It's a curious thing. At the same time that houses are getting bigger and bigger, lot sizes keep on getting smaller and smaller. Just look at the numbers: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average size of new homes increased from 2,095 square feet in 1992 to 2,434 square feet in 2005. Average lot sizes during that same period decreased from 18,722 square feet to 17,567 square feet.
Anyone who's seen an infill house go up in an established neighborhood can vouch for this phenomenon. Where there was once a modest ranch or colonial-style dwelling surrounded by a nice-sized yard, now stands a mega house that fills out its lot to the max. Jurisdictions are scrambling to get a handle on these monsters, experimenting with restrictive floor-area ratios (FARs) and other measures to help put on the brakes. For new projects, more and more municipalities are asking for neighborhoods with higher densities, whether that's TNDs, transitoriented developments (TODs), or mixed-use projects. Sick of grinding treks to work, home buyers are opting to live in communities that embrace the notion of sidewalks and shorter commutes as well as amenities within walking distance, even though that often means less square footage.
The good news is that the building industry is responding with innovative designs, smart site plans, and the realization that there's a market out there for smaller homes. Bigger is not always better.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER Jim Soules, co-owner of The Cottage Co. in Seattle, has a lot to say on the topic of building small. That's no surprise given the recognition that his charming pocket-lot neighborhoods, designed by Langley, Wash.–based architect Ross Chapin, have garnered in recent years. He's a real cheerleader for architect Sarah Susanka's not-so-big home movement and thinks the whole notion of “small” deserves some new talking points.
“We need a language that's more like clothing sizes,” says Soules, on the phone from the porch of a 1,080-square-foot home that's under construction at Phase 2 of Conover Commons, the Redmond, Wash., successor to one of his company's earlier—and highly successful—cottage projects. For him, that would be something like this: XS (<700 square feet), S (700 to 1,200 square feet), M (1,201 to 1,900 square feet), L (1,901 to 2,500 square feet), XL (2,501 to 3,200 square feet), XXL (>3,200 square feet). “We also need to demonstrate the flexible house, a house designed with an attached or detached accessory dwelling unit that can be used as a home office, for grown kids or an elderly parent, or a rental unit for a single.”
For builder Steve Kendrick, president of Structures Building Co. in Mount Pleasant, S.C., accessory units have paid off big time, especially with many of the houses he's built at I'On Village, a Mount Pleasant TND. Take the 1,400-square-foot house on North Shelmore that he put up for one of his employees on a 37-by-109-foot lot. The main house has just two bedrooms, but a third bedroom—or office or exercise room or in-law suite—tops the detached garage out back. “A two-bedroom house used to be unheard of, but we've found that if someone needs a third bedroom, it's often not for a child but for visitors,” says Kendrick. “In that case we'll do a room over the detached garage. This works especially well for the aging baby-boom population. A lot of our houses are second homes or retirement spots for people who are downsizing.”
Dividing the living space between two buildings also helps diminish the almost unavoidable shotgun nature of houses that get built on not-so-wide lots. “Obviously, a home built on a small lot is going to be narrow and longer, which means that daylight can be an issue,” says Kendrick. His company makes every effort to strategically locate windows and doors so that spaces don't feel so small. That means having windows on multiple walls, especially in the rooms at the front of the house, and including something—a door, a window, some trim—that draws the eye to the back of the house.
Kendrick also believes that adding interior interest goes a long way toward mitigating that tight-squeeze feeling. “If you're going to go small, you certainly have to put money in some of the detailing,” he says. Kendrick has had success running painted, exterior-grade, 1-by-6 shiplap siding on, say, two walls in a living room. It's economical and goes a long way toward breaking up those mundane expanses of drywall.
SITE IT RIGHT
R. John Anderson, vice president of planning and design at New Urban Builders in Chico, Calif., is also intent on offering buyers more than what he calls “puffed-up empty drywall space.” But he thinks building small needs to begin long before the design process (and drywall installers) start. “The approach we take is to think of the street, something we have to build anyway with our projects, as an amenity,” says Anderson. Forget the usual 42-foot-wide, roll-curb, no-sidewalk street, lit with giant cobra-head lights that shine directly into upstairs bedrooms (or disrupt the tree canopy), he says. Instead, plan for the street to be 26 feet wide with parking on one side, which will slow down traffic, and include sidewalks and attractive 10- or 12-foot lights. And while you're at it, says Anderson, put the garage, the gang mailbox, and that ugly transformer around back. Make the front of the house inviting, and buyers are likely to think charm instead of small.
Narrow, deep lots (typically 35-by-100 feet), such as those at Doe Mill Neighborhood, New Urban Builders' popular TND in Chico, could have meant almost useless strips of yard for each home. Instead, the builder consolidated the two side yards so that a coherent courtyard could be put together. A 5-foot side-yard easement offers the benefits of a zero-lot-line configuration but allows penetrations and windows on what Anderson calls the “passive” side of the house (see “Street Smarts,” page 148). The sills are placed 6 feet above the floor to preserve the privacy of the neighboring yard.