Advice From the Architect - Creating the New American Town House

Suppose you are building or renovating a town house- what are the things to look for—or pitfalls to avoid? Having designed and built town houses across America, I will try to share my experience.

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If you have fallen in love with the idea of living in a town house but cannot find one that fits your needs or just wish to embark on the adventure of designing and building your own dream house, then a road map is in order. The first decision is whether to build from scratch or to renovate. In many central cities there are existing town houses that are available but need major renovation, both in terms of program and structure. Either they were built in the nineteenth or early twentieth century and were designed with outdated kitchens and baths, or were renovated badly in the 1960s through the 1980s. Those of historical interest can be restored to their original details, while being updated with modern conveniences and appliances. Another more exciting direction is to view the entire ensemble as a shell with new construction to combine the best of the old and the new.

After finding a possible property through the internet, broker, or simply walking around the neighborhood you desire, a consulting engineer should check the property for problems with the structural, mechanical, and electrical systems. Subsequently, should you conclude that major construction is required, it is imperative that you check the local Building and Zoning codes. There is no point in attempting to build something that is prohibited by the local municipality. There are numerous rules governing limitations in zoning, height limits, setbacks, build-able area, and landmark restrictions that are often very different not only from city to city but within specific zoning districts. This is the least glamorous, but most important part of the process.

A professional architect or code consultant can analyze these zoning and building codes that govern the size and placement of the town house. Often a real estate lawyer will need to be involved to navigate the rules and regulations. Sometimes a variance will be needed and then there is no guarantee that it will be granted! Never take a lot at face value and certainly be wary of real estate brokers who promise that you too can building a similarly sized addition to the rear or on top of a town house, because your neighbors have done the same thing. Remember, the rules of municipal building departments change all the time. For example, in Chicago, rules regarding town houses go back to the great fire of 1886, which resulted in a required gap between each house. Attached town houses were therefore discouraged, even 120 years after the disaster! As has often been said, the law has little to do with reality and there is no better example than rules related to construction.

Hiring an architect can be a daunting task, but ask friends, read books and magazines, surf the internet, until someone catches your eye. Then call directly, and ask for the principal. Don't be shy, as most architects will take a call for a potential job. Explain your project briefly with size and a realistic budget in mind and ask for an interview - apart from talent, personal chemistry is essential, since you will spend probably two years with this architect and his or her firm to achieve your goals for a beautiful and comfortable home.

The width and depth of lot are very important. In New York there are legendary narrow lots that are 12 to 14 feet wide; in this case, the house becomes one room wide, limiting how the internal space can be utilized. A width of 20 or 25 feet is ideal, allowing for two rooms side by side in width for bedrooms of decent size on either front or rear. The lot size is different from the space inside, since the sidewalls have a significant width, usually of at least 10 to 12 inches, that must be subtracted from the overall width of the town house.

This is initially a function of building codes and height restrictions, often based on a formula called FAR, the floor-area ratio. This is a zoning code that determines how much square footage can be built on a city lot; it is presented in multiples of the lot area itself, so that a FAR of 3 is three times the lot area. Since a town house is by definition built-up to the lot line left and right, the FAR is crucial especially if there is a height restriction as well. Traditionally, this is the reason many town houses in London and New York had one-half level below grade, to qualify as a basement, which is not considered in calculating FAR.

Heights of floors should be related to the specific level of habitation; the main floor or piano nobile is historically either one-half floor or one floor above grade. This level should be at least 10 to 12 feet in height, although the width of the town house and therefore the proportion of the rooms must be taken into account. Rooms that are too tall for their width can feel awkward. The lower level can be 8 feet high, or even a bit less. Le Corbusier used the standard of 7 feet 6 inches (the height of a six-foot man reaching upwards) as his minimum height, but with people apparently growing taller with each generation, this may be too low. Upper floors can be 8 feet 6 inches or 9 feet high. If the house is custom designed, why not use Frank Lloyd Wright's device of relating the dimension of the room to the client's height, perhaps to a dado or door height. In new construction, the public rooms can be double height or more taking advantage of the structural possibilities of steel or concrete. Paul Rudolph's own town house must have at least 30 different levels and mezzanines within the upper two-and-one half floors of his town house. "Don't assume anything" may be a good motto for a renovation in an old town house that could be 100 years old or more. Adding height to a basement might start out innocently, but will not always end that way. If the house is in a low lying area, it could be above a long buried spring; or, once you start digging, you may strike oil, and not in the way the Beverly Hillbillies did- rather, the source of your strike may be a neighbor's leaking oil tank.

