Any housing form is a result of its social, economic, and cultural context. The attached house in St. John’s is no exception. This housing type
is very practical.
Sharing walls can be cheaper for construction and operations, as there is less space for warm air to escape in the winter. Building homes closer together also means the cost of infrastructure such as roads, water, and power are shared between more people. For me, living in an attached home downtown means I can walk more and drive less. It’s healthier, cheaper, and more sustainable. I also love the sense of community on my street. After the recent snow storms we all got out and shovelled together. My neighbour Laura and I shovelled the cars out, while Francis took care of the the sidewalk and stoops.
This housing type has been used for centuries and known in various contexts by different names such as a row house, terraced house, townhouse etc. The Roman Empire built attached homes to simplify land-use and tax collection. In medieval Europe, this dense (at the time) housing form suited building on a limited amount of land within a fortification wall. St. John’s urban housing form is likely made up of attached buildings as it was a familiar housing form of the British settlers. Originally these people built a compact and walkable town within a rugged landscape. Today, the St. Johns urban fabric is still largely composed of the same type of homes.
To get a better sense of what this housing type means today, I interview people who live in attached houses. Privacy, not community or efficiency was the topic that came up most. For example, Julia expressed worries of her neighbours overhearing an argument. What if her neighbours judged her competence as a mother because her kids haven’t been outside to make tracks in the snow all week? Although she lives in an attached house, what Julia expresses is the same proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses” which I associate with a suburban lifestyle.
How then can we take advantage of the good parts of attached housing like the economic, environmental, and cultural benefits while addressing concerns over privacy? Some, myself included, would argue it has to do with a concept known by names such as Defensible Space (Oscar Newman, 1996) or the “in-between” (Herman Hertzberger, 2009). I see this “in-between” as the spaces that can’t quite be defined as your private home (black, owned) or public city space (white, shared) but lie somewhere in between, in a gray space like the stoop in the photo. While the person living in the home owns this stoop, it is physically and visually connected to the sidewalk.
These spaces mediate between the public and private realm. An inhabitant can plant a tree in their back yard to shield the street noise and views into their windows. Inside a home, bedrooms could be placed furthest away from the street. More public social spaces, such as a living room or kitchen, could be located adjacent to the street. With contemporary building technology it is easy to achieve a sound (and smell) proof shared wall. Other than preconceptions around privacy, what’s stopping us from continuing to build attached dwellings?