Shaping the City: Instead of suburban sprawl, let's embrace townhouse living

(By Roger K. Lewis For The Washington Post)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, November 28, 2009

Many architecture firms have little interest in designing townhouse projects. Architects rarely pursue developers of these single-family attached homes as clients. Why should this be?

Millions of American households occupy townhouses, which may not really be in a town. Many are in low-density, suburban and exurban residential communities.

Because most new townhouse projects outside cities are intended for first-time home buyers or buyers of modest means, construction budgets typically are very tight. Regrettably, many architects view this as an undesirable constraint on aesthetic creativity.

Tight budgets also mean tight architectural fees, further discouraging most design firms. Doing good architectural work on a tight budget actually requires greater effort and creativity than designing projects with generous budgets and fees, thus diminishing an architect's incentive even further.

Whatever the budget, townhouse projects often are governed by restrictive zoning ordinances that constrain design flexibility. Regulations may limit the number of units in a row and the width and height of each unit. They may arbitrarily require horizontal and vertical offsets -- staggering -- between units in a single row. Regulations also may limit choice of materials.

Yet townhouses, the market-acceptable term for "rowhouses," represent a building type dating back millennia. Ancient Romans built rows of private houses side by side with a shared wall between each house. Rowhouses have long been a staple in Asian and African cultures as well as in Europe. And some of America's most elegant urban dwellings have been rowhouses.

This makes sense, as rowhouses can be economical, functionally commodious and aesthetically attractive. Designed and built well, a rowhouse offers almost all the amenity associated with living in a single-family detached home.

Common party walls between units, properly constructed for fire and acoustic separation, ensure safety and interior privacy. A unit's compactness means less exterior surface area exposed to weather and reduced heating and cooling needs.

With its own lot, each rowhouse enjoys direct access to and from outdoor garden or play space, whether it's a courtyard or a backyard. And occupants usually can park a car or two not far from a front or rear entry.

Rowhouses use land very efficiently by enabling relatively high densities, as much as 20 units per acre. Detached housing density rarely exceeds 7 units per acre. And every square foot of a subdivided rowhouse lot is fully utilized for the house proper and for purposeful, well-delineated exterior spaces. Parks and playgrounds are also part of well-planned rowhouse projects.

Depending on lot and building footprint dimensions, a rowhouse interior can encompass commodious rooms, large kitchens, elegant stairways, luxurious baths and generous storage space on multiple levels. Appropriately placed, generously sized front and back windows can admit ample daylight and fresh air, and skylights can pour additional daylight into the center of a rowhouse.

Architects can employ either of two basic form-making approaches when designing a row of attached homes. One approach entails differentiating each unit within a row. To achieve this, designers vary facade materials and colors, window treatments, entry porch and doorway features, roof configurations and ornamental details.

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