Organization and Room Types

In planning your town house with your architect, make a program or list of rooms and spaces that you need, with approximate square footages and their adjacency requirements. This "wish list" will force you to think about how you live now and how you wish to live in the town house. The architect will also confront this list with the reality of your site and budget. Together, a creative synthesis is achieved that brings the project into fruition. There is an inherent tension between the desire to have rooms open directly to the garden and t hose on the elevated piano nobile. Functionally and for circulation flow, the kitchen should open up to the dining room, breakfast area, and often to an informal "family" room. If the family room opens onto the garden, then the living room should be placed upstairs. Another possible organization is to have the kitchen, dining, and living rooms on the floor above the garden. The kitchen can open onto a deck that leads to the garden, which is a very pleasant arrangement. As in Pompeii, the town house garden is an extension of the interior rooms, and can be planted or paved to emphasize this relationship. Of course, care must be taken to avoid a deck that is too deep, which would make the rooms below too dark and dank. The orientation of the garden facade is paramount since, if it faces south, then the deck can create welcome shade, unless it faces a chilly northern exposure. If this is the case, then either eliminate the deck altogether or make it out of wood with slight gaps between the planks for a dappled light.

Kitchens in modern town houses are subject to the same considerations as in any home - they must allow for a functional organization, lots of light, built-in appliances, an island with bar stools for breakfast, cabinets that are conveniently located, and plenty of storage. One should decide if the kitchen should be visible or not, in a loft setting or in a separate room of its own. Historically, the kitchen was placed in the basement or ground floor level for convenience of delivery and access to the street for refuse removal. These considerations have not changed over time and there is much to be said for leaving the kitchen at grade level, opening onto the garden in the rear. If the kitchen is moved to the main level either one or one-half flight up, then one needs to carry groceries up and subsequently bring the garbage and recycling down stairs to the street.

Bedrooms are best placed upstairs to separate them from the more public spaces of the house. The master bedroom is usually placed above the main level and the children or guest rooms on the top floor. Bedrooms are located either on the street or garden side depending upon one's sensitivity to noise. Another possibility is the master bedroom on the ground level with direct access to the garden; this could also be used for aging parents who visit, so that they don't need to climb a flight of stairs. On the other hand, one may place guest rooms far above to avoid having guests stay too long!

This leads to the issue of whether an elevator is necessary. It is often of interest especially thinking of the future when stairs are no longer the "stair master" of the gymnasium, but a necessary evil to be conquered on a daily basis. The problem is, an elevator takes up a lot of room, is expensive, and does not substitute for a stair but is, rather, supplemental. Also, there is the slight danger of being trapped in a broken elevator alone in the house. The elevator is definitely something to consider, but one must explore and analyze the positive and negative impact on the plan.

Because of the restricted space, bathrooms in town houses tend to be small. The standard size is 5-by-8 feet, compressing all the typical functions into one small room. At the beginning of the twentieth century this was an achievement of efficiency; in the twenty-first century, it shows a lack of imagination. When possible, separate the functions of the bathroom into three areas or zones: bathing, washing, and toilet area. The ultimate example of luxury is the Roman bath, with its great public baths for hot (caldarium), cold (frigidarium), and lukewarm water (tepidarium). Miniaturizing the nature of the Roman bath into a relatively tiny space requires creativity, but there are numerous examples in this book. Assigning each function its own space gives a much grander feeling to the bath. However, beware of allowing too much space for the bathroom, or you will be creating a poorly proportioned, McTown House, which must be avoided.

The family room and living room are really two different types of spaces-one for informal family events, the other for more formal gatherings. If there is a space problem, both can be used for either function. Usually, when the two rooms are joined, a more informal setting is implied, because it is difficult to transform an informal room into a formal one. In this case often photographs lie, and the rooms are cleaned up for their portrait.


