse in Linz), Prinz-Eugen Park in Munich by Frank Dressler, Stefan Mayerhofer, and Ulf Rössler, the Am Hundssteig complex in Krems an der Donau and two projects in Gneixendorf and Krems-Egelsee in Austria by Ernst Linsberger, are other notable cases. The projects mentioned above show the potential of the urban and architectural formation of housing complexes of various sizes, standards, and ownership forms, ranging from privately owned, comfortable residences to large complexes of affordable, prefabricated social housing. Due to the repetitiveness of housing units, courtyard developments are attractive for urban design to work with, allowing the creation of an unconventional urban landscape with completed projects being well-structured and remaining desirable to this day (Figs. 1, 2).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Source Nørgård (1969)

Plan of the Albertslund Syd complex in the suburbs of Copenhagen with more than 1,000 courtyard houses.

Fig. 2
figure 2

 Source Nørgård (1969) (left), Tobias Faber, KADK Docs (right)

Fragment of the Albertslund Syd complex in the suburbs of Copenhagen.

Courtyard housing in the literature

The Polish trade and academic literature on courtyard housing is sparse. This can be attributed to the limited access to Western European literature in socialist Poland (1945–1989) at a time when courtyard housing was in its prime.

Adamczewska-Wejchert (1976) offered the most comprehensive presentation of the conditions and potential for the development of courtyard buildings in Poland, along with an overview and discussion of its design solutions. Her book became the primary source of information on courtyard housing in the country in the 1970s and 1980s, and had a profound impact on subsequent projects. There were few other sources available, aside from the limited opportunities for field studies of courtyard houses in Western Europe that Polish architects had.

More recently, Gajda (2011) presented the situation of one courtyard housing complex in Warsaw from the perspective of almost four decades of use and discussed the remodelling of some of its buildings. Napieralska (2015) discussed the innovation of courtyard housing against the background of the then prevalent standardised single-family houses of low aesthetic quality. Speculating about the cause of the low popularity of single-family courtyard houses in post-war Poland, Orchowska (2016) mentioned, inter alia, the following factors:

  • cultural and historical circumstances that contributed to perceiving the home as a place where a family can take refuge from external threats, including the oppressive political system; in her opinion, an individual, freestanding house surrounded by a fenced private garden is the fullest expression of a yearning for past times, and it satisfies the need for safety and identification the most;

  • the political and economic context of Poland in 1945–1989, which resulted in government preference for modernist prefab multifamily housing estates and an unfavourable approach to single-family housing (as a form of private property), and systemic shortages of construction material;

  • standardised single-family house designs of mainly two-storey detached and semi-detached houses with flat roofs, which dominated Polish towns and villages in the post-war period;

  • the necessity of organised forms of development in the case of courtyard housing, which stood in opposition to the indifferent attitude of the government to single-family development;

  • the widespread ignorance of the courtyard house concept within society and the general belief that a detached house offers the most privacy, comfort, and independence.

These arguments are reflected in the distribution of dwelling types in Poland today. Although the proportions between the number of residents of multifamily buildings (44.3%) and single-family buildings (55.6%) are similar to European averages (46.2% and 52.8%, respectively), detached single-family housing is by far the most popular, as over half of the country's population lives in such buildings (in Europe, this is around a third). Furthermore, the number of residents who live in semi-detached, terraced and courtyard housing is very low (5.4%), particularly compared to the European average. In the European Union, it amounts to 17.0%, and in Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, this amount ranges between 41.7 and 60.8% (Eurostat 2022).

Against this limited local background, we can observe a wealth of Western literature discussing all sorts of aspects of courtyard housing. The most extensive section of the literature focuses on presenting typologies and case studies of early built projects (Peters 1961, 1967; Deilmann and Ridderström 1967; Macintosh 1973; Perényi 2013). Publications on contemporary variations of this typology are less numerous (Kottjé 2009, 2014; Pfeifer and Brauneck 2008; Weidinger 2002, 2007). A separate, more recent section of the literature discusses the energy retrofitting of houses and urban complexes from the 1960s and 1970s (Coldham 2013), also covering social, cultural, and political matters (Peters 2016), the funding and modernisation of social housing, and the role of the state, local governments, and residents in this process (Kristensen 2002). Some publications identify the originality and artistic value of experimental designs from the 1960s and 1970s (Barzilay et al. 2018).

