On the whole, US homeowners still routinely prefer detached homes. 82%, in fact, according to the US Census Bureau in 2015. Just 5.5% of US homeowners live in townhomes. But this is another story in metropolitan areas like New York.
To accommodate growing populations and save on construction costs, semi-attached homes popped up all over Staten Island post Verrazano-Narrows Bridge construction in the 1960’s. The heavy migration from Brooklyn changed the borough’s character and semi-attached homes provided lots of housing for this influx of new residents.
The origins of the semi-attached home can be traced back to Europe. Semi-attached homes began popping up in Europe in the mid-1700’s. The industrial revolution caused urban centers to become more populated and more land to be used for agriculture. In response to the land shortage, builders began erecting semi-detached (as they are referred to in Europe) homes for the working class to live in.
“Semi’s” In The United States: Design and Terminology
Semi-attached homes vary widely throughout the US. In Staten Island, semi-attached homes are also very diverse. They are typically tall and thin which is consistent with small lots in urban areas. They can be mirrors of one another or completely distinct designs which just happen to share a wall. They can be modern or traditional, old or new, and may be constructed with a variety of materials from brick to vinyl siding. The entrance to each unit can be on the side of the home for a more private feel or closer to the center.
While semi-attached homes are common for middle or even upper-class families in New York, they tend to be used as more of an economy development in less dense areas. In southern towns, a semi-attached home is often an alternative to apartment living, offering a yard and more privacy at a similar price point. These often look more like one-story bungalows. In Staten Island, many semi’s are very opulent and usually feature at least two stories.
This type of dwelling also goes by various names and slang terms depending on the area. Many colloquially use the term “duplex” to describe these homes, but this is incorrect. A duplex is defined as one home divided into two apartments with separate entrances; a semi-attached home is a standalone property in itself.
Here in Staten Island, we call them “semi’s.” In the Mid-Atlantic region (particularly Pennsylvania) these homes are often referred to as “twin homes.” Sometimes, several homes are joined and the semi-attached homes on the end are labeled “end units.” A development of fully attached and semi-attached homes can also be called “rowhouses.” In the United Kingdom, residents call them “terraced” homes when fully attached, while end units are correspondingly “end terraced.”
A great solution to urban crowding? A solid middle class dwelling in an expensive market? Or an economy dwelling? No matter what you call them, semi-attached homes are a part of metropolitan life and have remained there for centuries. In Staten Island, semi's are newly constructed all the time and their popularity shows no signs of slowing down. While the United States as a whole vastly prefers detached homes, this type of dwelling strikes a balance between an apartment and standalone home which is out of reach for those with land scarcity.