Friday, February 1, 2013

Can Townhouses and Front-loading Garages Work Together?

The Philadelphia Real Estate blog recently ran a post on local opposition to a very modest rowhouse infill project in the city's East Kensington neighborhood.  Driving the objections of nearby residents are three planned garages that open onto the street, which occupy approximately half of each of the three façades, and which are apparently prohibited under the city's new zoning code.

Do front-loading garages truly present an insoluble design problem for the rowhouse format?  A quote from Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk's The Second Coming of the American Small Town illustrates this common point of view in arguing for the reintroduction of rear service alleys:
"When housing achieves a certain density but parking remains a necessity, the car's house (the garage) overwhelms the human's house. No architect is skillful enough to make human life project itself on the façade of a house when 60 percent of it is given over to garage doors."
Taking the 60 percent figure as a rule of thumb, we'll then say that no more than 50 percent of a façade can be occupied by a garage door before the aesthetics become intolerable (this is debatable, and I'd wager it's not what Duany and Plater-Zyberk meant to imply, but it sounds like a more or less reasonable estimate).  Using this figure, we get:
  • For single-car garage rowhouses, a width of no less than 16'.
  • For two-car garage homes, a width of no less than 32'.
Now, 16 feet is an extremely common width for rowhouses in the older neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., but contemporary attempts to integrate standard 8' garages on these lots usually have not, in my opinion, succeeded in making "human life project itself" on rowhouse façades, nor do they provide much in the way of eyes on the street. I'm not convinced that it can't be done, but successful examples seem to be the exception rather than the rule

Contemporary rowhouses, South 19th St., Philadelphia.
What if we were to widen the lot a bit more?  These early 20th century rowhomes in the Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco, at 25 feet across, lessen the visual impact of the garage doors, although the street level experience is not much improved:

18th Ave., San Francisco.
Once we take a look at models beyond the United States, however, we see that far better street level results can be achieved using the same dimensions.  These Mexico City homes, at around 25 feet wide, present a friendlier face to the street.  The garage door itself, stylistically integrated with the window bars and iron balcony railing, is relatively inconspicuous. Success is dependent on there being a single-car garage only, although use of a two-car garage can be difficult to resist when the space is available. 

Colonia Condesa, Mexico City

Lengthening the frontages of rowhouses in order to admit more light and increase privacy was one of the many urban "patterns" set out by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language (available online here).  The primary anticipated objection to this change that it would decrease the density of new developments by reducing the number of rowhouses that could be accommodated on a single street he addressed by introducing a seven-foot pedestrian-only right-of-way between homes, which would, at intervals of every six to eight houses or so, intersect with wider automobile roads running perpendicular to the rowhouses. (Alexander advocated separate networks of auto and pedestrian streets in most cases, although not necessarily requiring each lot to have access to both, and proposed shared space streets on low-traffic routes).

Under Alexander's plan, rowhouses would not have garages, but instead any cars would be stored in small parking lots or garages along the automobile roads.  With 1000 sq. ft. rowhouses 30' wide on lots of 30' x 35', Alexander estimated a density of at least 30 units per acre, a figure which stands up to scrutiny.

This compares to the above examples as follows (using for reference a typical block, with fronting streets included):

Under the assumption that dense rowhouse streets will be low-traffic, we could instead adopt the Mexico City format, but with narrow, shared space streets with no sidewalks, and garages opening onto them directly.  On-street parking would be prohibited, although temporary access for drop-offs would remain possible.  Using lots of 25' x 35', it would again be possible to achieve around 30 units per acre. An additional benefit of the wider lots is that they seem to be more conducive to redevelopment as small apartments (visible in the Mexico City neighborhood).

Although examples of this precise format are very rare or perhaps nonexistent in the United States, California does have a number of places that come close, such as Manhattan Beach (note the unpleasant street-level effect of two-car garages, though).  Newer developments have begun incorporating shared space, narrow streets even closer to the model suggested here.  The bottom line, though, is that front-loading parking, even in high-density attached housing formats, need not be an aesthetic disaster, or without a watchful street presence.