This short review of the literature proves that the typology of courtyard housing was already present in professional discourse in Poland during the period of its greatest popularity in Northern and Western European countries, although to a much smaller degree. The low number of publications on courtyard housing corresponds to a share of dense forms of single-family development (including courtyard houses) within the overall number of housing units, which is considerably lower than in other European countries.

Courtyard housing projects in Poland

Built courtyard housing projects in Poland are as rare as written works on the subject. The most well-known projects featuring courtyard housing include the experimental housing estate for employees of Warsaw University of Technology built in the years 1968–1972 between Orężna Street and Jedlińska Street in Warsaw. It featured twelve single-storey houses. Designed and later inhabited by employees of the Chair of Urban Design at the Warsaw University of Technology (design by arch. Donat Putkowski et al.), the complex complements a pre-existing housing estate of semi-detached houses. The trapezoidal outline of the plot and the experimental character of the housing estate allowed testing various sizes of houses and courtyards: the plots have surface areas that range between 160 and 380 m2, with courtyards of between 48 and 138 m2, while the houses featured between 80 and 126 m2 of usable floor area. The complex is notable for the aesthetic quality of its facades and the meticulously designed details of the houses. Their primary material is unplastered, white painted silicate brick, while the details include low openwork fences with gates, béton brut walls surrounding waste collection sheds and distinct canopies above entrances, supported by slender columns.

This Warsaw housing estate has been widely presented in academic and trade literature. After its completion, it was used to collect feedback on the occupancy of this type of development resulting in conclusions concerning the tendencies of residents to isolate themselves from their neighbours and the surroundings as a result of the centre-focused layout of the houses. Some homeowners extended the houses over the years by developing either a part of the courtyard or the front of the buildings, which has shown this development form to be flexible to a degree (Gajda 2011). On the other hand, it was seen to lead to either a reduction in the rather small and optimal area of the courtyard or to an altering of the architectural expression of the complex, therefore lowering its cohesiveness. However, the complex became a heritage-listed site in 2016 (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Source Adamczewska-Wejchert, H. (1976) Domy atrialne. Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe

Orientation (left) and plan (right) of a complex of twelve courtyard houses in Warsaw, between Orężna Street and Jedlińska Street, design by Donat Putkowski et al.

The housing estate located in Krakow between Machaya Street and Wiedeńska Street (designed in the years 1973–1975 by the architects Barbara Bielec and Małgorzata Buratyńska-Seruga and built 1976–1982) is not so well known, although it is the largest project featuring courtyard housing in Poland (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Source Architektura, 7–8, 1978

Site development plan of the housing estate in Krakow, along with an aerial view of the complex, design by Barbara Bielec, Małgorzata Buratyńska-Seruga.

Of the planned 170 houses, 130 were built. Their functional programme had three semi-levels: a single-storey wing housing the public zone at ground level, deeper into the plot, which was connected with a courtyard, while the perpendicular two-storey wing, adjacent to the street, featured a partially below-ground garage and ancillary spaces, with the private rooms placed above. The houses (two types) have a usable floor area of either 95 or 110 m2 and square-shaped patios of 64 m2, while the plots have an area of just 350 m2 (Figs. 5, 6). The houses had been built for a housing cooperative (and were later privatised), using an industrialised method, with the use of medium and small-sized prefabricated elements. The architectural form of nearly all of the houses has remained unchanged to this day, although most of them have been subjected to thermal retrofitting by their owners and have been given new facades, while front-yard fences have been erected in front of some houses. Despite these minor interferences with the appearance of the buildings, the cohesion of the entire complex and its high architectural value have been preserved. When asked to characterise this type of development, the residents of two homes who had been living in the estate since its construction (Buratyńska-Seruga 2020, Białka 2020, personal communication) noted their advantages: the functional and original spatial layout, a rare degree of comfort, contact with greenery in the courtyard, peace, the ability to adapt the internal layout of the house to their needs during construction and, in reference to the entire complex, harmony and order. The flaws they listed included, among other things, a cramped garage, low-quality workmanship, and difficulties with contemporary modernisation due to a lack of access to external walls abutting the neighbouring plots (Figs. 7, 8, 9, 10).

