Seattle to the World: Compact Homes


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Redefining the value of square footage.

The story:
The contributions of architect Ross Chapin and developer Jim Soules have helped revolutionize the rules for homebuilding in the Northwest. By designing master-planned communities of small homes that facilitate (and even encourage) daily interaction and interdependence between neighbors, Chapin and Soules have shown that well-designed density not only works, it can actually enhance a property's value. Their attractive model is bringing small homes to market in a big way.

tscporch.jpgSoules and Chapin began working collaboratively in 1996, when they formed The Cottage Company to design and build Third Street Cottages, a development that took advantage of a recently-passed zoning change in Chapin's hometown of Langley on Whidbey Island. The regulations permitted developers to double the density on standard-size single-family residential lots by building twice as many homes, if those homes were each smaller than 1,000 square feet. The resulting Third Street Cottages were beautiful small homes with thoughtful features like corner windows and 9-foot ceilings to make the most of the space inside. And they were clustered around a common open space, encouraging daily neighborly interactions in a way that struck a chord with many visitors. They quickly sold out, and both Soules and Chapin went on to build dozens of appealing compact homes around the region, both separately and together. Ross Chapin Architects is currently working with developers located in several states on pocket neighborhood projects. The Cottage Company, now under the leadership of Linda Pruitt, has continued with innovative housing developments in the Pacific Northwest.

The duo has attracted media attention from many who say they are challenging a dominant preference for large homes. But Soules doesn't believe that a preconceived bias toward big houses is actually as strong as hearsay suggests. "What's the most expensive and smallest home in Seattle? A houseboat," he says. "You can pay a million dollars for 800 square feet … there is a segment of the market that seeks a well designed, compact home."

And zoning that enables smaller homes benefits lower-income populations as well. Chapin says his firm is currently working on three compact neighborhoods that are part of affordable housing projects: a cluster of 14 homes in partnership with Habitat for Humanity; a project in South Whidbey Island in partnership with Saratoga Community Housing, and a 31-home project in partnership with the City of Calistoga, California.

The Cottage Company were among the first in recent years to get the chemistry of compact home design so exactly right, but the movement is catching on around the region. For example, a feature in the summer edition of AIA Seattle's Forum magazine examines several new compact communities from Walker Architecture (and developer Peter Erickson), gProjects, b9 Architects and Arellano/Christofides. And Chapin is currently working on a book that will examine the history and future of compact community developments: Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Communities in a Large-Scale World, to be released by Taunton Press.

Why it's Worldchanging:
Truth be told, the idea of 1000 to 1500-square foot homes is not a brand-new innovation. Rather, that's the size home that many of our parents and grandparents grew up in, and the size that many people still use today. But here in the U.S., inexpensive suburban land, cheap fuel for commuting, vertical emulation and other factors have contributed to an enormously swollen idea of what a "dream home" looks like. Now, economic and social changes are driving a turn in the tide. By creating small homes that work better for their inhabitants than large homes with wasted space and huge appetites for energy, Chapin and Soules have broken ground on the resurgence of a new ideal, and have proven to other developers that there is a huge market for smart compact housing. We believe that successful and sold-out executions like The Cottage Company's Third Street Cottages and Danielson Grove will convince municipal planning departments around the country to reconsider outdated zoning codes and take one big step toward enabling livable, walkable, dense and more sustainable communities.

Photos of Third Street Cottages, courtesy of The Cottage Company.

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This post is part of the series, "Seattle to the World: 100 Best Innovations from the Emerald City."

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