Related reading:
  • Nathan Lewis' definitive take on the subject, "Townhouses with Parking," is available here.
  • To get your Philadelphia rowhouse fix, Townhouse Center covers an architectural review of 26 new rowhouse designs in that city, some which appear to integrate parking quite well within the context of 16-foot wide lots.
  • A photo collection of very narrow houses, including an image of Tokyo homes with front-loading garages on 10-foot lots.


  1. 8' might be standard back east, but in California 10' garage width per car is the norm (and the minimum requirement in most cities). Even if zoning would allow narrow garages, they wouldn't be very marketable and would more likely be used for storage than parking -- thereby doing nothing to relieve on-street parking demand but still being an aesthetic drag on the block.

    At 20' wide, two-car frontloading garages become even more problematic. I think the only way you could incorporate two car parking in a townhouse is a tandem arraignment, and you'd certainly want to use 10' width to wedge both cars in. I'd also like to see more than just 50% be non-garage, so maybe minimum townhouse lot widths of 24'.

    It would help if some of the lots where wider (say 30') but still employed only a single-width garage opening, so that the overall share of any given block's facade dedicated to garages were reduced. Even better would be a sprinkling of townhouses with no parking or small apartment buildings with rear parking (i.e. so only a single driveway would serve many units).

    Alternately, you could do away with offstreet parking altogether and just assign curb parking in front of each townhouse to its occupant. This may lead to wider roads (Nathan Lewis wouldn't be happy), but at least you wouldn't have all the ugly garages. Unfortunately, the roads tend to be wide and filled with front garages (and their concomitant curb cuts), so we get the worst of both. Choosing either a narrow road with front garages or a wider road with no garages/curb cuts would tend to be a step up from typical American practice.

    One final note, I'm not a big fan of separating car and pedestrian traffic at the neighborhood level. In my experience with that layout in beach cities in Southern California, people walk and drive on the "alley" with all the garage fronts and the pedestrian-only "street" goes mostly unused. Then its lack of use and "eyeballs on the street" make it seem like an unprotected entrance leading homeowners to plant hedges, bar doors, and otherwise treat it as the back of the house. It becomes generally uninviting and further reinforces the trend.

    1. Thanks, John -- I wasn't aware of the 10' requirement in California. Given typical car widths, that seems very generous. It would almost be possible to squeeze two Smart Cars in there side by side.

      I'd agree with you about separating car and pedestrian traffic, also. There is a distinction, though, between creating separate car and pedestrian routes for each lot, which results in the usage pattern you describe, and Alexander's proposal of a mix of pedestrian and auto streets (pattern #52), which anticipated the "fused grid" that has been successfully implemented in several European city centers (Groningen, for instance).

  2. As a resident of San Francisco, I can say that there are better examples of garage doors than the Sunset ones you show. Mostly, it seems to me, they are the result of retrofitted garages rather than garages that were built with the house. Perhaps this is because the focus remains on the front door, while the garage entrance is minimized. Often, they're set to the edge of the house rather than right in the middle (just as the Mexico City examples are).


    Recent regulations on curb cuts in SF have forbidden multiunit buildings from creating the row of garage doors which is so common here. ( However, a side-effect of this is that providing X parking spaces now requires even more ground-floor area, since maneuvering room is required when there's only one entrance-- combined with the 1 space/apartment requirement, it's led to at least one unfortunate design.

    I dislike alleys. The cost is too high. In the US, streets already consume an outsize portion of land area, and increasing this further in the name of aesthetics is not doing anyone any favors. Given the choice, let me have a real back yard and an ugly garage door in the front.

    I think assigned curb parking is a great idea, at least for San Francisco. The streets are already wide and that's not going to change any time soon. Meanwhile, many garage owners already use them only for the purpose of reserving the space in front. Allowing it as a matter of policy, without having to tear up the front of the house, would save the facades of many older houses which are being purchased with big money and refurbished to stuff a garage door in the front.

  3. John Hutt writes:

    "thereby doing nothing to relieve on-street parking demand but still being an aesthetic drag on the block."

    Even under the best circumstances that Charlie shows here, front-loading garges will do little to relieve on-street parking demand due simply to the necessity of the curb cut for each garage.