Fig. 5
figure 5

Source Architektura, 7–8, 1978

Floor plans of two types of courtyard houses in the housing estate in Krakow; to the left is the T-1 type house (95 m2), with the T-2 type (110 m2) seen on the right, design by Barbara Bielec, Małgorzata Buratyńska-Seruga.

Fig. 6
figure 6

Source Architektura, 7–8, 1978

View of a model of the T-2 type house located in the housing estate in Krakow, design by Barbara Bielec, Małgorzata Buratyńska-Seruga.

Fig. 7
figure 7

View from the living room (top) and bedroom on level + 1 towards the courtyard (bottom) in one of the T-1 type houses (2020). Original photographs

Besides the courtyard housing complexes in Warsaw and Krakow, Adamczewska-Wejchert (1976) presents and discusses several dozen other designs prepared in the 1960s and 1970s, of which only a small proportion have been completed. The first project ever built in Poland (1963–1967) comprised three courtyard houses of individual designs in Wrocław, on Akacjowa Street (design by arch. Zbigniew Bać, Adam Tyczkowski, Krystyna Barska, and Marian Barski). Several courtyard development complexes were built in the 1970s and 1980s in Tychy (on Modrzewskiego Street and on Skalna Street and Rodakowskiego Street), in Koszalin (on Hebanowa Street, Rodła Street and Kuczkowskiego Street), Poznań (on Kurlandzka Street and on Na Szańcach Street) and in Warsaw (on Żółkiewskiego Street). However, it can be claimed that many of these complexes do not display significant architectural value due to their design imperfections, low construction standard, and the changes introduced by residents during occupancy. Courtyard housing projects became even rarer in the twenty-first century. Sixteen courtyard houses on plots as small as 150 m2 were completed (on Libijska Street in Warsaw) at the turn of the millennium (design by arch. Piotr Majewski, Andrzej Wyszyński, and Wojciech Hermanowicz), which complements a pre-existing residential complex. The housing complex in Dąbrówka near Poznań is also noteworthy. It features several dozen courtyard houses placed among many other forms of low-rise high-density single- and multifamily buildings. They expand the array of housing forms on offer and help create a diverse cityscape. In an interview as part of this study, Piotr Pietkiewicz (2020, personal communication), the owner of the real-estate development company and its lead designer, highlighted that their courtyard houses were attractive products on the housing market. In his experience, the sale of houses built by his company showed that houses with a courtyard are chosen by informed and demanding clients; several houses were bought by architects. However, Pietkiewicz also noted that from a real-estate developer’s point of view, courtyard housing is costly due to a significantly higher share of circulation space in the site balance than in the case of terraced developments and the associated high construction costs of related infrastructure, such as streets and utilities. He identified this as the reason why courtyard housing may not seem an attractive format to many real-estate development companies and why it yields to terraced housing in economic terms. However, it can complement smaller housing complexes, combining the characteristics of single- and multifamily development.

Fig. 8
figure 8

General view of the courtyard (top) and towards the wall that separates the courtyard of the neighbouring house (bottom) in a T-2 type house (2020). Original photographs

To summarise the domestic literature and projects review with a focus on courtyard housing, one must stress that the period of the most significant development of this type of housing in Western Europe corresponded to a period of constraint and deficits typical of a socialist economy in Poland, often resulting in poor material and execution standards. Of the few projects built at the time, two historical cases (Warsaw and Krakow) that positively affected the public reception of this type of housing are noteworthy, along with two more recent cases (Libijska Street in Warsaw and Dąbrówka near Poznań).

