Living large in tight quarters

Cottages of less than 1,000 square feet offer an appealing alternative to today's bigger homes.

Can you build an attractive and livable house in the same amount of space some suburbanites use to garage their cars?

John Kucher certainly thinks so. As executive director of Threshold Housing, a nonprofit development company in Seattle, he's spent the past decade on projects designed to show that small is beautiful - that detached dwellings of 1,000 square feet or less can be aesthetically appealing and highly marketable.

Across the United States, others are seeing the same sort of potential in smaller-scale living spaces, especially for the nation's population of singles.

In Tracy, Calif., for example, a new 135-acre housing project, designed to evoke memories of old northern California towns, is incorporating a number of 1,000-square-foot cottages, expected to sell for about $200,000.

There's also a growing backlash to the "McMansionization" of American housing, perhaps most visibly articulated by Minneapolis-based architect and author Sarah Susanka. Her 1998 book, "The Not So Big House," and its sequel, "Creating the Not So Big House," make the point that smaller-scale homes are more livable, enjoyable, and socially more responsible.

Mr. Kucher's enthusiasm for this approach grew out of his involvement with the award-winning Pine Street Cottages condominium project a decade ago. This rehab of 10 delapidated cottages, built in 1916, occurred in a modest Seattle neighborhood.

Although only 400 to 500 square feet, they sold right away for $85,000 to $87,000 to eight single women and two single men. Their architectural detail, efficient use of space, and contemporary amenities attracted not only buyers, but national media attention.

This success prompted interest in building cottages from the ground up, but the road hasn't been easy.

The greatest resistance, Kucher discovered, often comes from neighbors, who are concerned that cottage-style housing will lessen the value of their larger single-family homes.

While Kucher understands such reluctance, his experience indicates that cottages, when architecturally blended into existing neighborhoods, can be an asset.

In the mid-1990s, he helped the city write a cottage-housing ordinance in hopes of triggering a cottage-building revival. (Pine Street was a "grandfathered" project).

The city, however, adopted the ordinance only for multifamily housing zones, not for single-family zones, which predominate.

Complicating matters, Seattle moved to establish an urban-growth boundary without loosening zoning restrictions, which severely limited its options for creating much-needed new housing in established residential neighborhoods.

Eventually, however, city leaders recognized the value of establishing an innovative design program that grants zoning exemptions to selected projects.

Marcia Gamble Hadley, who headed up Threshold Housing at the time, says: "You can't broaden the palette of housing choices with abstract discussions and negotiations, nor can citizens make a judgment just looking at drawings and models. Our point to the city was that without actual experiments with on-the-ground housing types, you probably won't get away from detached, single-family houses on 5,000-square-foot lots...."

East Coast-style townhouses are not a particularly viable option, she observes, because "on the West Coast, our architectural settlement habits are so different. They generally look out of place."

One demonstration project that gained approval is the Ravenna Cottages complex, an eye-pleasing cluster of nine traditional-looking cottages and carriage houses a mile and a half north of downtown.

It wasn't an easy sell, even with a zoning exemption, since the neighbors had to approve.

"They initially were fearful of [the impact] on parking, traffic, and property values," Kucher says. "None of their fears [were realized], and now the neighbors are big supporters of what we've done."

Threshold Housing took three small house lots and transformed them into a complex, populated by four single women, two single men, and three couples. This was more diversity than expected, given market analysis identifying single professionals - primarily women, ages 30 to 55 - as the most likely buyers.

The complex is U-shaped, with three inward-facing cottages flanking either side of a gated courtyard. Anchoring the back edge of the property is a triplex of three adjoining carriage houses. The layout was designed to encourage interaction among residents.

The carriage units, which help to create a buffer to the highway sounds a block away, sit atop a row of nine garages, reserved for the cottage owners' parking.

So that the homeowners don't resort to using these garages for storage space, individual 7-by-10-foot storage rooms are provided in two walk-in basements.

This indirectly benefits the neighbors, as does the overall look of the project.

Variations in the color of the cottages and the roofs are designed to give them their own character, while visually integrating them into the surrounding single-family neighborhood.

Ravenna Cottages enjoys an inviting public face, partly because of a decision not to make it a walled compound. The garden at the center of the property is clearly visible from the sidewalk through an attractive, but sturdy metal fence.

"We said, 'Let's give this [view] to the neighbors,' " Kucher explains.

Unlike the Pine Street cottages, which created loft sleeping decks to maximize living space, Ravenna Cottages are 850 square feet spread over a full two stories. This includes a great room (living/dining/kitchen space) and a half bath on the first floor, and a full-size bath and two bedrooms on the upper floor.

