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Insulae- The first Multifamily investment in human history

“Multifamily” is defined as “a classification of housing where multiple separate housing units for residential inhabitants are contained within one building or several buildings within one complex”.

Since when has this type of housing option existed?

According to historians, the first “multifamily” building was built and operated in ancient Rome. The residential community called “Insulae” (Singular form is Insula).

In Latin, “Insulae” meant “island”, and it represented how the building was built wrapping around a garden inside. It was a similar concept to today’s low-rise/mid-rise wrap buildings.

Why did it appear?

After winning the Punic Wars, the city of Rome experienced an exponential growth in their population. With the population growth, the demand for residential areas increased as well. The real estate value back then also increased. To solve this problem, Roman people started to build Insulae, a high-rise (in the standard of ancient times) multifamily property where many people could reside.

Why it is historically important?

It’s Structure

  1. It was the first Multifamily property in the record 

  2. It was the first Mixed-use residential property in history

  3. Its structure resembles modern-day podium and wraps mid-rise multifamily properties

Structure of Insula

Insulae typically had building levels of up to six stories, to increase the density of residents. It was also the first mixed-used residential property in the record, as the ground floors were used for commercial and retail purposes including shops or tabernae (taverns), becoming a source of income for the property owner.

Residential areas started from the second floor of the building. The units on the second floor were the most expensive since it was convenient to rise with steps, and privacy was better than on the first floor. Many upper-class citizens including administrators, lawyers, and doctors preferred the second floor.

The lower parts of the building were built with mud bricks (unburnt bricks later), and the upper parts of the building were built with timber.

It was one of the first “real estate investments” recorded in the history

The first real estate investments were also recorded in the city of Rome. For example, Marcus Licinius Crassus was famous for looking to acquire burnt-down properties and rebuild new Insula and rent them out, and it didn’t take much time for it to reach the “break-even point”. Cicero made records for many episodes of how Crassus has been flipping and renovating Insula to maximize his profit.

Many ancient Roman “real estate moguls” hired third-party property managers to operate their insulae, instead of managing themselves. It’s also interesting that many renters chose to sub-lease their units with higher rents.

Residents of Insulae also had a preference in which commercial/ retail shop should be located on the ground floor. They typically didn’t like blacksmith shops that make too much noise and increased risks of fire, and leather shops that create bad smells. Insulae that had such unfavored retail/commercial shops typically were traded at lower prices.


Although there were many resemblances between Insulae and today’s low-rise/ mid-rise multifamily properties, Insulae also had many main downsides as well.

Due to the unsophisticated architectural technology, hasty construction, and illegal extensions, the risk of collapse was extremely high. It also had noise issues due to the same reasons.

Fire hazards risk. People moved around inside the building with portable stoves, candles, and torches. In the event of a fire, residents on the floors above the affected one had no means of escape.

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