As a young boy growing up in Minnesota, Ross Chapin often spent his time constructing tree forts and sketching and dreaming about buildings. Living in a Shingle-style bungalow with a wraparound porch, he learned firsthand what it was like to grow up in a connected community where neighbors knew each other by name.
Decades later, his childhood experiences would lead him to develop a fresh approach to community building that draws on many of the simple pleasures found in small towns—and that draws builders, developers, and home buyers to his enduring designs.
Chapin’s ” pocket neighborhoods” are designed for neighborliness. Homes are clustered in groups of six to eight, each with living-sized porches opening onto a shared green space, which has neighbors relating on a first-name basis. Privacy is maintained by careful room and window placement, and cars are close by without being dominant. His homes emphasize livability over size, a direct contrast with the McMansion.
“Trends are showing that baby boomers and milllennials are shifting away from oversized homes,” Chapin says. “In an era of high energy prices, they want smaller, more livable, energy-efficient homes in walkable neighborhoods.”
In one of Chapin’s current projects, the 27-cottage Inglenook community under construction near Indianapolis, units are selling out before they are complete. With a neighborhood feel and floor plans that fit Midwestern preferences for basements and attached garages, they are “heaven” to sell, says marketing director Rick Heaston. “Many people might think they’ve seen this before—a rear-garage, alley-loaded product—but they haven’t,” he says. “Ross really thinks about the details and how to differentiate the homes, from the layout of the houses down to the railing around the porch, which is designed just wide enough to hold a cup of coffee or tea.”
Another pocket neighborhood, Salish Pond in Fairview, Ore., encompasses 10 homes on 2,000-square-foot lots clustered around the shore of a restored pond. Completed in 2001, they attracted a range of buyers, says developer Michael McKeel, including a retired couple, a nurse, a single mother, and young couples.
McKeel was drawn to Chapin’s approach because it was different than anything in his market, from the unique site plan to the look of the quaint cottages. “As a small developer, I needed to do something that no one else was doing,” he says. “Ross has the ability and talent to plan the community and design the houses.”
Although pocket-style development is prohibited by zoning regulations in many jurisdictions, in some cities officials are writing new codes to accommodate a wider choice of housing options, including pocket neighborhoods, says Chapin, who is developing a model Pocket Neighborhood Community Development code to help bring about changes on a wider scale.
Chapin doesn’t mind fighting for his vision, which is to provide a standard of living that goes deeper than granite countertops and two-car garages. “What’s most important is the quality of relationships that a community fosters, and the sense of connection with nearby neighbors.” He realizes that not all Americans are ready to give up their large yards and homes to live in a densely configured neighborhood, and that homes such as his do not fit into every buyer’s budget. Nevertheless, many of Chapin’s most popular design ideas—such as doing away with formal living spaces and incorporating practical touches like built-in bookshelves or niches—can be implemented by builders of all types and sizes.
“A well-designed home that not only fits people’s lives but fits their realities will help builders sell a home more quickly in any market,” he says. “The best selling point is differentiation.”
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