Subdividing old lots in established neighborhoods has become common practice in Portland, Ore., as in many other urban locales where land is at a premium. But when citizen complaints about lackluster new construction became louder than a grumble, city officials decided to do something proactive and launched Living Smart, a design competition soliciting ideas for a better use of the typical subdivided, 25-foot-wide lot. The goal was to cultivate a few good plans that could be pre-approved and put on a fast track for development, with a diminished risk of public backlash.

Fast forward to the two slender residences now standing side-by-side on Knapp Street, on a lot once occupied by a single home. At $319,000 a pop, their price tags are affordable by market-rate standards. The neighbors like them. And get this: Their plans came permit-ready with a 50 percent discount on development fees—a perk that allowed builder/developer Jack Wagnon to avoid the quagmire of red tape that so often holds infill projects hostage.

Designed by the Berkeley, Calif.–based architectural team of Roxana Vargas and Trent Greenan, the tidy three-bedroom, two-bath houses embody one of two prototypes selected by the city as a model of what skinny infill could and should look like. (The other winning design, which was built elsewhere in the city, was by Portland-based architect Bryan Higgins.) With their exposed cedar outriggers, heavy timbering, and deeply recessed windows, the Knapp Street homes speak a dialect that is very Pacific Northwest. They are built green to Portland's Earth Advantage specifications and have an energy-efficiency rating that exceeds Oregon code by 50 percent.

“It's a very efficient plan,” says Vargas of her firm's 1,516-square-foot, front-loaded garage configuration, which expands to 1,700 square feet when the garage is swapped out for a home office. “An advantage to the home being so narrow is that you have more building perimeter to get light into the interiors. This home has more windows than what you would typically find in a house of this square footage.”

In addition to the windows, custom cedar garage doors, which cost about $2,700 each, were the other big ticket item on these otherwise cost-conscious dwellings. Portland has no alleys, so upgrades to this prominent front elevation feature (made even more apparent by the home's slender profile) were justified, Vargas says. Easements allowed both garage doors and shear wall margins to be narrower than standard. “It was a big deal to get those approved, but the city ended up being really happy with the end result.”

Project: Living Smart Homes, Portland, Ore.; Size: 1,516 square feet (garage option) or 1,700 square feet (office option); Builder: Prairie View Homes, Portland; Architect: Vargas Greenan Architecture, Berkeley, Calif.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Portland, OR.