The review proved that the reception of Western European trends in architecture in socialist Poland took place, but was marginal in the case of courtyard housing. It became a very small part of Poland’s housing stock. The cold reception of courtyard housing coincides with the strong preference for traditional solutions, with single-family detached houses clearly in the lead.

According to an interview with Małgorzata Buratyńska-Seruga (2020, personal communication), an architect, designer and a long-term resident of the largest courtyard house complex ever built in Poland, there are currently no favourable conditions for the construction of such complexes in the country. In her opinion, the modesty of the courtyard house is in opposition to the need for the display of prestige expressed by many potential single-family house buyers and their desire to proclaim their material status and the pursuit of individuality. Therefore, Buratyńska-Seruga doubts the market success of any potential contemporary projects of this type.

Will the complexes that have already been built remain merely a testimony to postwar housing experiments, or does courtyard housing have a chance in the future? In the following section, I examine the feasibility of courtyard developments in Krakow in terms of planning conditions.

Fig. 9
figure 9

View of one of the shared-space streets of the housing estate in Krakow, design by Barbara Bielec, Małgorzata Buratyńska-Seruga. Original photograph

Fig. 10
figure 10

Two of the houses that have survived in their original state; the house further away has been retrofitted (2019), design by Barbara Bielec, Małgorzata Buratyńska-Seruga. Original photograph

Planning for courtyard housing

In reference to specific areas of the city and individual plots, possible development in Poland is defined in two types of documents:

  • local spatial development plans (zoning plans), which are prepared for selected areas of cities and municipalities;

  • administrative decisions (planning permits) concerning conditions for site development, issued upon request for individual sites in areas without a local spatial development plan in place.

Identifying possible land development for this study was only possible for areas with zoning plans in effect, which is why I further analyse the provisions of these plans in the paper. For the remaining areas, land use is defined individually, on the request of the potential developer or land owner, and therefore can vary significantly. Because of this, the paper stops at describing the mechanism of determining parameters for new development in planning permits, as defined in applicable regulations.


I found that almost three-quarters of the zoning plans in force in Krakow (even if only on a small proportion of the area covered by the plan) allowed the construction of single-family residential buildings. More than half of all plans allowed single-family houses in semi-detached developments. A quarter of all plans allowed terraced developments and only two permitted group developments. None of the plans in force in Krakow were found to permit courtyard housing. More than a quarter of all zoning plans did not allow new single-family developments. The results of the study are presented in Table 2.

Table 2 Permitted forms of single-family developments in Krakow for areas with zoning plans in force. Original work

Upon analysis of the collected data, I observed a clear preference among Krakow’s policy-makers for traditional, low-density forms of single-family development, i.e., detached and semi-detached development. Among the denser forms of development, terraced housing was allowed almost exclusively. In light of the lack of provisions concerning courtyard or group housing, could such buildings be built in areas assigned for terraced development (of which courtyard housing is a specific subtype)? Unfortunately, meeting other requirements specified in a zoning planFootnote 1 could constitute an obstacle. These requirements especially pertain to the size (frontal facade width) and height of the planned development or roof geometry, which can cause the development of courtyard housing to be irrational or outright impossible. Courtyard development, compared with terraced development, features a similar building footprint to site area ratio and biologically active area surface ratios but a much greater plot width and lower building height, as presented in Table 3.

Table 3 Comparison of single-family development in terraced and courtyard settings in terms of the characteristics and parameters that are mandatory elements of a zoning plan. Original work based on (Neufert and Muszyński 2000)

During interviews conducted for this study, experts associated with the planning and real-estate development process (Czyż 2020; Pietkiewicz 2020, personal communication) suggested that the impact of zoning plan provisions on real-estate development operations should not be overstated. They noted the participation and initiative of developers in the process of creating and amending local plans. According to Jolanta Czyż (2020, personal communication), Vice Director of Krakow’s Spatial Planning Department, if there had been a desire to build courtyard houses among developers, this would have been expressed in the content of the requests submitted during the drafting of the zoning plans. She noted that, while working as a planner, she had never encountered requests to permit the construction of courtyard houses, while requests to allow terraced, semi-detached and detached housing were indeed filed. Piotr Pietkiewicz, real-estate company owner, shared this view. He concluded that if courtyard houses had been seen as an attractive solution from a market perspective, the business sector (developers) would have been submitting relevant requests to be included in zoning plans during their preparation.

