Over the past 20 years, the new-home market in the Washington area has undergone a dramatic transformation, and nowhere are the changes more apparent than in new townhouses.
In the mid-1990s, most were modestly sized and purchased by first-time buyers. Today, townhouses come in all sizes, and every segment of the market is buying them. Even more surprising is the crossover appeal. All segments of the market — including first-time buyers, first- and second-time move-up buyers, and move-down empty-nester buyers are purchasing the same houses, which makes for more diverse neighborhoods with younger and older buyers living side by side.
Two good examples of the crossover phenomenon are the Knutson Cos.’ Rockland at its Crescent Place development in Leesburg, designed by Bill Foliaco of Lessard Design in Vienna, and Miller & Smith’s Verde in the Meridian Collection subdivision of the firm’s Victory Lakes development in the Bristow area of Prince William County, designed by Smita Anand of KTGY in Vienna. More important to prospective buyers, each offers a checklist of what to look for when considering a townhouse purchase in the current market.
First, don’t be guided by size and price alone. By these criteria, these two townhouses could not be more different. Knutson’s four-story Rockland has 2,853 square feet of finished space and range from $449,990 to $565,990, while Miller & Smith’s three-story Verde has three-quarters as much finished space and the base price is $169,000 lower.
But when you see the houses, their surprising similarities are what you’ll notice first.
The first “wow” moment will occur at the same point in both houses — as you ascend the stairs and turn the corner into the main living area on the second floor. It is completely open from one end to the other with a stunning island kitchen in the center and dining and sitting areas at each end. Because both houses have almost the same size footprint (Knutson’s is 20 by 42 feet; Miller and Smith’s is 20 by 43 feet, 8 inches), the size of each individual area on this floor is almost the same.
This spatial configuration with the central island kitchen has become a hallmark of current townhouse design in the Washington market, but it is rarely done as well as it is here. In both cases, much of the impact is in the cumulative effect of the details:
●The kitchen island in each house is big enough — 4 by 12 feet in Knutson’s; 3.5 by 11 feet in Miller and Smith’s — to be a visual anchor for the very large space but not so big that an observer might say “it looks like a parked car,” as New York architect Barry Goralnick wryly described kitchen islands that have become ridiculously big.
The length and width that gives these islands a visual heft that others have likened to a “sculptured piece of furniture” is also practical. The island counters are big enough for breakfast and informal family meals, and the base cabinets incorporated at each end of each island make up for the storage capacity lost when builders excised the kitchen walls to make the floor completely open.
The central kitchen location that works so well architecturally can also enhance the quality of family life, said Dan Fulton, a Washington-area housing market analyst. “With the kitchen in the middle of the floor, you’re only 10 feet away from household members in either end — close enough for a pretty good conversation.”
●The window and door openings in both houses are unusually large, which increases the amount of natural light and the perception of spaciousness. The light level in the models, both end units, is further enhanced by side windows.
●The question of where to place the powder room is neatly solved. When builders removed all the walls on the main level to make the space more open, this became an issue, said Dale Hall, Miller & Smith’s vice president of operations. Everyone wants the convenience of a half-bath on the main floor, but no one wants a powder room that opens onto a living area — especially the kitchen — and these preferences make a design solution challenging.
Foliaco’s design for Knutson tucks the powder room discretely into a corner, with the door facing a stair landing; Anand’s design for Miller & Smith takes discretion one step further: She created a small, private hallway off the stair landing from which both the powder room and a small closet can be accessed. Not only does this provide more privacy, the closet will be a handy place to store table leaves and the special-occasion dishes and table linens many households use for holidays and family celebrations.
●The stairs do not occupy a lot of space. In both houses, the staircases hug the sidewall opposite the central island kitchen. The stairs do not protrude into the living and dining areas, which can eat up useful floor area.
The main living level will resonate with different buyers for different reasons. Older, empty nesters moving from a large house with large rooms will like the “big house feel” of such a large, open space. Millennial buyers (generally considered to be age 35 or younger) who grew up in single-family houses with an eat-in kitchen family room will sense a larger version of the familiar. Buyers coming from smaller houses or apartments will feel liberated by the sheer size of this 800-square-foot area.
