Innovation in Town-House Design will Strengthen Neighborhoods

A growing trend in Seattle’s multi-family housing market is the construction of town-houses.  Whether loved or hated, town-houses have become more prevalent throughout Seattle’s neighborhoods in the last five to eight years, aiding the city in its important goal of increasing density within residential neighborhoods.  Many neighbors have long voiced their opinions of distaste for these structures, but with recent changes to the building code, town-houses might finally be seen as a welcome addition to Seattle’s neighborhoods.

Complaints against town-houses are known far and wide:  large windowless walls coldly shouldering sidewalks, absent front doors, tall privacy fences, cave-like garages and asphalt paved auto-courts.  It’s no wonder than town-houses have received such a bad rap.

Finally, town-houses will soon favor the resident, the neighborhood and the community as opposed to the automobile.

Recently, the city of Seattle updated its multi-family building code which regulates the design of town-house construction.  The new code encourages developers to seek out innovative, high-quality designs for town-house structures.  Seattle’s problem of “auto-court style” town houses is solved through the removal of rigid constraints.  Translation: more robust expectations for design.

The new code encourages welcoming front porches with visible entry doors, lower-height fences in the front yards, more windows facing the street, and what might be most appealing of all for residents, a large common outdoor space.  Where residents were previously constrained to a small, enclosed “patio” yard, a town-house owner can now enjoy a larger outdoor space that can be shared with neighbors.  This model effectively removes previous barriers that worked to separate neighbors from socializing and interacting amongst themselves and with their immediate neighbors.  In addition to the changes in architectural design, a common outdoor yard shared among neighbors will create unity within the town-house complex and will also help to strengthen the relationship with the street and with the broader neighborhood.

Another advantage to the changes in Seattle’s building code surrounds the issue of the atrocious “auto-court.”  Where previous regulations restricted the use of the ground level by requiring off-street parking for each unit, the new code emphasizes market-based parking requirements, rather than strict per-unit minimums.  For instance, no off-street parking is required for units located near mass-transit hubs, further emphasizing the critical role of the pedestrian in sustainable residential neighborhoods by encouraging the use of public transit.

The recent change in the building code opens the doors for innovation not only in physical building form but also in the way neighbors interact within communities.  Town-houses have long been viewed as detrimental to Seattle’s neighborhoods, but better architectural design is finally being valued over quantity and cost.  The consideration of floor-to-area ratios will abolish “cookie-cutter” town-house design and allow for more invigorating designs as well as increased flexibility in form and layout.  With Seattle’s future urban population expected to grow, it is important that the city reconsider its current levels of density in residential neighborhoods.  Density within strong residential neighborhoods builds stronger communities and a thereby a stronger city.  Town-houses play an important role at increasing density on small residential plots and thanks to a lessening of constraints, Seattle’s building code has set the stage for innovation and creativity for better design.  Town-houses now have the chance to dramatically enhance the quality of a neighborhood rather than detract from it.


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