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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 2 -- SPRING 2002
 

The Sideyard House

By Oscar Machado

Definition: A single-family residential building type occupying one side of a lot leaving a generous side yard for placement of a garden or providing front access to outbuildings behind. When offered windowless houses next to the open yard, side yards are well suited for privacy. This type responds to climactic orientation with a one- or two-story piazza facing the prevailing winds and the sun.

A renewed interest in traditional housing has brought the sideyard house to the forefront once again in America. In older neighborhoods, such as in Fernandina, Fla., and Charleston, S.C., these historic houses are being renovated with care, while in new traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) these homes are being constructed with the original concept intact.

This building type is so-named due to its disposition on the lot. Situated along the north side property line, the home allows for a generous "side yard," as opposed the leftover strips of grass on both sides of a house placed in the middle of the lot.

Historically, the development of this residential type is tied with property taxes. In Charleston, S.C., where the sideyard house originated, property taxes were based on the length of building frontage, not lot frontage. Therefore, in order to reduce the amount of tax paid on their property, Charlestonians cleverly decided to minimize the building frontage by building higher and deeper on the lot. This results in a rectangular footprint with the short side facing the street towards the front of the property and the longer side of the house facing the side yard.

The sideyard house can be approximately 18 feet wide and is pulled up close to the street. Windows are placed 4 feet or higher from the sidewalk on this streetside wall, providing privacy from sidewalk passersby. This fašade is also where the door is located.

Upon opening the front door, a surprise awaits visitors. Instead of entering the interior of the home, the outdoors presents itself once again in the form of a piazza, or porch. This creates an intriguing magical element to the entry, a characteristic unique to the sideyard house. The piazza is located along the longer, southern facing side of the house. Typically, this outdoor room runs the full length of the house, reaching 40 feet long and 12 feet wide and providing a wonderful place to enjoy a beautiful, formal garden of roses and parterres, as seen in many typical homes and gardens in Charleston. In addition to the first level piazza, side porches can be added to the second floor as well. Especially in the southern climates, these outdoor rooms can add lots of living space to the home.

In the case of interior lots, piazzas are contained and defined by the sideyard house next door. These side yards provide adequate privacy to their inhabitants because, generally, the side of the adjacent house abutting the garden is windowless.

Seen from the street in groups, sideyard houses define the streetscape with solids (the houses) and voids (the gardens between them). The side yard can also serve as a place for on-site parking. Though maybe not as aesthetically pleasing as a garden, parking in the side yard can be dealt with in a pleasant manner.

The sideyard house responds favorably to climactic conditions. The orientation of the piazza faces south in order to capture prevailing winds. The cover of the porch roof provides protection from southern sun exposure.

The long configuration of the building typically designates the disposition of the rooms as such: the living room to the front of the house, followed by the foyer where the stairs are located, which lead up to the bedrooms on the second floor. The dining room, kitchen and family room are toward the back of the house. In the archetypes, the kitchens were located in the outbuildings to minimize destruction due to a kitchen fire. Today, though, these homes have been renovated to accommodate modern living with kitchens located in the main house. All the rooms in the ground floor and sometimes in the second floor have direct access to the piazza with doors and windows.

The sideyard house eventually made its way from Charleston, where it became a large part of the urban fabric, to many other cities throughout the south and as far north as Alexandria, Va. This building type fell out of favor when people flocked from the city to the suburbs to build their homes. After WWII, when Americans started to abandon the inner cities and historical cores such as the Historic City of Charleston, the move was to resettle in suburban neighborhoods. The norm in suburban neighborhoods became larger lots with ranch house types.

However, during the 1970s, rising land values and an increased demand for housing paved the way for building "zero lot line" houses again, particularly in places like California. This rediscovery of the side site disposition of houses did not produce outstanding results, however, because the original intent of the side yard was lost. It is now possible to see how the deterioration of such a magical characteristic went array in many suburban developments. The double front-loaded garage now became the norm, and the small side yards have become useless residual spaces because of the lack of connection to the house.