Early reports of the death of the townhome appear to have been greatly exaggerated.
A private garage for two cars; flex space ideal for teens, guests or an office; a light-filled interior with generous rooms between multiple levels. Decks, porches and patios, open interiors to the outside. The feeling is expansive and private. Welcome to the new townhome.
“Back down. The townhome is dead” was cautionary advice Jeff Benach, principal of Chicago-based Lexington Homes, often heard during the recession. But that wasn’t the experience for his firm, which, he says, always had been “pretty strong on townhomes.” They continued to offer this option. “A couple of years later in 2011 and 2012, all of a sudden the townhome is becoming the it property type,” he says. Few other types of residential housing have had a resurgence of interest as town-homes, and few others have undergone as many fundamental changes in architecture, floor plans and finishes. Elevated design and dynamic architecture are only part of this newfound appeal. Cost, location, and lifestyle — which often is more important than price for buyers — also come into play.
Long perceived as second best, town-houses are no longer viewed as merely a less costly alternative to single-family homes. Instead, the appeal extends to a surprising span of life stages and lifestyles from entry-level to move-up to affluent.
No Longer Second Best
“We’re starting to see, and I’ve seen more of lately, something I never saw in my 30-plus years of doing this, and that is families, young families with kids looking for a townhouse for school districts or other reasons,” explains Benach. “This obviously signals a shift in who is buying townhomes, whereas before it was first-time or move-down buyers.” Also, school districts have become a much bigger factor for potential buyers, which, Benach says, reflects a much greater acceptance of townhomes as a longer term, grow-to product.
“Luxury townhouses in New York City are increasingly offering homeowners more options and choices when it comes to their lifestyle. A townhouse generally provides homeowners more living space and the opportunity to have a residential experience that is closer to a single-home lifestyle, which is hard to find in a metropolitan area. The townhouse can offer a family room to grow and more flexibility as needs change in the future,” explains David Dynega, CEO of Detail Renovations in Great Neck, N.Y.
PHOTO COURTESY KOBI KARP ARCHITECTURE AND INTERIOR DESIGN
Walls of glass bring the tropical landscape into the experience of this townhome on Fisher Island.
The ability to lock and leave without compromising on outdoor connections and privacy is another incentive. “Living in a townhouse-style building, I literally lock my door and leave. I’m walkable to downtown and I have no anxiety about maintaining or the lawn or yard or snow removal. It’s taken care of. I think that’s the benefit for a more transient society, especially people with multiple dwellings,” shares Michigan architect Wayne Visbeen, principal and founder of Visbeen Architects.
“The keyword in townhome is home,” observes Kobi Karp, principal of Kobi Karp Architecture & Interior Design. “It’s a very habitable home, a house within the town. That’s really the way we see it, and it’s traditionally, historically been as such,” he says reflecting on the tradition of grand urban residences from the era of the Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan. “A lot of our projects are infilled in urban spaces, and people are using town-houses to be unique destinations for their family within the urban center,” he explains.
“The townhouses you see now are designed much more like a single-family home, and people want a single-family feel even to an attached home,” says Michael Stone, senior designer at Bassenian Lagoni Architects in Newport Beach, California. While attached multi-story dwellings, traditionally called row homes, are what many still envision at the mention of townhouses, this option today has a range of iterations. “It seems like each week we are seeing a new spin on the attached product,” shares Stone.
Today, townhouses can be clustered on small lots. Some are freestanding, like some historical homes in New York City, or they might be attached. They can also be part of a highrise building. “We create them on lanai decks; we create them on rooftops,” says Karp. Location is key and an address in a highly desirable, prestigious neighborhood in cities including New York or Miami adds to the appeal and the cachet of the property. Being part of a high rise also usu-ally enables townhome owners to enjoy all of the amenities of the building.
Even new master-planned communities — usually with diverse property types, prices and sizes — often include town-houses in walkable locations close to the hub of activity.
Getting More With Less
Kobi Karp lives in a townhouse. Wayne Visbeen lives in what might be considered a new vision for townhouses. His is a three-story live-work space. “I think the thing that is similar between townhouses and single-family homes is we’re all trying to figure out ways of getting more for less. So how do you use space efficiently, no matter how luxurious? It is something that even my very-high-end clients are looking for,” he says. His own home is only 20-feet wide; yet, he says, people are shocked when they learn how narrow the home is. What makes the difference? Ceiling heights give volume and expansive windows bring in light.
