Livin’ Large in Small Spaces: It Takes a Town

I’m big on small.

Ever since the 2005 Misissippi Renewal Forum in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I’ve been beating the drum for Katrina Cottages and cottage neighborhoods. Most recently here and, in 2009, here.

I haven’t exactly been a voice in the wilderness. In fact, I wasn’t even among the early wave of advocates. North Carolina’s Sarah Susanka and her “Not So Big” books tapped into what turned out to be a pent-up demand for well-thought-out, smaller scale home design. And Pacific Northwest architect

Ross Chapin's cottage neighborhood.

Ross Chapin demonstrated a premium market for new-era cottage neighborhoods at the height of the McMansion craze. Now, thanks to demographic and economic pressures, the construction industry is not nearly as determined to super-size American housing as it was a half-dozen years ago. For a glimpse of how those changes are playing out, read Neal Peirce’s November, 2010 post in CitiWire and Wendy Koch’s recent story in USA TODAY.

"Ya'll come." Welcome to my lavish, 300 square foot spread.

Last fall and early winter, I got the chance to move from cottage living theory to real-life cottage living when I took Mississippi architect Bruce Tolar up on his offer to use the original Katrina Cottage as a temporary base of operations for a post-oil spill project on the Gulf Coast. For 90 days, I lived and worked out of the 308-square-foot cottage designed by Marianne Cusato during the Mississippi Renewal Forum and displayed at the 2006 International Builders Show in Orlando. For the story of how the “little yellow house” came into being, check out my interview with contractor Jason Spelling in this 2010 video:

Cusato’s cottage now nests comfortably on Tolar’s two-acre Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, one of 14 cottages that were among the early Katrina Cottage designs or were inspired by the movement. Next door, on another two acres, more than 30 new cottages, reflecting a further permutation of Katrina Cottages as workforce housing, are going in. So, soon there will be an intown neighborhood of 40-plus homes and offices ranging from a studio under 300 square feet to Tolar’s 1,300 square foot two-story design that he now uses as his office.

Tucked in: Getting lot size and density right in
Bruce Tolar's Cottage Square.

Which gets me to the first of three lessons learned – or at least underlined – by my live/work experience in Cottage Square: These structures are “better together.” They need a critical mass to achieve their promise as a viable alternative to neighborhoods of 3,000-square-foot-plus homes. Dropped randomly into acre-lot subdivisions and diminished by surrounding McMansions, they look eccentric and experimental. They need small-lot site-planning and the company of friends.

Here’s the second lesson confirmed by my life in 300 square feet: The space has to be beautifully designed and the construction detailed perfectly. Otherwise you’ve got exactly what Katrina Cottage critics warned against – a tricked-out trailer.

When you compress the volume, the first thing to go is wiggle room for sloppy decision-making. Compromise on design and construction quality, including material choices, and you’re off to the race to the bottom. That’s why Cusato, Tolar, Steve Mouzon and others fight so tenaciously against cheaping out on ceiling heights, window selections, flooring, roofing, and trim details.

That’s bad news for workforce housing advocates committed to driving prices per square foot down. Better to achieve the savings by intelligently compacting the space, as opposed to competing with production builders who amortize prices per square foot over thousands of under-performing square feet.

My third and most important take-away from 90 days in tight quarters is this: It takes a town.

If you want to make the move from a conventional, 2,500-square-foot home to one half that size appealing, you can’t do it with design alone or even with the combination of home and neighborhood design. The trick to living large in small spaces is to have great public places to go to – preferably by foot or on a bike – once you’re outside your private retreat. This argument echoes Scott Doyon’s pitch for balancing privacy and community. No problem feeding the private, nesting impulse with cottage living; but the smaller the nest, the bigger the balancing need for community. Big community. Bigger than a greenfield new town or village.

Tolar’s Cottage Square is an infill neighborhood that’s colonizing a commercial district with mixed use within a 15,000-person town. Within the sacred quarter-mile walk are schools, a super market, a YMCA with child care, retail, and bars and restaurants. Within a 15-minute bike ride is all that Ocean Springs has to offer, including its historic main street, a beach, marinas, and lots more retail, restaurant, and bar options. As impressed as I was with how Marianne Cusato achieved livability in 300 square feet, I would have felt imprisoned in that space if I couldn’t hop on a bike and enjoy Ocean Springs anytime I wanted.

Ross Chapin will have a new book in stores in the next month or so that speaks to some of these lessons: Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World. And we’ll keep this discussion going at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Charlotte, Feb. 2-5. Sarah Susanka, Ross Chapin, and I are on a Feb. 4 panel called “Taking ‘Not So Big’ to the Next Level: Pocket Neighborhoods as Urban Infill.”

Hope to see you there.

–Ben Brown

Comments

  1. Excellent points, Ben! Wanda and I spent over a year in a 400 square foot apartment on South Beach while renovating our 747 square foot condo. It was poorly designed, and my frustration with it usually affected my entire day. Our condo is completely different, and a delight.

    One thing we said early on in the Katrina Cottages initiative is that we can’t just put someone’s life in a vise and crush it down. You have to compensate for being smaller by being smarter. This means, among other things, that you need to store at least as much stuff as the larger house would have, and that things need to do double or even triple duty, as opposed to one job being done by several things.