Among the standard features are a gas fireplace, high-speed Internet access, a laundry closet with stacked washer and dryer, deep kitchen drawers, hardwood floors downstairs, and wall-to-wall carpeting upstairs.

Every inch is used and nicely finished, which helps explain the price: $255,000 to $310,000 per condo.

Retiree Joan Davis, a Ravenna resident, says she finds her cottage well designed, comfortable, and the storage space more than adequate. She also likes the size of the complex and congeniality of the neighbors.

James Fearn, a lawyer, is equally pleased with his home in the even cozier Pine Street Cottages. He enjoys the discipline that living in a cottage encourages and finds it involves only minor inconveniences, such as rearranging the furniture to accommodate small dinner parties.

Kucher said he caught some flak from city-council members, who said, "Well, John, your cottages look great," they said, "but they're not affordable. You made them too expensive."

Kucher's reply was that they didn't have an affordability problem, the city had a supply problem.

"Our sense was it was a demonstration project," he says, "and we wanted to create the most livable project we could because we know a lot of neighborhood planning groups would be coming over and looking at it, considering whether they wanted to allow these in their neighborhood. It's really a touchy political situation."

This means more inspections, approvals, and public meetings than is normal for a project of this size. It can test and frustrate a developer.

Kucher says it would be easy to produce a more affordable product, but to do so would run the risk of alienating the very neighbors whose support is critical.

From his perspective as a cottage resident, Mr. Fearn says that the success of any cottage project depends on quality workmanship.

"If you are going to have increased [housing] density," he says, "you must devote real attention to detail in the design and the landscaping. Because if you build cracker boxes that people don't enjoy living in, the houses could become a blight on the neighborhood."

For a nonprofit such as Threshold, finding developable properties at an affordable price is a trick. Both the Pine Street and Ravenna sites were sold to Threshold for a "very fair price," by a civic-minded older couple.

Ultimately, Kucher hopes that private builders will follow Threshold Housing's lead and recognize that cottages are not simply some quaint anachronism, but attractive and economical starter, singles, and retirement homes - just the ticket for modern homeowners looking to live small.

Creating delight makes cozy cottages 'sing'

It requires a keen design sensibility to make cottages, such as the Ravenna Cottages built in Seattle (see main story), so inviting that people who can afford more space actually choose less.

That's where consultant Marcia Gamble Hadley, a trained architect, comes in. "What Marcia does is create a sense of magic," says John Kucher, a developer with Threshold Housing, who has worked with Ms. Hadley on two cottage-community projects.

Creating delight is essential in such projects, she says.

"Yes, I could design a small space that is really efficient, has great storage and all the electrical outlets in the right places," she observes, "but unless it catches ... a person's appetite for something delightful, something refreshing, or something calming, or something that is a treat to come home to, you miss the boat."

Her appreciation of compact design was planted in childhood, while visiting four maiden aunts who shared a large turn-of-the-century house in the Santa Barbara-Montecito region of California.

"It seemed that almost every bedroom had some sort of cubby or window seat or some sort of unique feature," she recalls. "I could literally leave the breakfast table, spend the day wandering around in all these amazing spaces, and not have to see anybody again until suppertime."

How does Hadley create that important sense of delight? Methods include varying the ceiling height or playing with its shape and using track lighting to create a picture gallery in a stairwell. In the bathroom it may be as simple as placing a storage shelf over the tub or replacing a vanity with a pedestal sink.

"Vanities make things feel cramped," she says. "Pedestal sinks open up the floor area so you can use some pretty flooring to make it look a little more like a hotel or resort."

Cottage buyers often are single, and market studies show that security, privacy, and community are important to them. Residents also want a sense of connection and a means of interacting, even if in limited ways.

At the Pine Street Cottages, Hadley says, a shared courtyard gives the homeowners a "stage set" for casual exchanges. The entry gate was intentionally designed to make noise so people on their trellised porches can look up and make eye contact. There's also a garden where residents can pick flowers, strawberries, and herbs. It invites neighbors to share this common space.

"The whole point was we needed to use the site to create a little relationship among the 10 people living there," Hadley says. After three months, a resident said he'd gotten to know his neighbors better than he'd done in two or three years at a traditional condo complex.

As for the future of cottage-style houses, Hadley doesn't expect them to increase by leaps and bounds. "I think it's going to be slower, very persistent, sort of like a morning glory in your garden," she says.

"Rather than a fad, I think [small homes] are a bellwether, because living more densely is not only a responsible thing to do environmentally and economically, but it also creates more of a sense of togetherness and social responsibility - and a cultural fabric that people who are tired of being isolated will find pleasing."

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