Revenge of the Small

Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver are creating strategies to encourage the development of modest, more affordable houses.

Portland, Oregon. Seattle, Washington. Vancouver, British Columbia. In these three Pacific North­west cities, the progressive power of urban planning is taken very seriously, and concepts like livability and sustainability dominate the local civic culture to such an extent that to visit all three in rapid succession, as I did in October, is to drop in on another country. It’s not the United States or Canada, but a more highly evolved combination of the two.

In each city I was impressed by major developments, dramatic projects that promised to refresh the urban landscape in conspicuous ways. In Seattle, where the OMA–designed library represents a watershed moment in public architecture, the new civic landmark nearing completion occupies a nine-acre multilevel site at the north end of the downtown waterfront. Designed by New York firm Weiss/Manfredi, the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park opens in January. In Portland a massive mixed-use high-rise development is emerging on a brownfield site on the Wil-lamette River waterfront south of downtown. It’s linked to the rest of the city by a new streetcar line, and in January it will be connected by a spectacular aerial tramway designed by Angélil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl Architecture. Meanwhile, in Vancouver the megaproject that is lining the perimeter of the downtown peninsula with residential high-rises is nearly complete. And while I heard some grumbling about the faux town houses placed at the bases of many of the towers, I thought some of the newest high-rise areas—in particular, a spot along Coal Harbour where the northwest corner of downtown bumps into Stanley Park—provided as good a model of a twenty-first-century urban neighborhood as I’ve seen.

But what I found most interesting on this trip was not the landmark developments but smaller ­changes in the residential fabrics of the cities. All three are wrestling with the problem of affordable housing and have begun to encourage, or at least allow, the construction of well-designed small houses. While McMansion bans have been proposed in many cities—and have succeeded in a few—what Portland and Vancouver, and to some extent Seattle, are doing is more difficult and more interesting. They’re inventing mechanisms that say yes to small instead of no to big.

Recently Portland and Vancouver established zoning and design guidelines to encourage the development of smaller houses, as long as they meet exacting design criteria. A new program in Vancouver that falls under the mayor’s overall policy of “eco-density” encourages the reconfig­uration of lots in certain single-family districts. In Portland a new set of ordinances and guidelines seeks to promote “skinny houses,” intended to fit lots less than 36 feet wide.

It was in Seattle, however, where I saw the best small house. Dave Sarti, who co-taught a design-build studio at the University of Washington last year, had constructed an 800-square-foot house with a 160-square-foot double-height attached workshop. It’s a sweet fire-engine-red box planted in the backyard of a Central District home. I walked down the grassy driveway past an unremarkable blue traditional home and was surprised to see this Bauhaus cube where another yard might have a swing set. The red HardiPanel siding made it look very much of the moment, but the efficiency of design and small size were reminiscent of the workers’ houses that Gropius and his contemporaries built in Europe between the wars.

Although the Central District is dominated by old single-family homes on large lots, Sarti says that much of it is zoned for multifamily devel­opment. So as the traditionally low-income, once predominantly black area gentrifies, the single-family homes are often replaced with town houses. Sarti, however, bought someone’s backyard for $35,000 and built his house there for about $180,000. And this unorthodox maneuver was perfectly legal under existing zoning. Unlike accessory dwelling units (a.k.a. granny flats), which Seattle recently decided to allow to increase density in the far southeast corner of the city, Sarti’s home is ­completely independent from the house in front—he owns his small patch of land outright and can sell it separately.

In Vancouver, where home prices have skyrocketed 57 percent in the past three years (average home price: 652,448 CAD), a set of new guidelines is being implemented in selected neighborhoods to encourage the development of smaller 1,000–1,300-square-foot­­ single-family homes, duplexes, and town houses. This strategy of “neighborhood intensification” is the logical sequel to the program of high-rise building downtown.

Urban designer Patricia St. Michel says that homeowners in outlying ­single-family areas are now willing to “engage the topic” of higher density because they realize that their own children might be priced out of Vancouver. Working with community groups, the city came up with a series of plans for how two to four houses could be fit onto formerly single-family lots, “a new menu of housing variety” with the potential for creating 20,000 additional units. It also includes design guidelines for traditional houses, common in Vancouver, and contemporary ones. Neighborhood advisory groups, according to St. Michel, “felt strongly that we should allow contemporary styles, but felt that fitting in requires a pitched roof.”

Down in Portland, where narrow homes have emerged as an important and somewhat controversial form of entry-level housing, the city held a design competition for the “skinny house.” The competition represented the attempt of the city’s Bureau of Development Services to endorse the narrow house as an option while also creating a catalog of designs that would be acceptable to the famously persnickety city residents. (Remember, it was Portland that banned the “snout house”—with the garage out front.) The 2004 competition produced a catalog of 24 winners, most of them either cute traditional pitched-roof cottages or slim Modernist boxes. There were four People’s Choice ­winners, two modern and two traditional. The city anointed two “permit-ready designs,” which made them, in essence, Portland’s official skinny houses. One, a steeply gabled 1,779-square-foot existing house by local architect Bryan Higgins, is essentially a shotgun house that grew two extra stories. The other, designed by Berkeley, California, architect Roxana Vargas-Greenan with a side-facing gable and fussy detailing that would put it squarely in the tradition of Seaside, can be built at either 1,500 or 1,700 square feet. The plans for these two houses are available free of charge from the city once a developer has purchased building permits on a lot deemed appropriate for the skinny style. So far one developer is building four of the permit-ready ­houses.

Locally, there has been some grousing about how the first two permit-ready houses are traditional even though the catalog of winners contains a range of styles. Anne Hill, the project manager for what is now known as the Living Smart program, says the first two plans were chosen for “mass appeal.” She argues that the designs are more affordable and flexible than, say, the one specifying a glass garage. “One of the next two,” she promises, “will be contemporary.”

Putting aside the issue of style, what’s significant here is that cities which have been ahead of the curve in their civic-scaled gestures are now addressing the problem of affordable single-family homes in a way that could have an impact elsewhere. In an era when ever-bigger houses are the norm, Portland and Vancouver’s carefully vetted plans might help other North American cities and towns promote domestic downsizing. That would be no small accomplishment. Still, it’s revealing that the tiniest and flukiest house I saw on my swing through the Pacific Northwest—Sarti’s wonderful red box—would never have been permitted in the highly restrictive design environments of Vancouver or Portland. I take it as a reminder that while careful vetting may keep out the bad, it can also suppress the good.

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