    There might be a slight geometric gain in parkable space due to parking cars perpendicular to the street (in the garage) rather than parallel to the street (at the curb), but the apron of the curb cut will need to be slightly wider than the garage itself, and will end up taking up a car's worth of space. If the garagaes aren't spaced well, then you can also end up with awkward curb spaces between garages that make for a poor streetscape but without providing any space for parallel parking.

    Point being, this kind of of off-street parking won't offer any large gain of total parking for an area.

    Now, the Mexico City case is interesting, with no parking on the street at all - as that might be a parking-neutral while offering an improvement to the public realm - but I do want to push back on the idea that this can be a parking solution, as the geometry just does not support that.

  4. Seems like shallower blocks would help, by allowing wider street frontages without absurdly reducing the number of units. If the townhouse has a 30-foot frontage and is only 20 feet deep, the block can be just 50 or 60 feet deep instead of 200.

    1. Hi Cambias -- with 30x30 foot lots on blocks 240 feet long, and using really narrow streets, it would be possible to achieve almost 36 units per acre. Here's a Spanish example of almost this exact format (with what appear to be garages I might add):

      Although this can be done, I think ultimately that blocks of at least 70 feet across are better suited for apartments (assuming we allow the block to densify), even if the apartment is built across the entire block, since it's easier to incorporate reasonably-sized courtyards. Note that at the link above, the apartment block immediately to the west of the narrow rowhouse blocks is about 75 feet wide.

  5. "Automobile street" = back alley or carriageway?

    Or does that make it a back-loading garage?

    1. Automobile street, in terms of what Alexander is describing, is simply a conventional street (auto carriageway flanked by sidewalks), not an alley.

  6. Three Points here:

    1. At 16 feet lot width a garage only replaces an on-street space. (unless it is a tandem Garage) The garage does not actually add parking until the lot width gets to around 25 ft. or more, one parallel curb space (16-17ft) and one perpendicular space in the garage that takes up half street dimension of the parallel space. with 25 ft lots and tandem garages one could theoretically double the parking capacity of a street. But not that i would recommend this.

    2. One of the reasons i find front-loading row-houses so unpleasant is because generally the streets in american cities are wide with relatively high vehicular speeds and the need for clear articulation between car space and pedestrian space. In this condition every curb cut represents an intrusion of the car space into the pedestrian space, and a street that is half curb cuts is always going to feel hostile. In an ally like condition or on a woonerf or in a curbless courtyard environment, frontloading rowhouses can work just fine. I know Dan Solomon has done a rather attractive project of this type in SF. When you have wide streets and large blocks like in most American cities, it seams reasonable to start cutting into them to make a secondary more fine-grained system of circulation.

    3. One of the critical aspects of lot width is not just how it affects the facade, but also how it affects plan. In the facade of a rowhouse you need to put an entrance which requires at least 31/2 ft and preferably a bit more. at 16 ft you get an entrance and about 11 ft left over for a habitable room. with a garage you get nothing but an entrance in the front of the house. In order to get a garage an entrance and a habitable room in the front you need at least 32 ft or so. In my mind the reason the Mexico City examples look so much more friendly than the rest is not just a matter of how much of the facade is dedicated to the garage door, but the fact that one can identify an inhabited room on the first floor of the house.

  7. Contemporary townhouses around Toronto are usually not modern but either neo-ecclectic or neo-traditional, some are tacky but some are pretty nice imo. It's very rare for them to have double garages, usually they're 8ft wide, although there will usually be driveway parking in addition to the little on-street parking that hasn't been lost to curb cuts. There are a few exceptions with double garages though:

    Typical cookie cutter front-loaded suburban townhouses look like this:

    Alleys are getting quite common though in new housing, typical suburban townhouses with alleys look like this:

    There's also a lot of condo townhouses, especially in the suburb of Mississauga. With private streets, zoning rules are different and they can be 20ft wide while regular streets have to be around 25-30ft (depending on the suburb) curb to curb. Setbacks are usually less too.
    Similar but more upscale and with an extra floor:

    The other middle class townhouse style that's getting quite common are back to back townhouses which will usually have balconies over the porch or garage to make up for the lack of backyards. I think the landscaping on these and the balconies - that look like they get use - help mitigate the cookie-cutter effect and garages.

