Real Estate

Here’s How You Define a Row House, According to Architects

published Nov 12, 2022
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Combining high-density housing, urban walkability, and oftentimes historic charm, row houses are an architectural style that spans countries, continents, and centuries. They’re as popular today as they were during the late 1800s, and you’ll find them everywhere from historic districts in cities from Boston to New Orleans and Charleston to Chicago. As more are built, often the only thing that changes is the style of the facade. 

“Row houses became popular both as an economical solution for providing middle-class housing in an urban setting, and as an early form of urban planning,” says Sona Kyselica, a project architect with Charles Diehl Architect. “Instead of cities growing haphazardly, row house development allowed for the creation of harmonious streets, terraces, and squares.”

Because of the row house’s popularity internationally — and its tendency to straddle domestic, commercial, and stylistic lines — it often raises some questions. Is it a townhouse? Is it always attached? And why are they everywhere? Ahead, two architecture experts answered all of those burning questions.

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Why is it called a row house?

Row house is one of those architectural terms that is exactly what it sounds like — multiple attached houses all in a row. “Row houses generally share the same front wall line and roof line, and are separated from each other by party walls,” Kyselica explains.

She notes that row houses are typically two to four stories high, and are designed to house both single families, as well as small multi-family homes.

When these homes were originally built, developers would build them in chunks, rather than one house at a time. “Space in the city is always valuable, regardless of when in history, and it was always valuable to be inside the protective barrier of the city. Developers of that era made the most of the footprint using local materials,” explains Eugene Colberg of Colberg Architecture.

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What is the difference between a row house and a townhouse?

Kyselica says that the terms row house and townhouse can be used interchangeably. Both are attached homes in a row. However, she explains, “Row house” is usually associated with an urban setting, while the term “townhouse” is more commonly applied to newer developments in high-density suburbs.

There’s one more nuance to consider. While the new attached homes that spring up in suburbs are often referred to as townhouses rather than row houses, Colberg says, “A townhouse has implications of being larger than a row house.” This is even true in an urban setting, where, in New York, for example, you would often say townhouse when referring to a grand, expansive Upper East Side home, while row house would refer to the more mid-size homes you might find in Brooklyn.

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What are row houses known for? 

Row houses are seen by urban dwellers at the “next step up” from an apartment, explains Kyselica. “Urban neighborhoods with row houses aren’t as densely populated as those with apartment houses, which makes for a quieter environment and more privacy,” she says.

At their most basic level, “Row houses usually feature windows in the front and back — because they are attached on the sides — and typically the entry is on the parlor floor,” Colberg says.

Aside from those characteristics, row houses can look very different from one another.

“Roofs can be flat or pitched, doors and windows may be simple or highly ornate, and the entrance may be level with the street or elevated,” explains Kyselica. “The row house concept is truly versatile and can be adapted to any architectural style.”

This style encompasses everything from the Wardman row houses in Washington, D.C. to Federal-style homes in Baltimore to ornate Second Empire homes in New York. The only consistent characteristic is that they must be attached. “Row houses reflect a broad range of styles, from Classical Revival to contemporary. Many of the historic brownstones in New York and Boston are Italianate and Renaissance Revival, while Seattle and San Francisco are known for their Victorian Queen Anne row houses,” Kyselica says.

Where are they most common within the U.S.?

“The row house is the dominant building type in New York City’s historic districts. Other notable examples of historic row houses can be found in Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Seattle,” Kyselica says. This style first became popular in Europe, seen as early as the 1600s in places like Paris, and exploded during the Industrial Revolution, particularly in Britain and across Northern Europe, as cities grew.

“Row houses have become the fabric of many cities on the East Coast,” Colberg says.