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This McMansion is actually four townhouses

Some people who live in single-family homes resist anything other than single-family homes being built around them. But as our region grows, there will be a growing demand for townhomes and apartments. What if we just built them in disguise?

The "Great House" near Tysons Corner. Photos by the author.

Great Houses and "mansion apartments"

With its sweeping lanes and European-inspired houses, the Carrington neighborhood near Tysons Corner looks like any recently-built luxury home development. But there's something strange about the two houses at the end of the cul-de-sac. They look just like all of the others, except for one difference: each house has four mailboxes.

This is the Great House, a four-unit townhouse designed to look like a large, single-family home. Like DC and Montgomery County, Fairfax requires developers to build affordable units in new developments, but they often stick out like a sore thumb. When Carrington was being built in 2001, the county worked with builder Edgemoore Homes to help subsidized, $120,000 townhomes blend in with homes several times as expensive.

Each Great House is comparable in size to its neighbors and uses the same materials. But instead of one, 5,000 square-foot house, you have four, 1,200-square foot townhouses. Only one of the doors faces the street. A driveway runs around the back, where each townhouse has a two-car garage.

This isn't a new idea, nor one limited to subsidized housing. The "mansion apartment building" has been a recurring concept in housing design for decades.

Many of these buildings were built in the DC area around World War II, a period when there was a lot of demand for affordably-priced housing and very little supply. You can find them in a wide variety of places, from Chevy Chase to Damascus.

The ultimate compromise

The Great House could be a particularly useful housing type as the region grows. A recent study from George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis estimates that the DC area will need 548,000 new homes over the next 20 years. About half of those units will need to go in the District, Montgomery, and Fairfax counties. And 60% of them will need to be townhouses or apartments.

A recently-built "mansion apartment" in Denver's Stapleton neighborhood.

Many of those homes can go in redeveloping commercial areas, like White Flint or Tysons Corner. But those areas won't be able to satisfy all of the demand and, besides, some people may not want a high-rise apartment. The Great House or "mansion apartment" offers a useful alternative.

It also allows people who don't make six-figure incomes to live closer to transit or the region's job centers, meaning they're not driving on our congested roads. It opens up some of the region's most sought-after neighborhoods and the amenities they offer, like top-ranked schools. And it reduces the pressure to develop natural and agricultural land on the region's fringe.

Those things don't really matter to neighbors who spend lots of time and effort to "maintain the integrity" of their single-family neighborhoods. But seeding their neighborhood with a few Great Houses that provide housing diversity while blending in could be a compelling alternative to building traditional apartments or townhouses there instead. Of course, they aren't possible under most zoning laws, which only allow single-family homes in "single-family neighborhoods."

This housing type is also uniquely suited for large families. When my mother's family emigrated here from Guyana in the 1970s, her father (my grandfather) wanted a place that could fit his nine children, some of whom were grown and starting their own families.

Grandfather passed up a big house on 16th Street NW for this mansion apartment building in Petworth, which had four apartments, each with their own entrances and kitchens, perfect for his adult children. Today, it's still in our family, though we rent some of the units out to other people.

This type of housing is a sort of compromise between those who desperately need more housing options and those who don't want those housing options in their backyard. It's not the only solution to our housing needs, but it's definitely an important part of the toolbox.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Nice article. There's a long history of designing these kinds of buildings. Just in longbranch, there are many blocks of apartment buildings designed as "Georgian" manor houses. I don't know if one has to go through this level of disguise to appease neighbors who would rather believe they live in a tony suburb, but I'll let the market figure that one out.

Originally, I thought this was an article of existing McMansions beind subdivided like 19th century townhouses. It's already happening, but it seems like municipalities should make these "group houses" legit. Maybe we'd get those 1950's density numbers back in DC with 8 people per house...right.

by Thayer-D on Jan 24, 2014 11:56 am • linkreport

There are a bunch of these in Fairfax City's Farrcroft subdivision. No street view, but here's an aerial.

by BeyondDC on Jan 24, 2014 12:07 pm • linkreport

Love it. Reminds of an article about people in silicon valley turning one into a group home for like 8 people.

by BTA on Jan 24, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

sadly I think the house at the top is ugly as sin. Anything that size trying to appear a single family home looks hideous unless it is a true mansion sitting on a sizable estate(and even then this would be ugly). What is wrong with rowhomes?

by Richard on Jan 24, 2014 1:10 pm • linkreport

I'm unconvinced this is what the market wants. If you're buying a townhome, you've already accepted the idea of higher density. Then to stick it in the middle of a low-density community means you get the worst of both worlds.

by Crickey7 on Jan 24, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

Agree very much with Richard. Aesthetics seem to be one of the first things developers and the newly rich lose or throw out the window. That building is terrible no matter how many people live in it.

by DE on Jan 24, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

I don't think it's "what the market wants" so much as "what a locality will approve."

In Fairfax City, for example, the market wants a lot more apartments, but the city government is (or was when these were built) obsessed with getting more mansions. So this is basically a loophole used to produce the apartments demanded by the market, in a way acceptable to the city's zoning, which is trying to push something else.

by BeyondDC on Jan 24, 2014 1:25 pm • linkreport

And there are certainly townhome buyers who want the small yard and low maintenance but don't want to be in the center of everything. Just check out all of the townhouse developments ringing downtown Silver Spring, Wheaton, Bethesda, Arlington, etc. This isn't dense enough to be next to a Metro station, but it's a nice transition to the single-family homes 1-2 miles away.

by dan reed! on Jan 24, 2014 1:33 pm • linkreport

Not sure why we should be hiding front doors in the back. Is it so horrible to know you have four neighbors?

by Jasper on Jan 24, 2014 1:37 pm • linkreport

It also allows people who don't make six-figure incomes to live closer to transit or the region's job centers, meaning they're not driving on our congested roads.

