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The New Town House

The revitalization of urban areas has revived the concept of the town house, an ancient architectural style.


The revitalization of urban areas has revived the concept of the town house, an ancient architectural style that has continued to reinvent itself throughout history.

Those who find suburbia isn't providing them with the lifestyle they need are returning to cities for culture, diversity, walkability and vibrancy. The redesign of row houses that are more than 100 years old and the construction of new modern designs once again prove this classic structure provides one of the best styles of urban dwelling.

In his new book Creating the New American Town House, author and architect Alexander Gorlin looks at 30 cutting edge town houses that break with tradition and adapt to the demands of the 21st century. These houses emphasize raw materials in their natural form. Gorlin likens these homes to "paintings," which are constrained by canvas as the town house is constrained by walls. "And, like modern painting, which exploded previously held conceptions of what art could be, vastly expanding what was possible, the modern town house is much freer than its predecessors to explore themes, ideas and concepts, enlarging our very conception of this important urban form," Gorlin writes.

A town house is defined literally as a house in town, although traditionally it's a dwelling with common sidewalls. Its origins can be traced back 3,500 years to ancient Crete and to Roman and Greek town houses in the first century B.C.E. Pompeii consisted almost entirely of these types of structures. In Utopia, Thomas More presents town houses as the ideal home:

"The houses be of fair and gorgeous building, and on the street side they stand joined together in a long row through the whole street without any partition or separation. The streets be twenty foot broad. On the back side of the houses, through the whole length of the street, lie gardens enclosed round about with the back side of the streets."

Variations of the town house have reflected the needs and culture of each landscape. Venice has houses that are built wide across the canal. Amsterdam's frontage is much narrower, but often has another canal at the rear. Town house neighborhoods were often planned with public spaces in mind.

Town houses shaped European cities, and the real estate value of this concept traveled across the ocean to cities like New York, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia. These structures, while fashionable in their day, tended to be dark and somewhat inflexible in their design. In the early 20th century, modern architecture's use of steel and reinforced concrete enabled a radical shift in town house design.

Mies van der Rohe created another powerful precedent for today's modern town home. He designed some early town houses at the Weissenhof Housing Exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927, which was a block of apartments of horizontal bands punctuated by stair towers. Van der Rohe later came to the states and designed moderate income town houses in Detroit, which had large panes of glass, suggesting elegance and scale.

The evolution of the town house continued throughout the last century. As city living grows in popularity and density and ways of incorporating new materials into design become more innovative and practical, perhaps the most exciting era of town house design lies ahead.

Gorlin includes his own design of a modern Bucktown town house in the book. The materials are limited to white painted steel, white statuary marble for the counters, gray stone floors from China and white plaster walls. The lower level contains a guest bedroom and exercise space. The main level is a double height space with the kitchen, living and dining areas. The master bedroom and bath include a glass shower and freestanding tub open to the bedroom area. Glass walls on both sides offer views of the city. The clothes closet is open so folks can view a perfectly coordinated wardrobe, on constant display.

Creating the New American Town House also features the renovation of a 19th century town house in Old Town by architects Brinninstool + Lynch, Ltd. Historic guidelines were maintained for the street fa?ade, and the interior was opened for natural light and air with minimalist style.

The first floor is retail space with two floors above. An elevator was installed next to the stairway, which was built of steel, slate, wood and glass. A courtyard was reconstructed in the back along with a coach house, rebuilt as a garage and guest house with a kitchen. The light from the courtyard flows throughout the house, which was designed to overlook the courtyard, giving a sense of living in nature within this dense urban neighborhood.

Designing Your Town House

If you have decided that town house living meets your aesthetic and financial needs, the best course of action is to consult with an architect. Existing housing stock generally consists of 19th or early 20th century town houses that may have been badly renovated since the 1960s. Those that still possess some historical details can be restored with modern kitchens and added baths, or it may be easier to take it down to the shell and construct within the historical framework.