    These are more upscale with front and rear loaded garages next to each other for easy comparison.
    The alleys are pretty ugly, especially since the house is set-back from the garage to make space for a patio, which means you can't really see the house. The rear loaded garage homes look nicer, although I don't think the front-loaded homes are that bad either.

    More upscale townhouses

    Technically not townhouses since there's a very small gap, but these aren't too bad considering the double garages take up the whole ground floor. These again have the narrower private streets with reduced setbacks. The architecture looks straight out of California...

    Technically only semi-detached. The garage is pretty insignificant although they went pretty overboard with the driveway parking

    Having setbacks means more driveway but also potentially more green buffer... However another factor is that the garage will take up a smaller part of the view relative to the floors above. I think these two look pretty good for that reason and also because the garage seems better integrated into the homes.

    There's also some with zero setback and a narrow shared driveway
    These aren't nearly as nice though, partly because the corner units don't address the main street as well.

    There's also a bunch of front loaded townhouses in Toronto from around the 80s that aren't too bad.

  8. These in San Jose are similar with the shared driveway/laneway although they also have that pedestrian walkway on the other side.

    I wonder if the units are 1 garage width or 2 garage widths. The ones in Toronto were one garage width and you at least had front doors next to the garages and tiny balconies to interact with the laneway a bit more.

    For very dense environments though, I still prefer the decked rear/side loaded approach. I think I might have talked about this a bit here but I don't remember. This new development in Montreal's Bois-Franc neighbourhood has used it extensively even though it's not that dense.

    There's a common driveway going through a gap between townhouses. Gaps are often required in townhouses anyways by the fire dept.

    The driveway slopes down and goes behind the townhouses with garages in the basements. The driveway is decked over with the deck being only slightly above the height of the backyard.

    The whole parking infrastructure is almost completely invisible, you don't have to lose a backyard, the garage is appropriately located in the basement (if it was at the front you'd be wasting the potential for a well lit kitchen) and pedestrians would still use the front door which would be on the actual street. It should be cheaper than an underground garage too. It minimizes curb cuts too, so you can either have additional parking on the street or narrower streets.

    It's basically a slightly modified version of the approach taken in much of Montreal's early post-WWII housing.

    The Bois-Franc approach was used in at least two places in the Toronto area too.

    My hometown suburb's downtown has many townhouses that are similar too, although the rear driveway is accessed from cross streets in most cases and there is no backyard beyond the deck (which would normally be the case in dense areas). The cross streets take up more space than the driveways in Bois-Franc though, and wouldn't be so great for walking anyways with all the garage accesses, so unless the cross streets are already there, I would slightly prefer the Bois-Franc approach.

  9. I think the issue is only partly a matter of aesthetics and probably more an issue of scale, specifically that of the massive *increment of development* in which many new garage-fronted townhouses are built.

    The examples from Tokyo or Mexico City show us that garage doors don't have to be blank and boring - i.e. they can be detailed to reflect a human presence, just like any other kind of opening - but I think in the US both designers and the public have internalized the garage door as a blank nonentity for so long that there no longer is any idea on how to make them visually porous. So we almost always end up with conventional suburban garage doors (the SF example) or totally blank doors that are sort of ideologically "honest" about their blankness (the Philly example). There is no conception that a garage door can be anything else.

    On the increment of development: Nathan Lewis' Tokyo examples and the Mexico City examples work because *each house is different.* Some houses don't have garages at all. Some have huge doors, some have little ones. Some were tastefully designed to reflect a human presence, some resort to starchitectural blankness. But all this organic variation - each house and door designed by a different person - is what makes the neighborhoods delightful. They all "rhyme" in urban form and behavior, but they also are all unique, and thus human, therefore reflecting the human presence.

    The problem with most US examples - like the ones in the "rebranding the alley" post - is that the giant increment of development, combined with poor mass-produced door aesthetics, destroys the appearance of a human presence. Every house is the same! Every house has a garage door, and every door is the same! And note that there is no quick fix for this predicament - having the architect or developer fake this variation only makes it worse, because we can *always* tell when or or two people try to design something that is supposed to look like it was aggregated by 100 independent people with their own needs and ideas. Allowing multiple builders/designers to produce an organic streetscape is the only way to get a human presence, or we can wait many decades for individuals to modify a mass-produced streetscape, like the famous SF painted ladies (if they're even allowed to).

