Rowhouses Without the Wiggle

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ’em down for your consideration.

The townhouse, or rowhouse, is a traditional urban approach to density that, somewhat ironically, has been embraced by suburban builders. Over time, this once simple and elegant species has evolved (some might say devolved) to reflect its newfound environment, becoming “squeezed” in its appearance, with little bits and pieces protruding — wiggling — in the oddest of ways.

Having recently acquired the stature of fifty years on this earth, I’ve learned one must be judicious with one’s wiggle to maintain a degree of dignity. Over the course of the same period, however, suburban townhouse developers have failed to acquire the same wisdom.

Between its devotion to car storage and its need to express its individuality, this Florida townhouse is bustin' out all over.

The form’s contemporary suburban architectural expression has (d)evolved from historically restrained, community-minded massing to the highly articulated, erratic, look-at-me forms we know today. Like their single family brethren, the over-articulated McMansion, suburban townhouses reflect the need for the building to compensate for a lack of beauty and interest in the streetscape. In contrast, in more urban areas that have rowhouses, the continuity of the fabric of the street is embraced as important to the success of the public realm as a whole.

The vibrancy of the city should be balanced by buildings that aren't screaming at you.

In newer traditional neighborhoods, suburban retrofits, and infill sites, it’s critical that builders rediscover the idea of streets, rather than single structures, as the amenity. This historic example in Covington, Kentucky, illustrates the elegance and harmony that a virtually flat façade contributes to the street (though Daniel Libeskind’s massing in the distance is a bit of a shock). In these strained economic times, it’s more than just a question of style, as builders can find great savings in simpler forms, foundations, and trusses. Imagine the cost benefits of building the plan below as a simple rectangle, then imagine the savings reallocated to improved façade materials and better doors and windows.


Lose the wiggle. Here’s five tips on townhouse restraint:

  • Keep the façade flat. This saves on cost and frees budget for improved windows and materials.
  • Resist non-rational articulation. Use simple solutions like porches, stoops, balconies or bay windows to provide interest while you develop faith in the attraction of the street itself.
  • For fee-simple rowhouses, separate the roofs with parapets. For condominiums, the straight roof is fine.
  • Break the parcels with passages mid-block. This permits easy access to the alley behind while providing two additional end units with additional light. However, avoid the temptation for frequent breaks as this begins to confuse the building type with less urban ones.
  • The parking MUST occur in the rear with parallel on-street spaces for guests. This model depends entirely on the beauty of the public realm and can be destroyed by dominant parking stalls.

–Susan Henderson

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Filed under Architecture, Development

12 responses to “Rowhouses Without the Wiggle

  1. For another recent example, see Though not technically a row house, (Citrus Square has retail at the first floor.) it follows all of your recommendations except one. We jogged the front of the units (not the back) in 8″ increments. This kept the structure simple but allowed us to return moldings back and forth around the front of the facades.

  2. Put another way, an over-articulated facade (either of a single large building or several smaller ones like townhouses) is clear evidence of a designer’s lack of ability to properly compose an elevation. Put down the pen. Pick up a book. Learn composition. Then design a calm facade.

  3. And if the façade is calm, what’s behind the façade has a better chance of being calm. Applies to more than architecture!

  4. Ah Steve, very simply and clearly stated. Citrus Square looks like a great project and its certainly in a great location. The 8″ increments aren’t distracting.

  5. Separating units with walls through the roof allows you to build more incrementally, designing parts that have to work together instead of the whole thing all at once.

  6. Nice post. Philadelphia has an excellent manual intended for homeowners, rather than planners, that’s worth checking out…

  7. Bramaria

    Simple, direct and honest is always best. Pity the sight (however oblique), of a Daniel Libeskind blue building made me throw up my lunch. How can one man be so consistemntly sickening?

  8. Great topic and advice, Susan. Was happy to see the link (from Joseph Readdy) to the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual, but I’ll have to hassle my pal Gary Jastrzab about the cover photograph, which shows a scene that is
    1) not one of our common Philadelphia rowhouse subtypes
    2) compressed by a long lens
    3) seriously wiggly!

  9. That is a wonderful link to the Philly Rowhouse Manual. And although the cover image is a little excitable, porches on attached units tend to have that effect.

  10. Pingback: For buildings to add up to urban neighborhood, “lose the wiggle”, keep facades simple «

  11. We like to call those wiggling rowhouses “nervous” — it is like they really don’t know what they want to be! Unfortunately those offsets and articulation are often required in local ordinances and guidelines…

  12. Susan Henderson

    Exactly, Mary! Code victims. So many jurisdictions are trying to compensate for the lack of beauty in the public realm, and someone convinced them an anxiety attack would solve the problem. Coding correctly is the first step to getting the architecture right.

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