In 2007 my partner and I accidentally bought a townhouse. Um, oops. We did not mean for this to happen; this is not the palace we had planned for. But, being young and savvy, we wanted to be close to the heart of the city. We dreamt of walking to the best pubs, hitting all the museums and art galleries, getting around without relying on a car. But of course, being young and struggling, our finances limited our choice of urban dwellings. Portland has plenty of amazing houses right in the thick of city activity, but unfortunately these were out of our price range. What we could afford was a lovely downtown condo, but this was out of the question for aspiring farmers such as ourselves. Or, we could afford a bigger place on a plot of land outside the city proper, but of course that took us out of optimal urban range. And so we searched and we schemed and we weighed all our options, until one day we stumbled upon an end unit row house. It was not offensively big, and not uncomfortably small. It shared the block with a pub and a coffee shop, and had a nice usable yard. It was tall and slender, just like us! And so it came to this: for what we could spend, sharing one wall got us decent square footage, 20 blocks closer to downtown. We pounced, and this little compromise has become our castle. We certainly didn’t mean to end up in a row house, but this fortuitous fluke has ended up meeting all of our needs, and exceeding them. Living here at HQ, I have come to believe that townhomes are the forward-thinking approach to progressive residency. Here’s why:
First, let’s get clear on language. Townhouse is the most general term for what is sometimes called a row house or row home, sometimes called a terrace house, and sometimes called a brownstone. These titles vary by region and do denote minor differences, although all of them share a fundamental set of common characteristics. For the purpose of this article, I use the words interchangeably. So, essentially townhomes consist of three or more units sharing side walls only (called ‘party’ walls), and having multiple levels creating a tall, skinny space. Ownership of a townhouse includes ownership of the land it sits on, which deviates from apartment or condo ownership. Aside from that, townhomes are as variable and customizable as their freestanding cousins.
A townhouse is an ideal dwelling for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are always built up as opposed to out, which means that they leave a very small footprint. As far as city planning is concerned, this means that more people are able to comfortably occupy a single city block, without sacrificing personal space or privacy. This then decreases the need for sprawl and keeps urban development within city limits. Clearly, when houses are built closer together and each house takes up less land, there will be less need to encroach on wild lands and natural spaces. And seriously, who could argue with less Suburbia?
A small footprint also creates a contained space with definitive boundaries – there is simply not room for expansion. For residents, this means consumerism and consumption must be made in moderation. My space is limited, so I only buy what I need, and I no longer have the luxury of hording! This may sound scary at first, but in fact it has meant that I am able to invest in fewer, but nicer, choice items. It has allowed me to identify what is actually important, and what is, indeed, just fluff. This has been an incredibly empowering exercise for me. Although truth be told, there are three levels here at HQ (as in most townhomes), so really there is plenty of space. By comparison, according to the EIA the average American floor plan of a detached home includes roughly 2500 sq ft, while an attached home (row home) includes roughly 2300 sq ft. So, if you don’t mind stairs (and boy, my ass has never looked better!), it’s not terribly too much sacrifice.
Speaking of spatial scaling, shared walls actually have their own set of benefits. For one, construction simply requires less raw materials, when common walls are included. Less raw materials means less environmental strain, and translates to cheaper overhead for contractors. This may motivate the builder to use higher quality finishes or more expensive, and eco-friendly, products.
And then, of course, there’s energy. Did you know that according to the EIA, residential buildings account for 21% of our overall energy usage? That is almost as much energy as we use for transportation! One of the greatest advantages of townhomes is their energy efficiency. This is simple physics – it takes less energy to heat a group than a series of individuals. It’s the reason we naturally huddle together for warmth – cuddles conserve heat! And in simple terms, row homes are just super snugglers. Each unit acts to insulate the others, even ‘sharing’ heat between them. For example, I live in the Pacific Northwest, but this winter I didn’t have to turn my heater on until December. You just can’t beat that! It also helps that nearly all townhomes place the bedrooms on the top (usually third) floor, where the heat rises and gets trapped. During the winter we have no problem keeping our bedrooms toasty warm. And in the summer the same principals apply, and each unit acts to insulate the others against overheating. As well, the natural shape of most town homes allows for easy energy-free cooling. Because the home is shaped like a corridor with the windows and doors at the front and back, all you need to do is open them up to get a nice, mildly breezy ‘wind tunnel’ blowing through. This is how we keep air circulating in the summer months; we have no need for an air conditioner.
In my experience, a townhouse has meant having my cake and eating it too. I get to live in the city and take full advantage of all that metropolitan life has to offer. This means that I rarely need a car, which saves both money and energy as well. I also get the benefits of living in an actual house, as opposed to an apartment or condo. HQ feels like a real home, with enough space to accommodate dogs, children, working from home, and overnight guests. I have a yard big enough to keep chickens and raise a bountiful garden. Best of all, I get to sleep easy at night knowing that I am actively minimizing my impact on my environment. It truly is the best of both worlds, and right now, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.