    I think this is the same issue as the one over mass-produced rowhouses discussed in a post+comments section here some time ago. There was an interesting discussion on why preindustrial rowhouse neighborhoods had aged so well (in many cases they never truly ghettoized) but how industrial-era ones from Jacobs' "gray areas" aged so poorly, especially those built after 1920. Something about the uniform increment of development, the squelching of complexity and as-needed variation and adaptation, made them inherently undesirable, so people would leave once they were able to. A deadening street full of identical garage doors may be just one more symptom of our unwieldy increment of development.

    And for all this, I'd have to admit that Duany may still have a point. As nice as the Mexico City and Tokyo examples here are, I can't help but feel that any mostly garage-free street from the same cities, or from any other city, are still 100x more alluring, comfortable, and friendly. Duany's argument that it may be difficult for a designer to project a human presence on something that usually has no humans and no eyes behind it - a garage door - makes sense. Whether it's a garage door or a door to a carriage house or barn, I think we subconsciously understand that, no matter how fancy we make their entrances, these are passages for non-human objects, and we don't want to linger on a street with too many openings that cater to non-humans unless there is a painstaking effort to hide these openings.

    1. "I think in the US both designers and the public have internalized the garage door as a blank nonentity for so long that there no longer is any idea on how to make them visually porous."

      Agreed -- if anything, garage door design has regressed since the 1920s. Cities in the Spanish-speaking world appear to be far more inventive in this particular area of design, although many of those in Mexico City are highly utilitarian as well (so utilitarian that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between a closed storefront and garage parking, which is actually not such a bad thing).

      I agree, also, that the result is far better with no garages at all, as with the model that Alexander proposes. I was only hoping to show that successfully incorporating garages into the rowhouse form need not be impossible.

    2. "I was only hoping to show that successfully incorporating garages into the rowhouse form need not be impossible."

      I agree and I hope my post didn't come off as dismissive of the idea. I guess I'm torn: on the one hand, I'm reluctant to encourage more street-facing garage doors in older neighborhoods because, here in the US at least, they're almost always guaranteed to turn out boring and blank, gradually chipping away at pedestrian delight and street life in the process. On the other hand, I realize the need to eliminate redundant street networks, particularly in larger infill/greenfield developments where there are both front streets and rear garage streets, resulting in a situation in which almost all the street life shifts to the rear because that's where most people need to be.

  10. Just one little thing to add about Philly...

    Typically the opposition to garage fronts isn't so much a matter of aesthetics as it is parking and safety.

    Like a few people mentioned, putting a garage front in takes away a public parking space from the curb. Theoretically, that's a 1-for-1 trade, but enough people use their garages for storage that it's a net loss in parking.

    In terms of safety, neighbors and neighborhood groups here put a high value on "eyes on the street". Neighborhoods like East Kensington are getting safer, but there's still a lot of petty property crimes. Maintaining active rooms on the first floor fronts of houses is important to keep the street active and people aware of what's going on.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Liam. I agree, and did mention "eyes on the street" in the post, but the aesthetic and safety rationales are closely related enough (both related to the amount of window area facing onto the street, among other things) that I didn't make a great effort to distinguish them.

      I agree about the parking, also. For a reasonably wide street with sidewalks, curb cuts probably to result in a net loss in parking as you say, so for the East Kensington street it really might not make sense (the phenomenon of piling junk in the garage and leaving the car on the street, or in the driveway, seems to be universal). So, I think I agree with all of the neighbors' objections in this case.

      If one were to design a street from scratch, however, another option might be to make it so narrow that on-street parking is prohibited. Car owners would have no choice but to park in their garages, and would not be allowed to obstruct the right of way. Although the street would be much narrower, without two rows of parked cars the space available for pedestrians (shared space) would actually increase. For front-loading parking, I think it's probably the least bad option.

