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Small-house philosophy attracts big interest

By Darah Hansen, Vancouver Sun January 25, 2013
Pocket neighbourhoods designed by Ross Chapin include small homes nestled around a common green space.

For a man who thinks small, Ross Chapin is in big demand.

The American architect and author from Whidbey Island, Wash., has been busy fielding calls from around the world, from Japan and Australia to Spain, England and right next door in Canada.

Everyone wants to know more about the small-house philosophy he’s helped to pioneer across the border and what he calls “pocket neighbourhoods,” an old-fashioned community-planning concept repurposed (and newly coined) to fit with modern urban demands.

“Perhaps this is in response to ‘big,’ ” Chapin said of the global interest in small housing in an interview earlier this week in Vancouver, where he delivered a talk on the small-housing trend at the University of B.C.

“I think there are people all around the world who are trying to find approaches that are more sustainable, more humane, more livable. That’s a challenge for all of us in a finite world.”

Livability and sustainability — not to mention affordability — are key words in the Vancouver region right now as cities struggle to balance a need to accommodate an estimated one million more residents over the next 25 years with a desire to preserve green space and limit urban sprawl.

That discussion has encouraged a range of new housing options to spring up in recent years in what had been predominantly single-family home neighbourhoods from the west side of Vancouver out to the Fraser Valley. Those options range from chic highrise towers and condominiums to the introduction of laneway and coach houses ranging in size from about 600 to 1,200 square feet.

It was the “tsunami” of sprawl that characterized suburban America in the 1960s and ’70s that first pushed Chapin to explore alternative neighbourhood planning and development models early in his professional career.

Growing up in a shingled bungalow on a lake outside of St. Paul, Minn., Chapin said he was a “free-range” kid.

Like many children of his postwar generation, “the neighbourhood was ours, from nature to backyards and so forth. That was just life,” he said.

To see the forests and fields he loved give way to what he called “look-alike, mediocre ranch homes” was like a punch in the gut.

Small-house philosophy attracts big interest

“I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to show another way,’” he said.

The pocket neighbourhood model Chapin now delivers hearkens back hundreds of years to Europe, where apartments or townhouses were purposely built around a shared garden or green space, while remaining private and protected from the surrounding community.

Chapin built his first pocket neighbourhood in 1996 in a Seattle suburb.

The first development consisted of eight small single-family homes, each less than 1,000 square feet, nestled on two-thirds of an acre around a common green space.

Its promise of affordable individualism combined with a ready-made community made it an instant seller across a broad customer base — single women, retirees and young parents alike.

He’s since gone on to build several more “pocket” projects across the U.S., each with eight to 12 small homes that are sold either on a fee-simple basis or as part of a strata.

Backed by statistics that show two-thirds of American households are made up of just one or two people, Chapin said the idea is not just green because of its environmental principles, it also makes good economic sense.

Ozzie and Harriet never had to worry about the kinds of energy and development costs modern homeowners are now facing.

“Does that mean we should continue to build large, family-sized homes? That’s what makes the most money for real estate agents, but it does not make the most sense. You’ve got more house than is needed,” he said.

But the real lure of the pocket neighbourhood is the philosophy behind it that encourages connection.

“There is a universal desire to live in a coherent community,” Chapin said. “I’m not talking about the next fad. I’m talking about going back to our roots as human beings.”

Chapin lives in a 1,100-square-foot home on a traditional street — as opposed to a pocket neighbourhood — on Whidbey Island, with a four-minute walk to work and a 25-year-old garden.

He defines a small house not by square footage, but by how well the space is used.

“Low in fat, high in livability. That is a small house,” he said.

Jake Fry, director of Small Housing B.C., a non-profit group that advocates for small housing options, said there is a “huge appetite” for Chapin’s ideas locally.

Fry said there continues to be plenty of discussion on how to densify single-family communities in a way that adds to community and character, rather than destroying them.

Laneway housing is one solution. There are now 800 laneway houses approved for construction in Vancouver, of which about 500 have been completed. Laneway houses are typically between 500 and 750 square feet, with 750 being the maximum permitted.

Fry, whose company Smallworks specializes in building laneway housing, said the projects typically house the adult children of the property owner, allowing new generations to remain in the neighbourhood they grew up in.

“They want to be able to open up the back door and have the golden retriever and the young (child) play in the yard. We are hardwired to want to have that,” he said.

Last year, a group of socially conscious B.C. entrepreneurs, in partnership with California-based architect Charles Durrett, purchased land on 33rd Avenue near Victoria Drive with the plan to launch Vancouver’s first co-housing community.

Co-housing features privately titled homes, townhomes or apartments, with a strata, and common gathering spaces that encourage neighbourly contact and a village feel.

A project rezoning application remains under review by the city.

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