Is this house close to transit? Are there any cheap parcels of land where you can build mcmansions that are near transit?

by Richard on Jan 24, 2014 1:38 pm • linkreport

Not sure why we should be hiding front doors in the back. Is it so horrible to know you have four neighbors?
From the look of it, there are 4 front doors on the front of the house. One that faces front, three that while they are on the front of the house face the side so they cannot be easily seen from the street.

Of course, on a house like this, everyone drives everywhere so they just enter the house from the garage and leave the front door dead bolted at all times.

by Richard on Jan 24, 2014 1:41 pm • linkreport


This particular house is about a mile from the Spring Hill Metro station that will open later this year.

by dan reed! on Jan 24, 2014 1:43 pm • linkreport

While they're at it, maybe they can grow crops on that banal, oversize and empty chemically-treated lawn. There certainly are no trees in sight to block the sun -- or views of other monstrosities.

by Sydney on Jan 24, 2014 1:48 pm • linkreport

This practically cries out for a PUD clustered development. Something like this suggests a real poverty of imagination on the part of the development team, or a truly bad zoning ordinance, or both.

by Crickey7 on Jan 24, 2014 1:48 pm • linkreport

The ones in FarrCroft have very tiny yards. But the units themselves are pretty big - basically its two or three townhomes, which actually might look weirder arranged as conventional TH's than tucked into a pretend McMansion. Anyway, Farrcroft is pretty walkable, extends the walkability from Old Town Fairfax, and does not seem to offend nearby SFH owners.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 24, 2014 1:52 pm • linkreport

I don't get it. Are these supposed to trick SFH owners into thinking that they aren't townhouses? I'm all for more townhouse blocks but the function of the fake-McMansion aesthetic doesn't click for me.

by worthing on Jan 24, 2014 2:26 pm • linkreport

Not so much to trick the owners of neighboring SFH's, as to trick their visitors, thus preserving the owners status from the "impact" of having townhouse neighbors. Note that many HOA's do not permit "for rent" signs though they allow houses to be rented.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 24, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

I kind of want to buy one of the inner units and start renovations to make a "pop up"

by Richard on Jan 24, 2014 3:47 pm • linkreport

Maybe it's silly in some respects but it is innovative in others. I think the more tools out there the better.

by BTA on Jan 24, 2014 5:19 pm • linkreport

Very interesting idea. Traditionally (especially in the burbs) townhouse communities like PUDs have been separate from SFH communities. Even in the city, neighborhoods with row houses tend to be separate from neighborhoods with SFH detached homes (although there's some overlap).

Why not combine townhouses and detached housing in one neighborhood? I don't think I've ever seen that sort of combining before hearing about these "great houses". I can't think of another time I've seen a set of townhouses adjacent to detached housing in the burbs, so great houses are a way to get that done.

by Falls Church on Jan 24, 2014 10:46 pm • linkreport

While Carrington Ridge Ln is about a mile from the Spring Hill Metro station, there are no sidewalks or any pedestrian accommodations on the Leesburg Pike bridge over the Dulles Toll Rd. Anyone along Leesburg Pike west of the Toll Rd has an absolute unsafe walk to reach Spring Hill Metro. The only good news for reaching the station is that Fairfax Connector will up the service on the existing bus route there, bus #574.

by Transport. on Jan 24, 2014 11:20 pm • linkreport

I know this place and am struck by some misinformed snap judgements here. This 4-unit rowhouse and its nearby twin were built as part of Fairfax County's mandatory affordable dwelling unit program. Potential buyers are income-limited and resale prices are controlled. Its residents are happy to own a home in the McLean High School pyramid. It is what the market and the county government wanted: design and siting were shaped by strong townhouse opposition from the neighboring HOA. It has many trees nearby, which you can see if you click the photo to open Dan's photostream. You will also see how its design and materials match the market-rate homes of its neighborhood. You will also see more clearly how each building has two units whose front doors face this green and two end units whose doors open on the ends. The lawn isn't chemically treated -- it's mostly weeds. It's not oversized when kids from a dozen homes use it as their playground. A pending replacement of the Rt 7 bridges over the Dulles Toll Rd will add 10-foot shared-use paths between this place and Spring Hill Metro station.

by TysonsWanderer on Jan 25, 2014 1:58 am • linkreport

Ha ha the suburbs stink!

by NE John on Jan 25, 2014 3:27 pm • linkreport

@Richard -I kind of want to buy one of the inner units and start renovations to make a "pop up"


by Tina on Jan 25, 2014 3:36 pm • linkreport

" I can't think of another time I've seen a set of townhouses adjacent to detached housing in the burbs, so great houses are a way to get that done."

Check out many a New Urbanist communities like Kentlands. It actually makes for an interesting street scape like older neighborhoods in DC can attest to. LeDroit Park for example.

by Thayer-D on Jan 26, 2014 9:47 am • linkreport

I have seen these large quad-unit houses popping up in some of the new development designs in Prince George's County. In my opinion, I feel like a row of town house units amongst a mostly single family development is much more attractive than these odd single-familly/multi-family hybrids. There's also more of a sense of autonomy in a townhouse on its own lot than there would be in this unit type.

by Chris Allen, PE on Jan 26, 2014 1:50 pm • linkreport

While I don't like the McMansion architecture either, don't be so quick to pooh-pooh the McManion townhouse idea...if for no other reason to be repurpose the existing housing stock in the future.

by Jill on Jan 30, 2014 4:35 pm • linkreport

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