The row house is the architectural workhorse of residential construction in Philadelphia. It might also be the future for an underserved section of Chicago’s recovering housing market, according to the team behind Flex House 2, a 31-building development currently expanding in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood.
Although Philly’s handsome masonry flats date back to the turn of the 20th century or even earlier, the Flex House developments are decidedly modern in their aesthetic. “I think flex 2 has an elementalness about it,” said Brian Phillips, principal of designers Interface Studio Architects. “The idea is very clear. It’s very clean and simple.”
Three-story, three-bedroom houses that share exterior walls with their neighbors, Flex House 2 homes are a modern Chicago take on the vernacular architecture of ISA’s home base in Philadelphia. But according to the project’s website, they are also “the ‘new normal’ of the 21st century.” “Pre-housing bubble, developers didn’t care about this mid-level housing as a design pursuit,” said Phillips of the houses, which at $479,000 have had no trouble selling in the rapidly redeveloping northwest side neighborhood of Logan Square. Flex House 1 started at $399,000 and quickly sold out at an average of $420,000.
Developer Bob Ranquist, known around Chicago mainly for high-end residences, saw in Flex House a chance to offer young homebuyers a place more attuned to the modern urban lifestyle. Most move-ins are second-time buyers, Ranquist said, often moving from a two-bed, two-bath condo in more densely developed neighborhoods of the city like River North and Bucktown. They are often new parents or considering having a kid, and they are usually willing to stretch their budget a little bit for that third bedroom, but they do not want a single-family home in the suburbs. “I think we’re seeing a lot of buyers who are a little more size conscious than they used to be,” said Ranquist. “They don’t need all that house anymore.”
The formula appears to be working. Ranquist has similar townhomes under development in River North and Andersonville, both designed by Pappageorge Haymes.
For ISA, who worked with local designers Osterhaus McCarthy, the design challenge was keeping material and construction costs down while delivering a sophisticated design. The open floor plan has very few doors or sofits, while exposed concrete floors offer radiant heating and a loft-like feel. The wood-frame building’s facade features dark blue fiber-cement planks that frame each home, kinking slightly to create rhythm. “We literally bent the facades in a subtle way,” said Phillips. “From the pedestrian view it creates a lot of visual texture. That sort of repetition actually becomes a very interesting pattern.” The facade’s rhythm also references the townhouses’ yards—another Chicago turn on what began as a Philadelphia idea.
Flex House 1’s eight row homes on nearby Shakespeare Avenue had most of its units under contract before construction in 2012, and the recovering mid-range housing market is similarly soaking up more recent iterations of the development. Based on the success of Flex House 2’s first 15 homes, another row of 16 just broke ground, with an opening expected early next year.