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The Modern Townhome is a Loft up to the Sky
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

The white stucco cantilever off the second and third floor, the gray brick, and the prominent glass?these are the stamps of urbanization now firmly branded into Dallas architecture because of Miro Townhomes (architect, Ron Wommack, AIA, client/general contractor Alan McDonald, Parkwood Development, now CityHomes/Centex), a project that was awarded a 2002 AIA Dallas Design Merit Award this fall. Since its completion three years ago, Miro Townhomes has won numerous awards including the 2000 Best Townhome Community by the National Association of Home Builders and has spurred a number of town home developments along the same lines.

?We were so excited when we first started,? Wommack said. ?It was some kind of fantasy, and it took four years or so for it to finally get done. But now that it?s done, it?s just kind of surreal in a way. It?s just another little piece of the city.?

?The reason high rises haven?t taken off here is that people in Texas still have a really deep affection for the land,? Wommack said. ?Dallas grew up as a farming community?that?s our history. True, there have been a few projects in the past 20 or 30 years, but not anything really on a scale that this one (Miro Townhomes) was done.?

The idea for the 39-unit, triple-decker development came to Wommack while renovating several older apartments into 2-story lofts complete with small front yards and attached garages. At that moment, he realized he could design a compact town home along the same lines. So, the team of Wommack and McDonald located the vacant 5-acre property in the Knox-Henderson area between Buena Vista and Travis, and in 1995, they sat down to design a master plan for an ideal town home community.

By ideal, they wanted what they thought would be the best available design?things like the garages, for the most part, oriented off the auto court and the front doors facing the street. To alleviate drainage on the ten-foot differential elevation topography as well as create rear access easements to the garages, they drew up a curved street through the community. And of course, they raised the roof for three floors.

?At the time, I was thinking how much more urban this is,? Wommack said. ?It?s a step toward more urban-ness for Dallas.? The plans, however, were just a bit too urban for Dallas zoning because most of the design features broke the zoning codes.

?When we found that out, we thought, we?re just probably dead in the water here; we?re just kind of fantasizing,? Wommack said. But then they met with Willy Cothrum, a planning and zoning consultant with Master Plan, who advised them to write their own Planned Development (PD) for the property and write their own zoning codes.

?We couldn?t believe it,? Wommack said. ?We?d rewritten zoning for this kind of development in Dallas. We all wanted a New Haven feel to the community. It?s tight, compact. There are people on the streets. There is just a density that feels right about it as opposed to suburbia spread all over everywhere.?

The town homes were designed with four separate floor plans using the same basic 3-level concept for each plan with sizes varying from 2200 to 3700 square feet. A 2-car garage occupies the first floor along with space for one or two bedrooms complete with closets and a full bath. Stairs up to the second level lead to the primary living space?the living room, dining room, kitchen, and, in some cases, the master bedroom. In other cases, the master bedroom is located on the third level, which also offers a roof deck and/or a study overlooking the two-storied living room?found in all the homes.

?It?s kind of like reaching up for the cosmos,? Wommack said. ?When you go into one of these units, too, when you come in and go up the stairs, it?s almost like going into a world away. There is a psychological threshold of coming up there, which I think is a nice experience. You don?t just walk into the living room, and bam, there is the living room. There is a procession and a cycle, and it?s about coming up. When you walk in the front door, you?re compressed. And then you?re led up: that?s release.?

?The living room is a 2-story space?a big volume,? Wommack said. Inspiring this design was a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, in which there was a description about building a home with a second story living area to offer a view of the neighborhood. ?That image always stuck with me. So, we thought we?re going to put the living room on the second level. It gives us an opportunity to do a really nice volume, which space is a luxury now, and getting a piece of glass for a lot of light, which could cut deep into the unit?kind of being in a tree house?above the street.?

It also gave them the opportunity to lower the ceilings in the garage and lower level bedroom.

?Plus, you?re greeted at the door in a scale that is more human,? Wommack said. ?I can?t stand it that you walk into these houses and there?s this big two-story space with a stair that goes to a game room. That?s about trying to impress somebody you?ve greeted.?

?When we got the earthwork done and we got the road and utility work done, the bank let us build four units?just four units,? Wommack said. ?They thought they were going to have buyers knocking the place down and selling like crazy. Well, the homes sat there for about six months and didn?t have any sales.? So, they started thinking. ?Maybe we made a huge mistake?maybe we thought Dallas was ready for a project of our time; but maybe they?re not.? But then they put furniture in one home. Once the furniture went in, it sold. They put furniture in the next one?a sale. They started moving the furniture down the unsold homes.

?Every time we put furniture in, and showed people how to live in it, they bought it,? Wommack said. ?People just couldn?t understand how you lived in it; people have a hard time imagining other ways to live. They think there is an apartment and a single family home: but there are a lot of other ways to habituate and to dwell.?

?We wanted to do something that was modern and more about the ideas?like expressing the living area up above the street,? Wommack said. ?That stucco cantilever piece really express that?this is the living volume. The intention was to make a mark that signals something new was going to happen here.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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