Cottage Simplicity: Keeping it easy, making it attainable

We talk often here on PlaceShakers about cottage living, as well as drilling down into how to make that happen at home, with conversations like Small Y’all: A Cottage Solution to the Housing Problem and “Pocket Neighborhoods”: Scale Matters.

This weekend, strolling through Victoria Beach — an insightful cottage community in Manitoba, Canada — I was struck by many of the lessons learned through all the conversations we’ve had together here. And one of the biggest is to keep it simple. And in many cases, that means inexpensive. Victoria Beach does it with a dirt street grid and very simple architecture on the town square, which is really more of an oversized town ramble. Most of the lots on these dirt streets are not cleared keeping the costs lower and privacy higher.

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The Data is In: Let the heavy lifting begin

The good news about making the redevelopment of American neighborhoods more responsive to 21st century American needs is that we seem to have a pretty good grasp on the problem:

We have a lot more isolated, supersized, energy-sucking housing than we want or can afford. And we have a lot less compact, close-in, energy-efficient neighborhoods than we need.

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Finally Thinkin’ Small: But can we build on what we’ve learned?

As soon as the destructive path of Hurricane Sandy became evident, I got emails and calls from colleagues who, like me, worked in disaster recovery situations on the Gulf Coast. When the clean-up gets underway, could this be an opportunity for the Eastern Seaboard states to apply some of the rebuilding lessons of the Gulf after Katrina? Is there a role for Katrina Cottages?

Well, sure. If there’s one upside in the succession of devastating weather events over the last decade, it’s the opportunity to build on lessons learned. Time between disasters dulls response capacities; shorter gaps refine best practices. And for my money, no lessons are worth more than those connected with the evolution of sustainable neighborhood design.

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The New Incrementalism

The latest design trend appears to be designing a place to be realized in very gradual stages. Not in terms of planning for phases of development pods, built-out in a predetermined sequence, but about individual lots changing — evolving — over time. Very rarely now are we designing to build immediately for a project’s absolute highest and best use or, as Nathan Norris calls it, its “climax condition.” This new incrementalism focuses on how lots change — how they’re built upon and reconfigured over time before, ahem, reaching their climax.

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Mont-Tremblant: Cottage living in the Canadian Shield

As the second in a three part pictorial series finding inspiration in Canadian urbanism, I’ve been invigorated again by a short stint of cottage living. Which of us hasn’t felt the delightful lightness that comes with downsizing our primary residence? Some of my most carefree years were spent living in an 800 SF cottage in German Village, Ohio, and last week’s trip to the countryside near Mont-Tremblant, Québec, has reminded me why. Even if this round in the cottage was thanks to the hospitality of a kind friend, and not for keeps.

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Dream Home for the New Era: Compact, connected & mortgage-free?

The future is here. And it’s for lease.

Even before the Great Recession, real estate market analysts Todd Zimmerman, Laurie Volk and Chris Nelson were patiently explaining the demography-is-destiny argument for an inevitable shift in American housing. It’s all about the numbers.

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Punk Rock and the New Urbanism: Getting back to basics

By the early to mid 1970s, something was wrong with rock and roll.

It no longer fought the system. Worse than that, it had become the system. Bloated. Detached. Pretentious.

Performer and audience, once fused in a mutual quest to stick it to the man, now existed on separate planes –  an increasingly complacent generation sucked into the service of pomp and circumstance. And the shared experience of joyful rebellion? Replaced by pompous, weed-soaked, middle-earth mysticism.

Rock and roll needed to get back to basics. What country pioneer Harlan Howard characterized as “three chords and the truth.” Enter punk rock.

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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. Continue Reading

Katrina Cottages Finding Traction on Gulf Coast

Neighborhood Sites in the Works

Finally, after more than three and a half years, one of the key New Urbanist efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is beginning to grow legs. And perhaps more importantly, the models being created have implications for affordable housing everywhere. (In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve been a consultant on various Katrina Cottage projects, including the Cottage Square effort covered below. Also: Fellow PlaceMaker Scott Doyon and I revisited lessons-learned since the Mississippi Renewal Forum with our 2008 update of the official charrette website).

The Katrina Cottage movement, born during the Renewal Forum in Biloxi in October of 2005, put forward a series of designs for affordable, storm-worthy structures small in scale but beautifully proportioned and in keeping with the Mississippi coastal vernacular. The idea was to offer emergency housing designed and built so well that they could transition to permanent dwellings, as opposed to FEMA trailers that often ended up in landfills. Read about the history of the KC effort here.

Because of its mandate to focus on emergency management issues and not permanent housing, FEMA resisted investing directly in Katrina Cottages but was nudged into an alternative housing experiment because of pressure from the politically influential Mississippi Congressional delegation. Louisiana, which lost even more homes during the flooding aftermath of Katrina than Mississippi lost in the storm surge, got part of the appropriation, as well. And the two states pursued separate tracks for creating cottages inspired by the work of the Forum architects.

Mississippi designed its own Mississippi Cottages and contracted manufactured housing companies to build them. And while the designs didn’t measure up to the standards set by the Forum architectural team, they came close enough to be embraced by folks desperate to escape from FEMA trailers and to appear capable of taking the next step envisioned by New Urbanist designers in 2005: Transitioning to permanent dwellings in existing neighborhoods and serving as building blocks for cottage clusters in new projects.

What stalled the transition was resistance from citizens who were stuck in the perception that anything made in a factory was a mobile home. So they pressured planning commissions and local officials to keep the cottages out, even, ironically, out of neighborhoods zoned for mobile home parks. In its April 2009 issue, Governing magazine lays out the debate and features one of the reasons the tide is changing: Bruce Tolar’s Cottage Square.

Mississippi Cottages in Cottage Square (Harry Connolly/Enterprise)

Mississippi Cottages in Cottage Square (Harry Connolly/Enterprise)

Tolar, an Ocean Springs, MS, architect, was on the original MRF architectural team and took to heart Andres Duany’s admonition to create model Katrina Cottage neighborhoods. The Cottage Square, created by a development team Tolar assembled, is a transit-oriented, mixed-use infill project on two acres a half-mile from Ocean Springs’ historic downtown. The site is home to six Katrina Cottages, including the first one, Marianne Cusato’s “little yellow house” that was such a big hit at the 2006 International Builders Show. And now it also has eight of the state’s Mississippi Cottages permanently set on foundations, massaged into neighborhood friendliness by Tolar’s building crews, and rented to locals displaced by Katrina. Go here to see how the Mississippi Cottages were wedged into Cottage Square in time for the third anniversary of the storm last year.

As more and more citizens and elected officials get the chance to tour the Square, official resistance to the cottages, including the manufactured Mississippi Cottages, is shrinking. “Most people don’t get this place,” Tolar told Governing, “until they come here.”

Increasingly, they’re getting it. The architect is now working with non-profits, local governments, and private developers to place as many as 200 cottage units in site-planned neighborhoods over the next six months. Some of the sites are likely to contain three or four times the number of units as Cottage Square and may inspire, at long last, an acceleration in the manufacture and on-site construction of safe, affordable housing in neighborhoods built back better than they were before the storm.

Tolar is also getting attention beyond the storm zone. A visiting group from MIT was by recently, and the affordable housing non-profits like Enterprise are spreading the word about potential adaptations of the Cottage Square model for other communities. In the area of the New Austerity, living small and smart could catch on in a big way.

The Katrina Cottage example may provide “recovery housing for the new economy,” Tolar told Governing. “Maybe it’s the home we can all afford. When people ask me why I spend so much time on these cottages, I say it’s because I may be living in one.”

– Ben Brown