Sunday, July 20, 2014

Duplexes don't have to be ugly - lessons on housing choices

History can provide design inspiration for today, and that's what the town of Badin, NC demonstrates in its interesting mix of housing types.  The terms "single-family" and "multi-family" tend to get people thinking of housing as a dichotomy of single-family/owners vs. multi-family/renters, but there's a wide spectrum of housing design types that can accommodate a mix of owners and renters, often in the same space. In fact, a current term for this concept is Middle Housing (see image below).
Credit: Opticos Design
I saw a mix of housing types when I visited Badin (pop. 1,974) on a recent day trip to Morrow Mountain State Park, which backs up to the Yadkin River and the Uwharrie Mountains, 50 miles east of Charlotte.  My wife's grandmother grew up outside of town, as her father worked for the Aluminum Company of America, ALCOA, which continued developing Badin as a company town in 1915.  Badin's most commonly associated with ALCOA, but the town was actually started in 1913 by L'Aluminium Francais, a French aluminium company that redirected its funding to the World War I homefront, leaving Badin up for grabs.

ALCOA took over, further developing the factory and town, with a peak population of 5,000 in 1926, when automobile ownership allowed more population dispersion including my wife's grandmother's "home place." (below)  Being a city boy, I learned this term from my wife, as it encompasses both a house and nearby fields, barns, and pump houses.  Although ALCOA's operations ceased in 2007, Badin's built environment still remains a valuable asset.

Grandmother Coxie's Home Place
One of the first things I noticed in town was its simple, yet well-designed duplexes (below). These homes have a common party wall on smaller lots, but are nonetheless quite livable with landscaping and a front porch.

Here's another example of the same basic duplex design, with each side having evolved over time - the home on the left kept its porch, while the home on the right finished theirs out as a front room (below).  Design evolves over time, yet the basic form of the homes have remained the same since their construction.

These reminded me of houses I've seen in Dundalk, MD, another company town built before World War I for Bethlehem Steel, just east of Baltimore.  Yorkship Village (Camden, NJ area) is another World War I shipworker town built in a similar style and one that I'm curious to see in-person. Since the original parts of Dundalk were built in the English Garden City style, the duplexes below reflect this.

Another street in Badin (below) shows how four distinct rowhouses don't have to be monotonous or overwhelming in scale to nearby duplexes and free-standing houses.  In fact, a similar pattern shows up in Dundalk, with six homes in a row (further below).

In looking at again at a duplex in Badin, this one (below) shows the softening effect of landscaping.  People often object to the way new housing and neighborhoods look, notably in the starkness of new buildings and streets imposed on a newly developed landscape.  Older places like Badin and Dundalk demonstrate that even utilitarian company towns can take on elements of history and beauty as street trees and other elements of urban landscaping are given time to develop.

These historic housing types provide inspiration for many issues that we face today including questions of affordable housing, housing density to support transit and nearby retail, and the issue of housing choices. Not everyone needs a free-standing home, and not everyone needs a high-rise apartment, so there's certainly a huge range of housing types, demonstrated by history, that we can pick from to meet a range of needs.