Once you have found a place that intrigues you, have an engineer inspect the structural, mechanical and electrical systems. Then check the local building and zoning codes for the rules that apply to height limits,setbacks, buildable area and landmark status. You will likely need a professional architect or code consultant and a real estate attorney to navigate these regulations. Be prepared -- many of them don't make any sense. A prime example of this is after the Chicago fire in 1886 houses were required to have a gap between them. Even a century later, regulations still made townhouse construction difficult in the city.

Gorlin clearly lays out the factors involved in creating the town home of your dreams. It will probably require a two-year relationship with your architect so be sure it is someone with whom you can get along.

Creating the different elements of a town house takes careful consideration. Begin with an overall plan. A width of 20 to 25 ft is ideal, allowing for two rooms side by side. FAR is the floor-area ratio zoning code that determines how many square feet can be built on the city lot. Houses built with one half level below grade gain extra square footage since the basement space is not considered in the calculation. Lower level ceiling heights can be eight feet high or even a little less.

Gorlin recommends the level of the main floor be 10 to 12 feet in height. Upper floors can be eight foot six inches or nine feet high. Frank Lloyd Wright actually related the dimension of the room to the inhabitants height. New construction, with steel or concrete, makes it possible for common rooms to be double the height and thus more dramatic.

The architectural firm of Shelton, Mindel & Associates added two stories to an historic Greek Revival town house in Manhattan. Care was taken not to drastically alter the street fa?ade, making a rooftop addition setback on street and garden elevation. Excavation was directed downward to create a ground floor kitchen and a lower garden area.

The second and third floors are composed of bedrooms and sitting areas filled with historic 20th century furniture. The millwork was custom designed to fit in with the furniture and rugs with painstaking attention to historical detail. At penthouse level is a skylight and large bronze steel window off the family room with a view to the garden.

At garden level, the kitchen and sitting room are paved with cinza limestone leading out to the terrace. A steel stairway descends to the patio area with a story-high wall of water that fills a pool and reflects light.

When talking to your architect, make sure you've composed a "wish list," a list of rooms and size required for your daily operations. This will make you think about how you live and what your actual requirements might be. This, along with your site and budget, should bring about a reasonable plan for going forward.

There are different ways to organize the rooms. The kitchen should open up to the breakfast area, dining room and family room. If the family room is adjacent to the garden, it is better planning to have the living room upstairs. Or the kitchen, dining and living room can be on the floor above the garden. Then the kitchen can open to a deck that leads to the garden.

It's important to separate the bedrooms from the main rooms. The master bedroom should be above the main level and other bedrooms on the floor above that. Noise levels should be taken into consideration when placing bedrooms in the front or back.

If you are going up four floors, then an elevator needs to be taken into consideration. Most people don't want to hike up that many stairs, but elevators are very expensive and take up a lot of space in a town house.

Elevators are also supplemental to stairs so this can severely cut into design plans.

Unfortunately, bathrooms in town homes tend to be small, and today a fashionable bathroom should be divided into three areas -- bathing, washing and toilet spaces. It is challenging to accomplish this in a smaller space, but it can be done. Be careful, however: too large of a bathroom may throw off the proportions of the home.

Decide if you want your kitchen to be visible or not. It can be a room of its own or in a loft-like setting. In the past, kitchens were in the basement or ground level for ease of deliveries and taking out the garbage. Thisstill applies, especially if you don't want to cart groceries up the stairs.

Structurally, it's possible to "double-space" height for dramatic effect if you are willing to sacrifice space. You can also open up the front or the back to let in much needed light since it is not coming in from the sides. Care needs to be taken not to undermine the foundation of adjacent structures when planning severe changes.

Gorlin says that "stairs are the heart of the town house -- going up and down stairs defines the vertical nature of town house living as opposed to the flat or horizontality of the apartment." Stairs are to follow the lines of the party walls and run alongside the ascending plan or can double back at the center, he says.

Side stairs take the least amount of space. A central stair can be hidden or exposed. Most stairs lead to a roof garden where an entertaining space, hot tub or barbecue are all possibilities.

As Gorlin emphasizes throughout his picturesque book, with a great deal of imagination and professional assistance, creating an amazing space in a town house can be a surprisingly rewarding way to live in an urban neighborhood. o

Published: June 01, 2006
Issue: Summer 2006