The structure of the town house lies between and includes the parallel walls that define the property line. Beams support the floors that span from wall to wall, with internal nonsupporting walls organized for specific rooms and places of activity. This allows for the front and rear facades to be as open as desired. The generally dark aspect of the New York brownstone owes as much to the tonality of the stone used for the facades as to the vertically proportioned windows, which were a matter of style, not structural limitation. Such windows make more sense for a Mediterranean town house, where it is sometimes desirable to keep out the harsh sun with shutters. The rise of modern architecture allowed a return to openness for the town house facade, which frequently employs large sheets of glass or glass block, that open up the interior to the light for a direct or translucent effect.

The structure of a town house disguises the fact that, unless the group was built all at once, the vertical walls are individually supported like soldiers in a row. During construction, care must be taken to assure that the new foundations do not undermine the neighboring structure.

If one chooses, it is possible to connect two floors with a double-height space of varying depth in order to allow for a very exciting spatial effect. Of course, double-height spaces within the confines of a town house are a great luxury; giving up space for architectural drama is the ultimate sacrifice in a town house. I remember, in the design of a town house in Seaside, my clients admired a house I had designed for myself, "Stairway to Heaven," in which a double-height living room opens onto the park of Ruskin Place. Within the same-size footprint they asked for a similar space, but then proceeded to list a series of rooms, which immediately filled in the double-height space. Unfortunately, you can't have it all. One learns quickly that all things are not possible in a town house, a microcosm of architecture and planning. The simple volume of rectangular space exemplified by the town house may be the most difficult to plan, but, when done well, it rewards one with great satisfaction.

The walls of the town house are another element that can be considered in both a conceptual and functional manner. Although they are foremost structural, either the walls or the space between can animate the design. In the latter, the walls are considered secondary, and every effort is to be taken to minimize their depth so that the maximum space between the walls is opened for light and breadth. Where this is the concept, all services- plumbing, stairs, and circulation elements should be concentrated and pressed to the sidewalls of the house. Everything is secondary to the space between the walls.

If the walls are considered dominant, then one can think of the walls as poche (pocket), or conceptual thickness, that can be thickened with services, closets, shelves even widened to fit the width of the stairs that run alongside the walls. This is most useful in a wide town house of 25 feet, where one can afford at least one wall of closets of two-foot depth without sacrificing the open quality of the facade. This kind of plan is one of nooks and crannies, an undulating surface like Renaissance church plans, where solid walls were carved and cut in order to accommodate different needs. At the same time a sense of depth and thickness is given to the walls that define the rooms. A famous example of poche, was Michelangelo's plan for St. Peters, which was so heavily carved up into niches and recesses that the Pope rejected it, since there were too many spaces for " nuns to be ravished."


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. The concept of verticality in Bachelard's The Poetics of Space is the axis mundi, linking heaven and hell, the basement of horror films to the attic and the heaven of the roof garden. Stairs are either to follow the lines of the party walls and run alongside in an ascending plan or can double back at the center. When they are on the side they take up the least amount of room, but you need the proper length of town house or the arrangement will not work. The central stair can be hidden or exposed, and can be a theatrical statement as in Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, and can extend easily to the roof. There are many variations that use both types of circulation, such as in Le Corbusier or Adolf Laos plans. In Dutch and Palladian houses, stairs are hidden; whereas in French town houses the stairs are prominent-the idea of the public promenade versus private coming and going is explicit.

Finally, the culmination of the vertical path can be the roof terrace atop the town house. To most fully utilize the land displaced on the ground plane, a roof garden is the most charming and potentially fantastic space. This cosmic complement to the windowless basement is open to the sky. Here, a small living area or office with a bar or barbecue is possible, as well. Or, as in "Stairway to Heaven" in Seaside, a spiral stair can reach up into the space of a modern widow's walk from which to view the horizon. Examples of inspiring possibilities abound. A second town house at Seaside has a hot tub on the roof of the terrace living area, a private Shangri-la open to a magnificent view. It has become clear that in these houses quite a lot can be achieved within the confines of a relatively small area. The town house is a puzzle of space that, with imagination, can be solved in ever more rewarding ways.


July 23, 2005

Alexander Gorlin