    A classic example is where we eat. McMansions have the dining room, the breakfast nook, the bar, the “cafe” with your espresso machine and a cute little striped awning, and probably another place or two. SmartDwellings do the opposite. The Coastal Living Idea House which I designed has an L-shaped booth that seats 4 in 36 square feet, or you can pull 4 chairs up to the two open sides and seat 8. But it’s also designed in such a way that it makes a great place for kids to do homework, and also functions really well as a home office.

    If you’ll allow bald-faced plugs, I’ll be blogging a lot about the idea house here. You can read more about Project:SmartDwelling here. And the Original Green Blog regularly deals with similar issues.

  2. I’ve lived in a 300-square foot studio apartment for the past ten years in a walkable urban neighborhood, and I’ve enjoyed it precisely because, as you state in this article, there is a balance between the privacy of my little space and what the city in which I live offers. This is key: there has to be places to walk–practical places like grocery stores and a post office as well as “third places” like cafes and libraries.

    I have nearby: three very good grocery stores and several other alternates, walking and bicycling paths that take me along a lake and river, parks, many coffee shops including excellent independents, my bank, a great bakery, hardware stores, restaurants, college campuses, a downtown shopping arcade, churches, movie theaters, live performance theaters, shops for office supplies, discount drug/general stores, two post offices, bus and trolley stops, historic districts and buildings, medical services, the bus station, the Amtrak station, new and used book stores, art museums, other museums, hotels, the convention center, festival grounds, several sports arenas/performing arts centers, a public market, probably a half dozen health clubs (none of which I need because I walk everywhere), and government offices and services at the federal, state, county, and city level.

    I no longer even consider going out to the burbs for anything–there literally is no “there” there for me. I would not trade living in my 300 square feet in a walkable urban area with living in any 30,000-square foot McMansion anywhere!

  3. Ben, thanks for the screen space on our Pocket Neighborhoods, my upcoming book, and our talk at the Smart Growth Conference. I completely agree with your point that small houses are “better together”, and best in walkable communities.

    I’d like to expand on the caption for the photo you used — “Paying a premium for small living”. It is true that we proved small houses to be marketable in upscale, large-house communities like Redmond, WA, home of Microsoft and Nintendo — where 1000SF cottages in a pocket neighborhood sold for $600K. We also have designed similar homes that sold for half of those prices in other Seattle area communities – well within the standard range of moderate cost housing. The message we’re delivering is that smaller homes in pocket neighborhoods apply equally well to upscale as well as “affordable” housing contexts. The market is there; the question is when mainstream developers will recognize it.

  4. Are you trying to turn us into the frickin’ Keebler Elves, Ben? I’ve tried the close quarters thing and it makes me insane. It’s called Economy on the airlines. What’s wrong with aspiring to a nice home? Sounds kind of Socialist to me. I’ll pass. The American Dream still thrives.

  5. It does take a town…my first, and favorite home, was a tiny condo, in the middle of a bustling town. It was nestled near a coffee shop, park, shopping, ice cream shop burger stand, and more. Recently I have built a home that isn’t so convenient. I still have fonder memories, in my tight quarters.

  6. Hey, Steve . . . thanks for the post — and for articulating what lots of folks must feel when they see arguments for living in small spaces.
    Don’t forget, though, that I’m not suggesting we eliminate options for living in super-sized spaces, just for increasing the range of choices of how and where we live.
    Want a McMansion on a giant lot in the distant suburbs? You have plenty of choices, including those on foreclosure lists across the nation. But choosing in-town cottage life often requires heroic efforts on the parts of developers and housing consumers.
    Marianne’s design wouldn’t satisfy building codes in lots of places that proscribe room sizes. And conventional zoning would outlaw the narrow lot size and small home footprint in most infill situations, where cottages would be the most practical (“It takes a town”). Even in Ocean Springs, MS, where I lived in the 300-square-foot cottage, the two-acre Cottage Square neighborhood had to be condo-ized to get around existing zoning regulations and to nestle in the 14 cottages.
    So what we’re talking about here is making it easier for folks to choose the lifestyle they want without having to fight uphill battles against zoning, financing, and infrastructure subsidies that privilege auto-dependent, large-lot ‘burbs.
    More choices in more places. Sounds like the essence of the American Dream to me.

  7. Ben,
    Great article. Based upon Steve’s Original Green ideas, and some time living on a 300 sf boat, I founded Southern Fried Homes. While the applications include the granny flat and cabin in the woods, the real idea is for the workout developer to re-invent his project into a coherent land plan complete with the place making items (common areas, porches, walkable commercial, etc) that make it work.

    Thanks again for the great read.

    Tim Watson

  8. PlaceMakers says:

    Interested in digging deeper into the cottage cottage culture? Check out these webinar conversations with Ben Brown and Bruce Tolar and also with Bruce Tolar and Ross Chapin.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Credit: Ben Brown Ben Brown of PlaceMakers has been talking about living in smaller spaces and cottage neighbourhoods [...]

  2. [...] you can be part of a community, like Ben Brown describes: The trick to living large in small spaces is to have great public places to go to – preferably by [...]

  3. [...] if there had been a cottage living option in my parents’ neighbourhood that was a short walk to their daily needs? To help us coax them out [...]

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