Regarding the remaining area of Krakow, with no zoning plans in force, development may only be conducted on the basis of planning permits. By law, the mechanism for issuing planning permits is based on averaging the characteristics of existing development within the vicinity, including the building footprint to plot area ratio, building frontage width, building height, and the roof geometry.Footnote 2 For simplicity, it can be stated that planning permits for courtyard developments may only be issued for plots in close proximity to single-family terraced housing (or group or courtyard housing) with a relatively high ratio of building footprint to plot area on small plots with relatively wide frontal facades and flat roofs. Bearing in mind the previously mentioned predominance of detached single-family development in Poland, meeting all of these conditions in relation to a specific site is unlikely. In practice, the approval process for planning permits forms another systemic barrier to courtyard housing developments in Poland.

Another expert, Michał Obarzanowski, an architect and a developer with experience in the implementation of non-standard development projects, draws attention to other aspects of planning as a barrier to new courtyard development. In his opinion, zoning plans that are too general (usually drawn up only on the 1:2000 scale), the lack of more detailed development plans (on the 1:1000 and 1:500 scales), as well as the optional nature of plot reparcellation may make courtyard housing creation even more difficult (Obarzanowski 2022, personal communication). Indeed, in the Krakow region, the land register is dominated by exceptionally narrow and long former arable plots. Many are too narrow for courtyard developments but may be sufficient for substandard terraced or semi-detached buildings.

Discussion and conclusions

Courtyard housing combines some of the advantages of single- and multifamily housing. Despite its unique characteristics, which allow the formation of a structured and specific urban landscape, courtyard housing remains a little-known episode of urban design. Previous Polish literature formed a compendium on courtyard development when it first appeared in Poland and Europe (Adamczewska-Wejchert 1976), while the latest publications presented and assessed the most well-known Polish project, located between Orężna Street and Jedlińska Street in Warsaw, from the perspective of several decades after their construction (Gajda 2011; Napieralska 2015), but did not discuss other built projects or the reception of this type of development in Poland in the same detail. Previous studies linked the low popularity of courtyard housing in Poland during the post-war period with factors such as the public’s lack of awareness, widespread preference for detached development, the lack of state support for single-family development and the dominance of standard single-family house designs (mainly detached and semi-detached), or the necessity for organised real-estate development in the case of courtyard housing (Orchowska 2016). The planning conditions that affect the construction of courtyard houses and the perspectives for the development of courtyard housing today have not been investigated thus far, and this study is intended to fill the gap.

Statistical data on the distribution of dwelling type revealed a broader image of Poland’s housing stock. Denser forms of single-family development in Poland (semi-detached, terraced and courtyard houses) are three times less common than the European average and ten times less than in the Netherlands. This data shows that not only courtyard housing but also other forms of dense single-family development (semi-detached and terraced housing) play a small role in Poland. For many inhabitants, it is considered undesirable to share a wall with a neighbour, even if it is a wall of a semi-detached, terraced or courtyard house (Orchowska 2016). If the way of living is a direct expression of social structures and politics and if it mirrors society (Pfeifer and Brauneck 2008), then the preference for detached houses and the flight from neighbours from the other side of the wall may reflect the Poles’ reluctance to cooperate and to be co-dependent. Perhaps it also expresses the need to react after the post-war decades of crowding and uniformity in multifamily housing blocks (Leśniak-Rychlak 2019). It may also be considered a manifestation of the increasing demand for diversification and the desire for difference (Gonzalez 2006).

