By Carolyn Weber. Most housing surveys claim that more square footage is the No. 1-item on the wish lists of new-home buyers. But do these people really need all that space? If they examined the way they actually live, would they still want all those extra rooms? After all, more than 50 percent of American households are composed of only one or two people. Families are shrinking, but most zoning is still geared toward large-lot, single-family homes.

Things may be changing, though, starting in the Pacific Northwest where many communities are under some form of growth management. In 1995, in response to shifting demographics and the need for appropriate high density, the city of Langley, Wash., adopted the Cottage Housing Code (CHC). The zoning permits four to 12 small, detached cottages on sites that would otherwise be developed with half as many homes (see "Cottage Details," below).

The new zoning approved in Langley (and soon after in Shoreline and Redmond, Wash.) arrived just in time for Jim Soules' new venture. After 25 years in real estate development, Soules formed The Cottage Co. to fill what he thought was a need for small, innovative projects.

"The premium resales were on older, Craftsman homes in the Seattle area," he says. "It was obvious that the shift was toward better rather than bigger." He teamed with architect Ross Chapin, built the company's first pocket neighborhood--The Third Street Cottages--and carved his niche in the marketplace.

Photo: Courtesy Ross Chapin Architects

Like a finely crafted yacht, the level of detail in the millwork and finishes of the small houses is impeccable. And there is no wasted space in these plans--all live larger than their diminutive size (less than 1,000 square feet). The team's latest collaboration is in Shoreline, a first ring suburb just north of Seattle that's filled with post-World War II ramblers on large lots. A vacant 4/5-acre infill site had been approved previously for four 7,200-square-foot lots, but under the new CHC, The Cottage Co. could develop something entirely different.

The community, Greenwood Avenue Cottages, comprises eight, brightly colored detached units clustered around a lushly landscaped courtyard. "People have to walk through the common area to get to their houses," notes Chapin. "The green space is a catalyst for community interaction." Parking is on the perimeter of the site, and each unit has a single-car garage with extra space for storage.

Photo: Courtesy Ross Chapin Architects

Feikema doesn't need a dining room for 12 on a regular basis, but if she ever did have a big party, she could sign up to use the common building.

Scaled like old bungalows, the exteriors feature the requisite 10-by-12-foot porches that provide extra living and socializing space. The builder tried to make the project as green as possible by employing simple, non-old-growth materials. "We used all the engineered products that we could," says Soules, citing fiber-cement siding, vinyl windows, and standard composition roofing.

Soules chose blown-in blanket fiberglass insulation because he believes it allows for better acoustics and soundproofing and provides a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency. "We went way beyond the code for energy," he says. Propane stoves on programmable thermostats heat the cottages.

The sites are approximately 32 feet wide and 45 feet deep, with 10 to 14 feet between the homes. Each house has its own yard. The active areas--the living room and kitchen--look onto the common space, but the bedrooms face the private yard. "There are no windows that look into the neighbor's house," notes Chapin.

Banking on a demand for high-quality small homes close to existing amenities and transportation, The Cottage Co. built the $250,000 to $285,000 homes on spec. "We knew that people wouldn't understand it until it was done," says Soules. As he anticipated, the project sold out in just under two months. "We played our hunches and studied the market," says Chapin. The units are condominiums, and the $175 per month association fee covers the common area maintenance, water, trash, sewer, and roof and painting reserves.

Photo: Courtesy Ross Chapin Architects

The Greenwood Avenue Cottages are painted in cheerful, but not overwhelming, colors. "There are 28 exterior colors," says architect Ross Chapin who picked the palette, "a main color, a secondary color, a trim color, and a highlight color for the door."

Most buyers at Greenwood Avenue were single, professional women drawn to the style, low maintenance, and sense of safety. "Security is directly tied to the strength of the neighborhood relationships," says Chapin. "Gated communities are not the answer; instead you have to look closely at design that fosters good neighbors."

Indeed, a strong sense of community pervades at Greenwood. Darlene Feikema, a single parent and the project's first resident, had been looking for a close-knit community like the one where she'd grown up. "It's beyond what I ever thought it would be," she says. "My family is out of the area, and so my neighbors have become like a surrogate family."

Residents have access to the 300-square-foot common building that serves as a community center. "We left it somewhat rough and unfinished with a concrete floor," says Chapin. "It can be a workshop to repair bikes as well as a space for meetings and parties."

Each Saturday night the neighbors gather for a potluck supper. Soules started the event as a way to introduce prospective buyers to the residents. "Now it's a serious tradition," he says, "they always have great food and wine."

Soules does well with his cottages (maintaining 15 percent margins), and he's doing it his way: "It's an intense business, and, like fine craftsmanship of any kind, it takes lots of time and effort but feels great when it's done." His next project, an 11-unit pocket community called Erickson Avenue Cottages, is under way and will be finished next spring.

Project: Greenwood Avenue Cottages, Shoreline, Wash.; Size: 34,755 square feet; Density: 10 units per buildable acre; Sales price: $250,000 to $285,000; Sales started: February 2002; Builder/Developer: The Cottage Co., Seattle; Architect: Ross Chapin Architects, Whidbey Island, Wash.

Cottage Details

The Cottage Housing Code (CHC) is a clever way to control density and infill development while providing a reasonable, responsible alternative to the gaudy, over-sized McMansions that are often built on teardown lots.

The conditional use requires special site and design reviews, and a series of parameters:

  • None of the houses can have more than 1,000 square feet of living space.

  • The cottages must have covered porches facing a courtyard, detached parking, and architecture that's compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

  • The maximum height is 18 feet for a flat roof and 25 feet for a pitched roof.

  • Half of the homes in a community are limited to 800 square feet on the first level and 700 square feet on the second story.

    Privacy, Please

    The Greenwood Avenue team was concerned with curbing sprawl with smart growth and high density as well as fostering a close-knit community, but not at the expense of the residents' privacy. "I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the public to private hierarchy," says architect planner Ross Chapin. He describes the critical sequence: from the car through the common space, past a low picket fence (a barrier between the common and private yard), and up onto the porch.