Mixed-Use developments have been marked as a key way to make cities more pedestrian-friendly by shortening the distance between residences and places of work and shopping. Instead of driving from a residential district to get to the shops or office, simply walk around the corner. South Korea has successfully designed a type of building that quickly proliferated across the country: the Officetel.

What is an Officetel, you ask? It is an all-in-one building. The typical officetel will have a variety of retail spaces on the ground floor. Cafes, restaurants, 24-hour convenience stores, even car dealerships. There is usually a small lobby for the doorman’s hut, the postboxes and of course the lifts. The next few floors contain a variety of offices. Small firms like consultants, startup or boutique fashion designers, small law firms, PC cafes or doctor’s offices. The remaining floors of the building contain residential units. Many are studios but there are also larger units for families. All under one roof you have residential, retail and office space.

A typical Korean officetel, located in Seoul. Source: thegrassyroad.livejournal.com

How much more efficient can you get? Plenty.

The genius doesn’t stop there. It continues into the layout of the buildings. Offices usually lease the parts of the building facing busier roads. That means they absorb the brunt of the traffic noise while the residential units face the smaller, quieter streets. Meanwhile, on the ground floor, most retail outlets and restaurants share the restrooms. This saves not only space in each place of business, but also costs on plumbing. If customers need to visit the restroom they simply go to the lobby and return back to the store, usually without having to go outside. One drawback of this design is a lack of cleanliness in many officetel restrooms as they are open to the public (but as we discussed last month, that isn’t really a bad thing). This could easily be solved if part-time cleaners were employed, paying regular visits to officetels within walking distance of each other.

The efficiency and compactness of these buildings is certainly cost-effective and profitable. So profitable that many officetels are owned and operated by the Chaebol – family umbrella corporations of Korea – such as Hyundai, Samsung, etc. More importantly, officetels fill an important gap in urban real-estate: affordability. For residential apartments as well as office and retail space for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), rent can be an extreme burden in traditional residential-only and office-only buildings. Although most Koreans live with their parents until they marry, for those who either cannot or chose not to do so, officetel studios provide an affordable place to live. Likewise SMEs and startups that need office space but can’t afford high rent in a chic office building can use an officetel instead.

A typical officetel residential studio floor-plan. Source: rjkoehler.com
A typical interior of a residential studio officetel. Source: rjkoehler.com

In the officetel I live in there is a cafe, real-estate office, boutique design firm, a small social networking consultancy and even a Minicooper dealership. The variety is endless.

Officetels are efficient, provide the ultimate form of mixed-use development, help relieve affordability problems in cities and they are often centrally located, nearby services and transport links. Many cities across the globe could benefit from this design (and many have similar designs of their own already). Yet if a city council or private developer somewhere else decides to try this model in their locality, we ask just one thing: please don’t design ugly concrete cubes like the majority of Korean officetels! Efficiency and affordability can be aesthetically pleasing, too!