Learn English – What’s the word for an unused, enclosed space between two apartment buildings


Over a decade ago, my partner and I moved to New York City (Brooklyn). We were somewhat surprised to find a certain feature of our apartment building; where it abuts the adjacent apartment building, there is a small open space, a few feet wide. This space is fully enclosed by the buildings and cannot be accessed except by an internal access door through the basement of the buildings. No one ever enters or uses the space. It provides positioning of windows for sunlight into the kitchens, bathrooms, and central living spaces of all the apartments. We can look from our kitchen directly into the neighbors' kitchen a few feet away. An example of this space is shown from Google maps below:

Brooklyn apartments with small enclosed spaces between

For scale of the space, compare to the cars on the street. These are not very large buildings; maybe 3 or 4 stories tall, and each floor is just a single residence.

I'd like to be able to say with friends something like, "Today there are workmen doing construction in the ____ and it's very loud in my apartment!".

What's the name of this small, enclosed open-space feature between two apartment buildings?

Best Answer

It's also called air shaft.

Air shaft: (architecture) A vertical (or near vertical) opening (shaft) running from a courtyard to the sky, thus allowing air to circulate to high-rise apartments or offices.

Or air well

Air well: a court enclosed within walls and open at the top for supplying air to windows — called also air shaft.
[Merriam Webster]

There's a whole article about air shafts in NYC on 6sqft, I'll just copy-paste the relevant quote:

When exterior windows finally became mandatory in the 1880s, developers were naturally eager to comply with the city’s new building law but without losing a significant amount of building space. For at least two decades, this led to the construction of buildings with interior air shafts so narrow tenants to shake hands with their neighbors’ in adjoining buildings.

Another quote from BrianWestbye's blog:

So much goes on in a Harlem airshaft. You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker.

Thanks to Mari Lou A for the links!

Wikipedia article on the NYC law that created air shafts