A curiously persistent attribute of the home-building industry in this region is its continued obsession with building enormous single-family houses on large lots. Some of these houses are really more like three-car garages with living space attached.
This is puzzling, since the past two censuses have made it clear that the fastest growing portions of our population are no longer double-income couples and "nuclear" families.
Most households are comprised of single people, senior citizens, single-parent families and couples with modest incomes. Right now, these groups constitute more than half of our population — nationally, regionally and locally. And that proportion will be even higher in another decade.
So why the disconnect between reality and what is still being built? Today through Tuesday, thousands of builders, architects, urban planners and other experts in residential building from all over the country will gather in Seattle to ponder that very question as well as others at the National Green Building Conference. And they'll see firsthand examples in our region that illustrate how to live in ways that conserve land, energy and materials.
Poulsbo Place, part of today's conference tours, is just one recently completed project that offers individual identity, privacy and, most important, a sense of community. Two other outstanding developments also are not in Seattle, a city that still seems to struggle with how to deal with these social changes. One project is on Bainbridge Island. The other is in Shoreline. All three projects are gracious, well crafted and relatively affordable.
A few blocks from the bustling little business district of Poulsbo on Jensen Way is a development called Poulsbo Place. Designed by Seattle-based Mithun Architects for Security Properties, the development consists of 164 modest homes arranged along narrow lanes.
The development is not a typical, self-contained suburban subdivision filled with cul-de-sacs, overly wide driveways and bloated builder homes. Rather, this feels like a real community — and one that fits well into the established character of Poulsbo. It was designed in the way that we used to build good neighborhoods. The streets, sidewalks and public spaces are lined with gracious trees, intimate in scale and entirely sociable.
Homes follow a pleasant, familiar tradition of prominent and generous front porches — not the puny little raised decks that some developers pass off as porches. A couple of people can sit in front of their homes, stretch out with a good book or chat with passing neighbors.
The color scheme is lively and unexpectedly "saturated." It seems to borrow from a Scandinavian notion that in gray climates, people appreciate strong color even more. Why we here in this region have settled for boring beige and brown has always baffled me.
Poulsbo Place includes a number of small parks and greens but, unfortunately, they are not very inspired in their design. Perhaps the biggest flaw in this development is its sheer size. With such a large number of houses following the same design elements, the effect is almost overwhelming — like too much of a good thing. The overall plan includes a cluster of duplexes, but that unit type should have been distributed throughout the development, rather than shoved off to one side, which might have given the neighborhood more variety.
Courtyards on Madison
The idea of mixing dwelling-unit types has been done well in the second project. Located on the west side of Madison Avenue on Bainbridge Island, just north of Wyatt Way, is a small pocket-sized development called Courtyards on Madison.
Designed by Bainbridge-based Wenzlau Architects for developer Rod McKenzie, 30 small but elegant homes are arranged around a central street and four narrow side lanes. In sharp contrast to most subdivisions, the parking is largely out of sight, with most garages accessed from the lanes.
This allows the homes to face toward green space and gives the place a sense of compactness, neighborly proximity and cohesive identity — something sorely missing from most residential areas developed in recent decades. Walking around the tight but well-laid-out development feels like being in the middle of a classic small town where folks know each other and value the neighborhood as a whole as much as their homes.
The best thing about the Courtyards is that it includes four smaller, affordable dwellings right at the front entrance. The buildings flanking the entryway serve as friendly "gatehouses." Each contains two compact, lower-priced units. Outwardly, there is little difference in character between the larger homes and the smaller ones — vividly demonstrating that it is possible to mix units for different incomes and family types. Certainly their presence is not dissuading buyers, who have already snapped up most of these houses.
Greenwood Avenue Cottages
Finally, the third development is even more deftly designed. Called the Greenwood Avenue Cottages, it is located across from Shoreline Community College on Greenwood Avenue North. It was designed by Langley-based architect Ross Chapin for Jim Soules' Cottage Company.
Here, eight small dwellings have been delicately tucked into an established single-family neighborhood. They are arranged around a beautifully landscaped village green. Even with only eight units, the development includes a small commons house that residents can use for parties and personal projects.
Each dwelling has its own private yard, surrounded by a low, whimsically designed fence. The single-car garages are all clustered off to the side — a deliberate move by the developer to encourage sociability among the residents by having them walk past their neighbors' front doors.
The place somewhat resembles a grouping of somewhat quirky, handcrafted cabins on an island somewhere in Puget Sound. The designers borrowed heavily from the elements we associate with that kind of warm and comforting environment: generous porches, small gardens, differently pitched roofs with dormers, and windows with multiple panes (not the fake, stick-on kind).
Although less than 1,000 square feet in area, these houses are packed with thoughtful features: gorgeous wood floors, free-standing stoves that heat the entire home, Craftsman-style cabinets, paneled doors and lots of skylights. This is how to have both luxury and economy at the same time.
'What the market wants'
While these three developments are wonderful examples of what could be, they're the exception, not the rule, when it comes to residential construction. That brings me back to my earlier question. Why the disconnect between reality and what is still being built?
The answer from residential developers is "that is what the market wants." But most of the groups mentioned above do not want — or cannot afford — the large house on the large lot.
What is truly tragic is that many of our laws actually prevent anything other than large houses from being built. Cities need to change codes in order to open up opportunities for new choices in housing. Some cities already have. Shoreline and Langley, for example, have recently adopted "cottage housing ordinances" that seek to produce smaller, more efficient and lower-cost houses while assuring a high level of privacy and amenities for residents. And their codes are so concise that they fit within a single page.
These developments are stunning examples of how to live more lightly on the land but with style and comfort.
They are also commendable cases of cities that have changed their codes to permit such innovative development. Let's hope that more of our elected officials and homebuilders see the light.
Mark Hinshaw is director of urban design for LMN Architects and a regular contributor to The Seattle Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.