  11. I also wonder if the gradual easing of parking requirements in more and more cities, like Philly...

    ...will be a partial remedy to the garage door problem. In its new zoning code, Philly apparently will no longer require off-street parking in many rowhouse neighborhoods (great, IMO), but I still wonder what effect this will have: Is the reflexive provision of parking in every infill rowhouse forced by code, is it a matter of developer habit and belief (i.e. the fear that their houses won't sell without parking), or is it some kind of feedback loop combination? If it's the feedback loop, I still wonder if the habits will linger if the mandates behind them go away? (I.e. are there off-street parking requirements in those garage-prolific Tokyo neighborhoods, or are the garages prolific because the market overwhelmingly demands them?)

    Forgot to say that I think there's a lot of merit in the idea of wider rowhouse lots that would also be conducive to other kinds of dwelling types, like small apartments. Not only could garage doors be interspersed among normal "eyes on the street" rowhouse frontages (or, in the case of small apartments, combined - i.e. minimized - into passages to shared rear lots/courtyards/garages), but this would also ease another age-old problem with narrow rowhouses: getting light into a long building with windows only at the front and rear. Again, there have been creative and not-so-creative workarounds to this too (like light shafts and skylights), but, as with garage doors, the easy way out - dim interiors - was frequently taken.

    1. (1) private garages in Tokyo are very rare, and tend to show up only in "rich people" neighborhoods (e.g. where politicians might live), and (2) there's essentially no on-street parking.

      As is well known, Japan mandates off-street parking for car owners, but not for housing. So the burden is directly on those who use it.

      In more normal neighborhoods, people tend to park in either small neighborhood lots (which often shift around, small parking lots being a common intermediate state between an old building being torn down and a new building being built in the space), or increasingly (not so common until recently) in small open spaces in front of or beside a house. The latter are often very small, and it's challenge to fit anything but the smallest of cars into them, with bigger cars typically cheating and overflowing onto the street a bit.

      Apartment buildings often have some parking though a lot less than a similar building in the U.S. would have (e.g. enough parking for 10-20% of the units in the building). This is always an extra (high) fee though, never part of a normal rent (neighborhood parking lots are also fairly expensive).

    2. Thanks for the information from Tokyo, Miles! Your apartment building example suggests that if parking is treated as an independent private amenity/luxury, then there may very well be less of it.

      "As is well known, Japan mandates off-street parking for car owners, but not for housing. So the burden is directly on those who use it."

      Right, you have to show you already have a space to park it if you want to get a car, but I was wondering if, even if there is no requirement to bundle parking with housing, it would still proliferate due to (perceived) high demand. (I.e. might a developer be induced into providing parking spots because he figured most of his buyers would want one?) But I guess your example suggests there is far more flexibility of provision than in the US.

      You mentioned that the parking pad phenomenon (alongside or in front of houses) wasn't common until recently. It'd be interesting to hear more details: how recently, why the uptick, and are the spaces provided by homebuilders due to perceived demand, or do residents retrofit them in later themselves?

  12. IIRC our (Philly's) 2012 Zoning Code includes some basic form-based provisions essentially making front-loading parking illegal. However, every new development that can have a back alley has it, and proposals on larger tracts often have two-car garages.

    None of this is mandated by the Zoning Code--which has essentially adopted the position that rowhome neighborhoods are to be people-centric--which means that all of it is now a reflection of either (a) builder preferences, or (b) banking finance requirements--i.e. the shadow land-use regulation our financial system imposes--both of which stem from beliefs about what "the market" will bear (erroneous or not).

  13. Apart from the garages for sale, there are several carriage houses that are also available. These carriage houses differ from garages, as they do not have doors. However, they are useful in keeping the car in shade. Check this out for more info.

  14. Sorry this is so late, but, Baltimore's row home range from 10-16 feet and that's on busy streets. I wish our dense housing was on side streets but that is not how it works here.

  15. Sorry so late to this post, but had to add something. As a parent, I love streets without curb cuts for cars. I can let go of my kids' hands, and let them walk on their own without worrying about a driver backing over them. Most parents would agree that it is quite liberating, and makes for a relaxing instead of anxiety-filled walk.

  16. yes, of course they can work together. this is amazing and it will be a good garage along with town house.