Field Guide To New Row House Construction, Part One


Photo: Hidden City Daily

Exploring Row House Elements and Styles

The row house is by far the most common building type in Philadelphia, yet it is rarely given much thought. This shouldn’t be surprising. Most people tend to focus on monumental structures–museums, skyscrapers, churches–rather what they see every day, which tends to fade into the background like wallpaper. As well ask folks to be interested in squirrels and pigeons rather than lions, whales and elephants, the charismatic megafauna of the animal world, but that’s what we’re doing with our Field Guide to New Row House Construction series.

Traditionally, the Philadelphia row house is notable for its relatively plain, flat face, but in the last 15 years tastes, technologies, and domestic patterns have changed. New row houses are larger, bolder, and more visually incoherent than those built before World War II. Even so, architects and developers still have a limited palette with which to work, especially on infill projects where the small lot size is a constraint on form. This makes details such as as lintels, stoops, cornices and bay windows all the more important, yet they are often given short shrift. Meanwhile, new design problems such as integrating first floor garages and gas meters have made creating a coherent design a greater challenge than before.

We’ve organized our “field guide” based on these elements, focusing on the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, which has become a proving ground for these new urban vernaculars in Philadelphia. You can read the first installment on how to disguise the gas meters now mandated on exterior facades HERE. We continue today with Garages, to be followed by Front Doors and Stoops, Bay Windows and Balconies, and Materials.

The Garage Door

No single factor changed the use and the look of row house facades more than when the City mandated off street parking for new row house construction decades ago. A garage means losing much of the stoop, as well as the first floor window.  It also effectively deadens the interplay between pedestrian and building, giving a passer-by nothing to look at or into. The garage also alters the traditional proportions and rhythm of the row house, making it seem top-heavy (a traditional row house was designed to feel as though it was smaller at the top). It takes some truly inspired architecture to achieve even a modicum of harmony on a row house with a first floor garage.

A. We start with an example of a facade that does next to nothing to improve the garage door. Instead of a lintel over the door, there is a row of vertical bricks.


B. These houses achieve some visual success by matching the color of the garage to the front door.


C. This garage door has a valance window to let in natural light, which also shrinks the door’s size and disguises its presence. Like the rest of the facade, the door is clean and simple, forgoing even a handle.


D. The two car garage: Once a rarity, now becoming common at the highest end of the market. Usually these garages are placed in an alley on the side of the building, but this one faces 15th Street. Street parking has already become scarce in this area, so any additional curb cut means that much less street parking for the neighborhood.


E. These three row houses get many of the little details right: well-proportioned bays with a attractive color pattern, small windows next to and over the doors, and even a detailed wooden cornice. Yet the low-end vinyl garage doors and lack of a stoop create a flat, unattractive and most of all uninviting view at street level.


F. When we compare the above examples to a traditional treatment of the first floor on this new construction, it really highlights what was lost when we decided that garages would be the norm.


G. The best solution to the garage door problem is to get rid of them entirely by putting parking spaces behind the building, as is the case with many developments with five or more units. Something similar was done from the 1920s-1950s in places like Oxford Circle and Cedarbrook in East Mt. Airy. Rear alley parking also allows builders to place a deck on top of the parking area.

About the author

Stephen Stofka is interested in the urban form and the way we change it. A graduate of the Geography and Urban Studies program at Temple University, he enjoys examining the architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city.

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  1. Are garages still required with the new zoning code in place?

    • They are not required, as far as I understand it; the developer has to apply for it. But that said, the market, as developers understand it, demands off-street parking. Of course, there are many ways to satisfy that demand besides a curb cut and a garage at sidewalk level.

  2. Front-loading garages in the city should be a last resort, if it’s allowed at all, especially in closer-in neighborhoods (like Graduate Hospital) where you can get around without a car. That said, I do like “C,” which at least tries to make the garage part of the façade and isn’t just tacked on.

    Another option is to have a carport instead of a garage, like these rowhouses in Northern Liberties. Instead of a blank door, you have nice stained wood, a substantial stoop, and even a window. I’ve noticed that occasionally the owners of these houses set up chairs and tables or do grilling in their “garages,” making them like a large porch.

  3. Queen Village established a Neighborhood Conservation District – not sure this has been enacted in other parts of the city. It’s sort of like an historic district, but provides greater control over issues like this. Garages are discouraged (I think) and if I recall correctly, there’s a formula for how frequently garages can be placed on a given street. HiddenCity should look at this and fold it into this ongoing series. How about concluding this series with a photo essay on quality new rowhouses that meet a variety of categories ranging from standout examples like the split house by Qb3 to those that almost disappear into the streetscape. Philadelphia needs both – the question is the proportion of context to daring statements of design and how they come together!

  4. Thank you so much for your insistence on quality. I agree with the previous commenter: post more examples of good new rowhouses.

  5. awesome. excited for this series.

  6. When I travel to other cities, I see other solutions to the problems of parking, space planning for the individual lot, the entire block, and the neighborhood. A lot of those solutions work really well and would work here too.

    DC in the Capitol Hill District (not sure if its all over DC) has a system where 19th Ctry houses, typically with small gated front yards nicely landscaped, ring the block and share a common area inside the block behind the houses where carriage houses, garages, parking spots are located. Typically the house’s back yards lead to this common area. There will be a small drive in to the space from the streets on a couple of sides of the block. Some folks will add a deck in their parking area and that creates an additional parking spot for them below.

    In Indianapolis, in the historic district, which has wooden houses dating from the 1800’s, there is a much greater mix of home styles than here in Philly. Like DC it’s very nice to be in these neighborhoods. You see some mixed use, some traditional Gothic wooden houses, and some prairie style homes, and then you see a mix of new infill construction of all these styles. The effect is pleasant with a kind of random “in and out” of facades, yards, light falling between the houses and the trees lining the ample side walks. Some houses have side lot parking and some have street parking.

    In Philly and in a lot of “not so affluent” suburbs and towns, you see new construction design decisions driven by realtors. The realtor tells the developer they need “X” number of bathrooms, bedrooms, garage space, and fill every square foot of lot with livable space to achieve the biggest ROI. The developer and the architect bow to that directive. And often the architect on the project does not know urban design but instead comes from “McMansion” design and is just doing this urban project until “McMansion” construction picks up again.

    Your article highlights the many problems these low quality designs and cheap short cuts cause Philadelphia. Planning for a lot should not only be driven by realtors and builder costs per square foot. Placement of gas meters should not only be for the convenience of PGW. The building being designed should contribute something to the greater urban environment.

    Diane Menke
    Myers Constructs, Inc

  7. Great article! Thank you for the insights, comments and examples.

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