Townhouse Appeal

In Design, Lifestyle

Jamaicans have grown to love townhouse residences for their practical advantages, their upscale allure and the promise of security, a ordability and quality of life. The townhouse is front row center, part and parcel to the contemporary Jamaican dream, thanks in large part to a cadre of local architects and developers who’ve carved out a distinct, appealing niche for this type of abode within the country’s real estate market.

The townhouse is today understood to refer to a semi-detached, multi-story residence typically found in a gated community that shares green space, recreational facilities, maintenance costs and security services with its neighboring units.

Historically, the townhouse had another meaning altogether. It was literally a house in town, as opposed to a house in the countryside, leading Jamaican architect and Design Collaborative founder

Evan Williams explains. Jamaica’s plantation owners had both, not unlike their aristocratic counterparts in England, or the nobles they emulated, who built auspicious homes in London to complement their countryside estates.

“The landed gentry owned vast estates in the country and when they came to town, for whatever reason, business or pleasure, they would have a house, which is a single detached or semi-detached house on a plot of land, ”Williams noted, adding,“They didn’t consider a town- house the same way we consider it.”

Not all upper class Londoners had the means and pomp of the Earl of Lincoln, who built Lincoln’s Inn as his extravagant London townhouse. Most built more modest urban homes that would still evoke grandiose residences of British nobles in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster, if not in form, by name. The closest Jamaican equivalent to Lincoln’s Inn might be Devon House, built by the country’s rst black millionaire, George Stiebel, in 1881. Stiebel’s Georgian masterpiece has hardly been outdone in the years since, and his former mansion is still regarded as Kingston’s nest. Despite the dream of a big house with a big yard shared by many Jamaicans, many of those with the means to attain it have opted instead for a more practical residential solution that ts with their mobile lifestyle and need for peace of mind.

The townhouse retains an auspicious association of an upwardly mobile family, while the layout, architecture and associated facilities are tailored to the needs of modern times. The townhouse was the pragmatic solution to a growing demand for middle and upper- income housing amid increasing population and heightened security concerns in Jamaicans main urban areas.

Kingston’s population doubled in the rst half of the 20th century, and again in the 30 years following independence to represent roughly a third of the country’s total population. The limited at land on the plains of St. Andrew once used for farming were subdivided into residential and commercial lots, increasing in value as new retail plazas and corporate hubs were built uptown.

“As demand for middle class homes increased and land in preferred residential neighborhoods became scarce and more expensive, the townhouse unit concept developing in North America became popular in Jamaica,” said Reynold Scott, Executive Chairman of Geon Homes, one of Jamaica’s leading developers which builds between 10 and 25 townhouse units a year.

A number of pioneering Jamaican developers identi ed the established trend in cities like New York and London, where townhouses and row houses became the preferred urban dwelling of the middle and upper class and the dream home for those aspiring to their ranks.

“Recognizing these trends from the early 1980s, Geon identi ed a market opportunity for improved designs and created a vertically integrated organization comprised of architects, engineers, surveyors and attorneys to o er competitively priced units with more space and standard nishes rather than embellishments,” said Scott, noting the company has completed some 38 developments in just over three decades sold at competitive prices.

Stiebel & Company is a family-owned rm of architects, planners and project managers that has completed dozens of townhouse projects, in addition to apartment complexes, resorts, schools, medical centres and commercial buildings, since it was founded in 1972. A distant relative of George Stiebel, Managing Director Douglas Stiebel grew up with real estate development in his blood, launching his own architecture practice in 1982 before merging with his parents’ rm in 1995. Stiebel & Company is among a handful of developers that seized on the burgeoning demand for stylish urban homes to build what would become models of urban living in subsequent decades.

“Townhouses have been going up since the 1960s, as people started to spread out into uptown Kingston,” Stiebel noted, pointing to WIHCON’s Mona Heights as having pioneered communal living. “That was the rst scheme where people started living in close proximity to one another, and then people started building tighter as land prices kept going up,” he added.

Stiebel lives at Bracknell Estate, a 12-unit townhouse complex built by his rm with detached and semi-detached duplex units. Beyond the historical connotations, many Jamaicans and expatriates residing in Kingston prefer townhouses for practical reasons, Stiebel explained. Sharing maintenance costs for recreational facilities like a clubhouse, pool and green spaces, security costs and bene tting from economies of scale during construction, are the main drivers that make homebuyers and renters seek out townhouses, he said. “As the [Jamaican] dollar devalued, it made sense for people to share costs,” Stiebel said, noting the expense of maintaining a large house became prohibitive for all but the wealthy.

Astute and ambitious planners and architects embraced all the historical connotations of grandeur the townhouse embodied, and designed communities that remain the most desirable housing developments in Kingston. “Frank Hall Homes built the Country Club at Waterworks, Constant Spring in the late 1960s. In the 1970’s the trend continued by other development companies, namely Key Homes and Contemporary Homes, among others,”notedScott.

“Until the advent of townhouses, most people lived in single-family houses on big lots,” recalled former Key Homes partner Marvin Goodman, of Goodman & Associates, another leading Jamaican architecture rm. “The houses were getting old, the land was di cult to maintain and the town planning department decided it was going to agree to additional density,” he recalled.

The townhouse gives its owner title, frequently in neighborhoods where a stand alone home with a larger yard might be out of reach, and helps put a cap on the escalating costs of maintenance and security associated with homeownership. Though townhouses are at times valued higher than standalone homes on a square foot basis, Goodman said the cost must be put into context given the prime location in a desirable address where land is sold at a premium.