But furnishing the large main living level may prove to be more challenging than most buyers realize. On the one hand, the large, completely open floor offers an unusual degree of flexibility in how you decide to use the space. On the other, both family room areas, which run the full 19-foot interior width of the floor, and the dining areas are unusually large and tricky to furnish. To make them look and feel comfortable, both furnished models have oversize furniture.
Ceiling treatments can give an individual living area below more definition and make it feel more cozy, but the treatments must be subtle and shallow. If a dropped beam or bulkhead is more than six inches deep, most people will perceive the space below to be too small, not more comfortable, said Jack McLaurin, a local architect considered to be the “dean of townhouse design” by Washington-area home builders for the hundreds that he and his team at Lessard Design in Vienna designed over more than 20 years. McLaurin now heads planning and design for EYA, a Bethesda-based home-building firm.
The beamed-ceiling treatment in the family room area of Knutson’s Rockland not only gives the space some visual definition but also adds historical cachet. This type of exposed wood beam is often found in the old farmhouses that still dot the working farms in the Leesburg area, said Rebecca Taylor of Taylor Interior Design in Reston, who designed the interiors. A further connection to Leesburg’s past, the fir and poplar used to make the beams was salvaged from an old barn in nearby Berryville.
Your second wow moment will be the master suites on the third floor. In both houses, the master bedroom is larger than those found in most single-family houses. The one in the Rockland runs the full width of the house and is almost as big as the family room below. Both bedrooms feature optional bay windows; the one in the Verde is outfitted as a window seat and is long enough for two adults to stretch out at each end. For households with children or grandchildren, this will likely become a favored spot for playing games or doing homework, and dogs will find that it’s a great perch for napping.
Both master bathrooms have upscale details, including a separate toilet area and a large shower with a seat. There are also generously sized walk-in closets.
A major difference between the two houses is the size and location of the secondary bedrooms. In Miller & Smith’s Verde, they’re smaller and down the hall from the master suite on the third level, an arrangement that is vastly preferred by families with young children and some older buyers who don’t want an extra flight of stairs, Hall said.
The secondary bedrooms in the Rockland are larger, each has its own bathroom and they are on separate floors. One is down the hall from the master suite, and the other is up a flight of stairs on the fourth level (the bathroom is optional). Both builders offer an optional fourth bedroom that is nearly identical in size plus an optional full bath on the ground floor (the base price for both houses includes a ground-floor finished rec room/study that can be upgraded to a bedroom).
Only the Rockland will elicit a third wow moment. This will happen as you reach the large fourth floor’s rec room (it’s also nearly as big as the family room on the second floor) and step out onto the adjacent roof terrace. This 10- by 19-foot outdoor area is no mere balcony: It’s big enough to qualify as an outdoor room.
Characterized by many in the home-building business as a “yard in the sky” and “a private rooftop refuge,” the roof terrace has proved to be enormously popular with buyers, Fulton said, adding that from a historical perspective, the bigger change in townhouse living in the Washington area is not the terrace but the addition of a fourth level.
Before the housing market collapsed in 2007, it was unusual. But as the market started to come back, it has become one of the major identifiers of this era of homebuilding, he said.
Miller & Smith offers a similarly sized 10- by 18-foot outdoor living area, but it is a deck off the family room space on the second level. There is also a small 20- by 20-foot back yard off the rear of the ground floor.
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard University. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.katherinesalant.com .
235 Crescent Station Terrace SE, Leesburg, Va.
Four-level townhouses with two models, Rockland and Fleetwood, are priced from $449,990 to $565,990. The builder is offering incentives toward closing costs if the buyer goes through a preferred lender and title company.
Builder: Knutson Cos.
Features: Exterior fronts, corners and stoop are red brick; rears are covered in James Hardie siding. The gas furnace operates at 92 percent efficiency, and exterior walls are built with 2-inch-by 6-inch lumber. All ceilings are nine feet; hardwood flooring covers the foyer, powder room and kitchen; and a three-color paint scheme runs throughout the home.
Square footage: 2,089 to 2,853
Homeowners association fee: $54 per month
View model: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 1 to 6 p.m. Monday; noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday.
Sales: Deborah Condrey, 703-570-6550 or www.crescentplaceleesburg.com .