Visbeen, who has won design and architectural awards for both custom and production homes, tends to think about space innovatively. A good example is a large room in his home designed to be adapted to multiple uses, including a rec room, a guest suite and a conference room for his business. This type of space is something Visbeen says he is incorporating into almost all new designs from townhouses to single-family residences.
What makes a townhouse today differ-ent from one designed decades ago? Light, maximizing square footage, floor plans oriented for privacy and indoor/outdoor connections. Even entries have been reorganized with direct access to a residence from a private garage, which is more often than not, spacious enough for two cars and additional storage.
It’s All About The Light
Interiors infused with light dispel any sense of compromise regarding square foot-age or the size of a lot, even for attached homes. For example, in a recent plan created by Bassenian Lagoni, individual town homes were attached along the rear wall. The entries faced opposite streets and the orientation allowed for the placement of windows, large banks of windows, on three sides.
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Strategic positioning of stairs connect levels and enhance light in new townhome designs.
Often, stairways are open and positioned to transmit light through two or more levels of the home and to also visually connect multiple levels without sacrificing valuable interior space. For upscale properties, elevators are becoming a non-negotiable item, particularly in new construction on sites where the enhanced value derived by the location and the land often more than exceeds the cost of an elevator.
A new spin on townhomes from Lexington Homes, is something Benach describes as a bit of a hybrid. “It’s a town-home in that the main footprint where people live is about a 40- by 22- or 21-foot footprint, times three stories.” In a typical old-style townhome, the garage would be in front or in the rear but still integral to the building. But in Benach’s hybrid model, the entire house is “all living space.” The back door opens to a rear yard and a garage that fronts on an alley. “So, it’s just like a city single family home, except they are attached. And there is a weathered-board fence between each one, so you’ve got your own little private back yard,” along with a garage, he says.
PHOTO COURTESY KOBI KARP ARCHITECTURE AND INTERIOR DESIGN
Whether a covered deck, garden, pool or simply a small patio, outdoor spaces are some of the most desired amenities in townhomes.
A small outdoor space, especially in urban centers, is one of the most desired amenities offered by townhomes. It’s something many do not want to sacrifice just because they live in a metropolitan area.
Equally fundamental to an experience akin to single-family are decks, patios and porches, often on multiple levels of the home. Not only do they provide an essential connection to nature, but they extend the square footage, often via stacking or telescoping doors that completely
merge inside and out. Often, for homes located above parking garages or in high-rise buildings, they create opportunities for outdoor living — even small gardens or play areas in locations and sites where such access is almost impossible. Being able to walk outside or dine, possibly in a covered outdoor room, brings an entirely new dimension to the townhome experience. The latest “must-have” outdoor amenity is a rooftop deck, which in many locations maximizes views. Outdoor kitchens and dinning, gardens, pools, and play areas make this amenity space even more desirable.
Outdoor Living Inside The Home
Another strategy architects employ to create outdoor connections and infuse natural light into the center of townhouses is interior courtyards, often sited next to a side yard or the rear, with the home grouped around it in a U-shape. In addition to opening ground-level spaces (often via disappearing doors) to the outdoors, they create opportunities for additional windows and even large expanses of glass on upper levels. In all price ranges, the use of transom glass at the top of walls or over windows and doors further opens interiors on upper levels.
Private courtyards within the townhouse also evoke historical ties to turn-of-the-century townhomes in New York. “Those homes were highly glazed with interaction and connectivity to the landscaping, and to the gardens,” says Karp.
In addition to outdoor living options, having square footage distributed between multiple levels is a main differentiator between a flat and a townhouse.
The interaction between indoors and outdoors also differentiates a townhouse from a flat as does having living spaces on multiple levels. Both create value and enhance privacy and the essential sense of home. “It gives you a little bit of separation. It’s physical and mental privacy,” says Karp.
“Additionally, particularly for high-end homes, taller rooms often found in town-homes are ideal to display art,” observes Karp, a feature increasing desired by affluent owners.
Even for the affluent, especially in urban centers, Karp says, “a big house and land isn’t necessarily as financially feasible as it is to maintain a luxury townhome in a town center where you live it and you use it in a more efficient manner. You live and you use every room of the townhouse, where I give you a sprawling house in the city and there’s rooms you never walk into.”
This editorial originally appeared in The High End Winter 2020.
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