The term apartment refers to a self-contained unit of housing that takes up space on only a part of a building, typically on a single level. While it is called apartment in American English, it is called a unit in Australian English, and a flat in British English. The building in which a number of apartments are situated may be called a block of flats, an apartment block, or an apartment house. Other names include apartment complex, high-rise, tower block, apartment building, flat complex, or occasionally in British English, mansion block.

While such buildings typically contain dwelling units which are constructed for domestic use, they may also include non-residential features such as shops. An owner/occupier may own apartments, they may be rented by tenants, or be owned by leasehold tenure.


The word apartment comes from the Italian word appartimento and the French word appartement, literally translating to “a separated place.” It was first used in the 1940s to refer to a private room within a house designated to be used by a family or one person. The current use of the word to mean a set of rooms set aside for independent living within a building containing similar units was not until the 1860s.

Where were the first apartments built?


Apartment complexes are not a new phenomenon at all, as they have been around for centuries. The general populace occupied apartments in the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan during the classical period.

The Roman Empire

A similar scenario to Teotihuacan is the Roman Empire where many cities were dealing with urban congestion. In early imperial times, the domus or individual house had been abandoned for the insula or communal housing The only exceptions were the dwellings of the extremely wealthy. While four levels were the most common, occasionally, buildings of six to eight storeys were constructed.


In the Middle Ages, Europe had a different type of apartment which was essentially a personal suite within a great house. Parts of mansions were subdivided to create smaller sets of rooms where the retainers of a prominent person, including servants, were housed. The apartment buildings we know today have their origins in Paris and a number of other major cities in Europe where they first appeared. This was in the 18th century and they were constructed to be tall apartment buildings specifically to house middle-class tenants. With each successive storey in a typical block of flats in Paris, the size of the units reduced.

Development of the modern concept of apartment buildings

In order to provide housing for the growing numbers of industrial labourers in towns and cities across the United States and Europe, numerous affordable apartment blocks were constructed in the mid-19th century. The buildings were typically cramped, unsanitary, poorly designed, and very shabby.

The typical tenement seen in New York was constructed in the 1839s for the first time and contained apartments commonly called railroad flats due to the end-to-end way in which the narrow rooms were arranged, much like boxcars in a row. It was not until after 1918 that much consideration was given to designing inexpensive apartment buildings for style or comfort in America or Europe. Some cities in Europe, particularly Vienna and Paris began to see significant development of apartments for the rich and upper-middle class in the second half of the 19th century.

The modern apartment buildings seen in many cities round the world today first came on the scene in the first half of the twentieth century where conveniences such as central heating and elevators were incorporated in order to be shared in common by the tenants of a building. Apartments designed for the wealthy started providing special amenities such as communal dining rooms and gardens, laundry services, delivery services, and leisure facilities.

Types of apartments


An apartment with a space so large it can be walled off and used to create another room such as a bedroom or dining room.


A single-room apartment with a kitchen and bathroom, and sometimes an alcove for dining or dressing.

Convertible studio

A studio large enough that it can be walled off to create a sleeping area.

Alcove studio

A studio with an alcove or half room, typically walled off and may be used for sleeping.


A large room with high windows and ceilings typically in a building that used to be commercial before it became residential.

Garden apartment

An apartment that connects to a garden; might also describe an apartment at basement level.

Related Questions

Published on 16th June 2017

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