Is the low popularity of courtyard housing in Poland tied solely to the preferences of residents? Courtyard houses were built in the 1960s and 1970s in European countries as an innovative and experimental but rational answer to the post-war housing demand (Perényi 2013; Keil 2017). In Poland, this demand has not been satisfied to this day (Korbel 2019). The greatest share of new housing construction belongs to real-estate development companies, which build almost exclusively for sale. Profit-driven and risk-averse by nature, they focus on the most economical and land-efficient sellable designs. The study reveals that from the point of view of a real-estate developer, among higher-density single-family development, the well-known and proven typologies of terraced houses are less expensive in terms of infrastructure (streets and utilities) and are a more competitive and less risky market offering than courtyard houses.

Barriers to the construction of courtyard housing are not limited to buyer preferences and real-estate developer offerings. This study suggests that the provisions of zoning plans in Krakow, planning mechanisms in Poland, and the geometry of land plots are other barriers to courtyard housing that can be considered to be fundamental. Courtyard housing cannot be built in over 60% of Krakow area because zoning plans do not allow it. This argument sheds new light on the reasons behind the absence of contemporary projects of this type in this city. Changing this state of affairs is within the ability of planners who draft zoning plans and city councils that approve them. Siting courtyard houses in areas without zoning plans is adversely affected (although not eliminated) by the mechanisms of determining development conditions originating from state law and by unfavourable plot dimensions and proportions and optional nature of plot reparcellation. In a broader perspective, planning constraints contribute to the spatial domination of the pattern of traditional, less dense (mostly detached) development forms in Poland. A type of development as distinctive as courtyard housing requires development plan provisions that explicitly allow it. Incorporating courtyard housing into the array of urban forms and the market offering can contribute to building a more diverse urban landscape and connect the current demand for small houses with the requirements of spatial order without compromising functionality, comfort, privacy, and contact with greenery.

It may be assumed that, should planning barriers to its construction be removed, courtyard housing will develop outside of the housing mainstream. Two of the experts interviewed (Pietkiewicz 2020; Romuzga 2020, personal communication) noted that courtyard houses are a solution that is appreciated by more informed clients. Taking this into account, this can be an interesting proposal for some scenarios. Examples include bottom-up initiatives: small-scale housing cooperatives or construction groups that strive to build homes not offered by the housing market or that want to create a house independently of real-estate developers. Both scenarios are illustrated by the Polish projects from the 1970s referenced in this paper. Where infrastructure (streets, transportation, utilities) exists, courtyard housing could complement some neighbourhoods. A recent infill project on Libijska Street in Warsaw illustrates the case. Courtyard housing might be suitable for some car-free or low-car developments as the separation of parking areas from residential clusters enables the dimensioning of access routes according to the scale of the pedestrian. Another opportunity for the rediscovery of courtyard housing comes from the construction industry. Due to its uniformity and short spans, courtyard houses can easily be built with prefab elements, both with planar and volumetric modules.

Despite the above points, another expert questioned the feasibility of new courtyard housing developments if they were to be based on market fundamentals (Obarzanowski 2022, personal communication). He doubted if courtyard housing would be attractive even to less profit-oriented players on the housing market, such as housing cooperatives. The expert agreed, however, that an external stimulus, such as preferential land acquisition conditions or involvement in a project of an experimental character could make the construction of courtyard housing feasible.

Courtyard housing, along with many other housing typologies, could be implemented in a comprehensive, national or local, experimental or model, pilot housing project (such as a building exhibition) that brings together all housing policy actors. Such a project could become a testing ground for innovation in planning, urban and architectural design, housing policy, construction industry, urban mobility, and environmental and social solutions, while actually relieving site-specific housing problems. The project planning and implementation could help in the rethinking of planning law and building codes to reinvigorate highly established urban housing.

A successful and widely published pilot housing project, comprising lesser known housing typologies such as a courtyard house, can loosen up the blocked situation and convince the authorities, builders, and a wider public to be more open-minded about spatial and functional solutions in single- and multifamily housing projects and help to blur the strong divide between them. The slowdown that has eventually been hitting the Polish housing market in 2022 might catalyse this process.