Reinventing the Townhouse for Australia’s Shifting Cities

Rothelowman Principal Jeff Brown explores the townhouse as a resolution to housing an increasing population.

Architect-designed townhouses are essential to support sustainable population growth in our rapidly expanding capital cities. Large-scale, master-planned townhouse developments in urban infill sites provide an option for increased density that offers an attractive solution to rising land value while creating a greater number of affordable dwellings in central and/or well-serviced locations.

ABS data reports two out of three Australians live in a major city, with population growth exceeding predictions. Rather than catering to this growth via urban sprawl, where outer-city suburbs/residents are often under-serviced due to the enormous public cost of civic infrastructure, townhouses allow for greater diversity of residents in established communities while adding to the available housing stock. Townhouses are the missing piece of high quality inner-city ­living – an architecturally designed product for those who prefer not to live in an apartment, not specifically due to spatial concerns, but lack the budget for stand-alone housing in desirable, well serviced and well located areas/suburbs. Concern regarding population growth and sustainability present additional reasons for choosing this higher density housing model.

The trend we’re seeing in our own practice is driven by a market gap for dwellings that are more sustainable and affordable than larger detached houses. At Rothelowman we have witnessed significant growth in the volume of townhouse projects we are designing. From January 2015 to March 2016 we designed 2,384 townhouses, a marked increase from the previous year. With this trend comes a greater appreciation for the typology’s versatility, necessity and market acceptance.

For consumers, large-scale master-planned townhouse developments are not only a financially viable housing alternative, they also provide access to transport corridors and inner-city amenities. Data published by Urbis indicates young professionals, in particular, value proximity to education, entertainment and employment over owning large properties. While perfect for young workers, townhouses also provide the flexibility to cater for varying demographics, from families to downsizing retirees.

In Brisbane, Rothelowman has designed the staged master-planned development Summerlin to transform negative perspectives around townhouses based on the poorly designed, mass-produced boxes of decades past. Summerlin’s master plan develops an existing industrial site in the suburb of Banyo (within 15km of the CBD), transforming it into a residential community through the creation of new internal streets, laneways, vegetated pedestrian links and communal open space parklands. The architecturally designed townhouses of Summerlin employ a ‘critical regionalism’ that pays homage to the surrounding vernacular of simple, hand-built homes with generous setbacks. Reflecting this, materials chosen for Summerlin include painted weatherboard, rendered masonry and raw brick as an interpretation of the local vernacular. Banyo is surrounded by some of the most biodiverse parts of Brisbane and Summerlin’s design complements this with a 5000m2 park featuring recreation spaces, dense planting, storm-water treatment and pedestrian links.

In the middle-ring Melbourne suburb of Doncaster, where median house prices have reached over $1.2 million (, the Rothelowman-designed townhouse development Williamsons Road is a perfect example of how we can offer a growing population high-quality, medium-density residences. Comprising two, three and four bedroom townhouses – a total of 106 dwellings – the mixed housing typologies have enabled new residents to move into the tightly held area, accessing its quality amenity and infrastructure without detracting from the character of the suburb.

In protecting character, amenity and location remain important. Where large detached housing has become less of a priority for city dwellers, we are seeing a return to a pattern that was established in the early history of Australia’s urban centres and capital cities. Terraced housing was introduced to Australia in the 19th century, based on architectural typologies that had been developed in areas of Europe to meet the already burgeoning challenges of density and urban sprawl. Establishing townhouses as a solution to demand isn’t a novel answer then but one that has been tested over centuries.

For developers, master-planned townhouse developments can create a density that meets the demands of rising land value yet balances it with a desire for quality sustainable, active, green and thriving communities that are attractive and highly livable for residents. Lotus Terraces, Rothelowman’s latest townhouse project in Woollooware (24km south of Sydney’s CBD), creates a village-like atmosphere through the design of a community centred around a green common to be shared by all.

The key to explaining this critical typology within developing future cities is skilfully balancing urban amenity and proximity to cultural infrastructure with space and affordability. It is getting these balances right that makes creating a new generation of top quality master-planned townhouse developments absolutely critical for the cities of tomorrow.