“It seems to be more economical, both in rst cost, but certainly upkeep and maintenance, and very often buyers will get a unit in an upscale neighborhood,” he pointed out. Combined with the sense of security and a certain amount of exclusivity, townhouses in good locations tend to appreciate and stay in high demand, Goodman said. The maintenance-free nature of townhouses is also a big draw, both for empty nesters and professionals on the go. “When you have a good townhouse, properly designed with a certain amount of green space, when you go on vacation you can just lock the front door and you don’t have to worry about it,” Goodman noted.

Jamaican city dwellers yearn for a connection to the soil, and in the townhouse context, it’s an important part of the equation, said Williams. Not every townhouse development a ords its residents su cient terrain to grow the requisite ground provisions of yesteryear, or the banana, breadfruit, mango, ackee and avocado that dot the yards of so many urban and rural homes across the country. Most do have enough green space to satisfy that eternal longing for the countryside rooted in the Jamaican psyche, however, a courtyard or patio where doting moms can tend to their owers, grow a little basil and thyme, and manicured lawns for children to run about.

Many townhouse developments in Kingston have been built around historic plantation great houses, further cementing the historical association and boosting their appeal with buyers and renters. These ornate vestiges of the colonial era have been incorporated as centerpieces to anchor many developments, said Goodman.

Townhouse developments will often include a mix of semi-detached townhouses as well as row houses and even apartments, making the bene ts associated with such gated complexes more accessible to residents of varying incomes. Mona Great House is one such complex that transformed a historical plantation house into one of Kingston’s most desirable residential developments, with townhouses and apartments.

Goodman & Associates converted the Mona Great House itself, once the centerpiece of the Mona sugar estate and later a hotel, into apartments. Olivier Mews a townhouse complex built in the early 1980s on Olivier Road is another example of a project developed around an historic great house, Goodman pointed out.

Townhouses have also been in demand for local investors seeking stable, hard currency returns, Stiebel noted. “At the higher end it has been Jamaicans living here that buy for investment and for rental to the expat market,”he said. Many expats on assignment in Jamaica are required to seek residences with 24-hour security and a pool.

Expat Malaika Masson, who works for an international development agency, was required to live in a residence with 24-hour security by her employer and found a townhouse at The Hamptons in Jack’s Hill. She said she immediately felt at home and loves the sense of community the complex a orded her as soon as she moved in with her husband and young son. “The kids can play together, we have use of the tennis courts and the pool, it’s a perfect environment for us,” she said.

Townhouse units today are preferred over individual stand-alone houses or apartments because of the safety and security residents feel in gated communities and because many townhouse developments allow for exible internal layouts and expansion options, especially appealing to young, upwardly mobile professionals and families, Scott added.

Rochelle Clarke, who moved to Jamaica in 2014 to take up the post of Country Manager at Heineken, settled in at Amberly Estates, a townhouse development on Barbican Road. Clarke opted for a townhouse because, as a single woman moving to Jamaica, she wanted a sense of community, along with safety and security, she said. “It’s been great, the neighbors are friendly, we get together often and everyone’s very cordial. It’s easy to walk over to someone’s house and have a cold beer. When I travel, sometimes my neighbors message metocheckinonme.Ilikethat,”shesaid,notingshealsolikeshaving access to a swimming pool where she can relax with friends, without the hassle of having to maintain it.

The appeal among expats and Jamaicans alike allows many townhouse owners to collect rent in hard currency, creating a convenient hedge against the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar. A home valued in US dollars, whether for the rental or resale market, with consistently high demand in both, adds economic security to the physical security inherent in townhouse developments. Three-bedroom townhouses in upscale neighborhoods are routinely advertised at upwards of US $650,000 and rent at more than US $3000 a month. Scott has also noted the appeal to empty nesters, older couples looking to downsize from larger, stand-alone homes to simplify their lives after their children grow up.

“In recent times, the market focus for Geon has been primarily aimed at upper and upper middle-income purchasers; also, some Geon units have been considered investment instruments, as investors earn signi cant rental income from their purchases,” Scott noted.

While Geon has focused on the high-end market, other developers have targeted the lower and middle-income segments. The townhouse concept and classi cation has been somewhat broadened to encompass what are more accurately referred to as row houses, Design Collaborative founder Evan Williams noted. Row houses are not townhouses, strictly speaking, as they share walls with the contiguous multi-story homes on either side; though also originally built as multi-story single-family dwellings, usually with a stoop out front and a little yard out back, he said. Row houses have become popular low-income housing solutions in government-led projects downtown Kingston, Williams pointed out, further democratizing the townhouse concept.

As Kingston’s urban sprawl fans ever outward into the parish of St. Catherine, developers have successfully brought the townhouse concept to the suburbs, Scott noted. “New a ordable townhouse developments on the fringes of the corporate area have been made possible by new highways that greatly reduced travel time to the city center. While many of these developments have built stand-alone homes in housing schemes, others in more densely populated areas have built semi-detached units and row houses as interest in stand- alonesingle-familyresidenceshasdeclined,”Scottsaid.

Parishes even further a eld haven’t escaped the popularity of the townhouse either. The Dry Harbour development in Trelawny awarded to Goodman & Associates in a competition tendered by the National Housing Trust is slated to break ground this year and will feature a mix of stand-alone homes and semi-detached townhouses.

The townhouse has evolved in meaning and in structure and has become accessible to an increasing swath of Jamaicans while retaining the appeal across all categories of homeowner and renter, and it’s not going out of fashion any time soon. “It’s going to continue, said Goodman. “People just don’t want single-family houses because of the upkeep and maintenance; they don’t want a gardener, a dog running around. When you have a good townhouse, properly designed with a certain amount of green space, when you go on vacation you can just lock the front door and you don’t have to worry about it.”

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