At the end of every year, Swamplot hosts a wickedly irreverent competition called the Swampies with categories like “Best Demolition,” “Most Overrated Neighborhood,” and “Favorite Houston Design Cliché.” Normally, I refrain from participating in the voting and commenting because the process is too below-the-belt for me. I’m only comfortable snickering from a distance.
This year, however, I would like to join the fray by campaigning for the Houston Townhouse as “Favorite Houston Design Cliché,” even though I will argue that it is not correct to call that building type a design cliché. First, let’s consider the text for the nomination:
4. THE TYPICAL INNER LOOP TOWNHOUSE PLAN. ‘Start with a 3-story stucco exterior. The first floor gets the garage, an office/third bedroom, and a full bathroom. The second floor will be the living-dining-kitchen open area with a powder room tucked in there somewhere. The third floor will have the master bedroom with en suite bathroom with a plastic whirlpool tub plus the second bedroom with its own bath. Round that out with a tiny patch of grass or rocks on the side and a 2nd or 3rd floor balcony measuring maybe 2 ft. by 4 ft. and, voila! You’ve got yourself a $300K townhome. Did I miss anything?’
This wonderfully succinct nomination has my vote because no other building type has so radically changed the fabric of Houston’s neighborhoods for the worse in the last twenty years. We all witness the transformation in slow motion, one block after another.
When the first townhouse is built on a block, the shift in scale with neighboring single-family houses and the total disregard for existing setbacks often shatters the street’s coherence. You could argue that the shift in scale and setback brought about by townhouses is an inevitable process in a big city, and that when the glorious brownstones of New York were first built, the shift was probably unnerving at first too. Sadly, a brownstone-like future isn’t likely.
Once an entire block has been built up with Houston townhouses, we don’t get the urban joys of density. The curb cuts for the two-car garages and the vestigial front doors dissolve the interface between the public and private realms. Yes, the faux-historical stucco is lamentable and worthy of scorn by those with design educations, but it isn’t any particular detail that is the problem. It’s the mishmash of styles that is truly dizzying — vaguely Mediterranean, rusticated brick Alamo-esque, candy-colored Mattel, bleached-white-stucco Modern, or cheap-as-it-comes beige siding. When several of these Houston townhouses come together, they don’t come together. The individuals do not add up to a greater sum. We end up with the atomization of the “suburbs” without the pleasure of a big lawn, and the claustrophobia of “urban” enclosure without the conviviality of public life.
I documented these problems in a 2010 photoessay with Ben Koush called “Touring the Townhouse Boom” in Cite 93. While working on that piece, I became curious about why, despite the crazy quilt of façades, the plans for townhouses are so consistent. So I asked a designer of Houston townhouses. We’ll call him Mo. He worked for a large developer making minor tweaks to cookie-cutter designs for houses built in the “suburbs” at townhouse densities and townhouses built inside the Loop with “suburban” sensibilities. When the Great Recession hit, he lost his job and pieced together a living as a designer for small townhouse developers operating in the Washington Avenue and Scott Street corridors.
In the course of three meetings with Mo, I visited his past and ongoing projects, including townhouses slathered with faux-Tuscan stucco (“I copied Mediterranean details I found on the internet.”) and projects that were minimalist in their restraint. The plans, though, were consistent and Mo could not have been clearer in his explanation. A typical lot is 50 feet by 100 feet. “The frontage is 50 feet so you have 25 feet for each townhouse in a duplex with a shared wall,” he says. Separate, freestanding townhouses sell better, though. The “single-family” designation is considered a sales point. In that case, subtract three feet — the minimum separation, assuming a windowless firewall — from the 50 available feet. Chapter 42 requires a 17-foot setback from the street for a front-facing garage that accommodates at least two cars. Also, no more than 60 percent of a lot is allowed to be covered by impermeable building or parking, which translates to a 20- to 30-foot backyard. So you end up with a 23-foot-by-45-foot box with a five-foot-wide entry, and an 18-foot-wide two-car garage door. The tiny front door, the one first-floor bedroom behind the garage, the straight-shot staircase to the second floor with an open plan, and the third floor master bedroom are nearly predetermined by the “siting.”
In other words, the Houston townhouse is a formal expression of laws that make no explicit claims to form. In order to make the greatest return on investment, the developer maximizes units per acre and square feet per unit to the fullest extent of what is allowed under the law. And that logic leads to the same plan over and over. The Houston townhouse is more a profit-maximizing expression of the city ordinances than a design cliché. “Favorite Latent Form Embedded in City Ordinances” doesn’t sound as fun as “Favorite Houston Design Cliché” though.
My secret, however, is that my love to hate on Houston townhouses is surpassed by my love to imagine a utopic future for them. What if gas prices someday become the equivalent of $7 per gallon, or double that? What if the lower rate of car ownership among millennials is not a blip but the beginning of a huge transformation in our culture? What if the two-car garages become groceries, bakeries, bike shops, offices, and bars? I’m definitely not the first person to nurture adaptive reuse fantasies for garages. It’s my response that’s the cliché. In any case, I encourage a vote for the Houston townhouse.
Read Danny Marc Samuels on building a better townhouse from Cite 49 in Fall 2000.