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Living in a small house just could be where It’s a Wonderful Life



As the economy has constricted the size of a new house has been diminishing too. [Five Reasons to buy a small house] That may be a good thing. There is coincidentally a growing body of current literature that promotes introspective living, less materialism and more focus on a lifestyle of simplicity. A sample of this literature includes Janet Luhrs and her Simple Living Journal, Michelle Passoff and her advocacy to Lighten Up and free yourself from clutter, Kathryn Robyn writing about a Soulful Home, and Sarah Susanka and her books about the virtues of a Not So Big House.

The amount of waking hours spent at home each day during a workweek for an average American worker has been clocked at under 4 hours. Millions of houses stand empty each day while appliances are heating and cooling the furniture, carpets and window coverings until the owner returns. And the idea of “home ownership” is something of a misnomer as well. What we typically own is a mortgage, not the house. We have the right to inhabit, maintain and pay taxes on what is fundamentally bank property while paying a monthly sum that may exceed its rental value.

When we visualize a future urban development pattern it is likely to provide a greater number of dwelling units per acre for all types of housing including detached single-family units. Older well-established cities will enjoy a bit of an advantage in attracting new residents with homeowners and renters returning from the suburbs to enjoy shorter commuter distances to work, cutting down on the use of the household automobile(s). Acceptable public transportation alternatives will become as attractive as they are already in Europe.

The global warming alarmists will sleep more peacefully and the air will be cleaner in this picture of future American city places. I also believe that households will have less stress in their lives, appreciating smaller living arrangements and closer inter-personal relationships. Households will have less space to store unnecessary junk, be less interested in acquiring more stuff to clutter their lives, and be more willing to make friends with households that are not like themselves.

If this view of the future American city place is a bit ambitious on my part I say okay, maybe it will take a little longer than my lifetime. Nevertheless it charges me with energy to promote living in small houses in more densely settled neighborhoods and learning to accept different types of neighbors next door. It is, after all, the season of brotherly love and kindness and the hallmark film of whatever my reader may be celebrating – It’s a Wonderful Life – is worth striving to reach.

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Specifying “affordability” in Traditional Neighborhood Design



Redevelopment planners are facing a new challenge for replacing deteriorated single-family houses with new homes that conform to Traditional Neighborhood Design standards, including that prospective buyers cannot qualify for the selling price of the new home. A sagging economic climate has made getting financing to purchase a new home increasing difficult for more and more prospective homeowners. The cost of construction has not dropped enough to make new homes more affordable. The result is many builders are unwilling to invest in new construction for urban in-fill properties.

Affordable Urban Plan

Sample affordable house plan

Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority recently took a proactive approach to meeting this challenge. It is based on the assumption that if it could offer to their single-family builders new TND house plan that was less expensive to build, the construction cost could come down to a selling price that would enable today’s homebuyer to qualify for its purchase. Willing builders would jump at the chance, right?

How do they find a satisfactory house plan that meets the design standards of traditional neighborhood design and costs less to build?

Here are ten ways to accomplish that objective:

1. Reduce square feet. A 3-bedroom house on a small lot can be as small as 1,200 SF without being too small to be comfortable. Neighborhood streetscape density can dictate the maximum space between houses and the appropriate house width. This considera-
tion along with minimum room widths can increase the minimum to around 1,300 SF.
2. Reduce room separation walls. Open kitchens to dining areas; living rooms and foyers; hallways and laundry space.
3. Reduce bathrooms. Historical house plans from the early 20th Century typically had one full bath for a whole house. Today we can design for a single full bath located in the hall convenient to all the bedrooms, with chambered areas for multiple use; a powder room on the first floor is sufficient unless there is a bedroom.
4. Reduce building offsets. Straight walls use less lumber to construct; long walls are more cost efficient that short walls; a square is the most efficient building shape.
5. Modest size bedrooms are okay. Give priority to large spaces in the open areas where the family gathers as a group. Historically speaking, house plans typically had small bedrooms, in Europe they still do.
6. Concentrate plumbing into one quadrant. Minimize the length and number of drainage and water lines.
7. Avoid unnecessary windows and doors. Design for window balance and proportions on the front profile as viewed from the street, other sides of the house can have one window per room.
8. Reduce the number of shingles on the roof. Keep roof slopes the minimum necessary to achieve historical architectural style; avoid dormers.
9. Minimize porches and details. TND architecture will certainly deal with a covered entry porch. Strive to keep it simple and locate it as close as allowed to the sidewalk.
10. Locate house with space on one side to park at least one car off the street. It is desirable to leave enough space to construct a detached garage at a later time.

NRHA sent out an RFP in July, 2011, to local architects and builders, to develop new house plans that would meet affordability parameters based upon a published preliminary plan that its in-house architects derived. The resulting construction plans would be published in its on-line HOUSE PLANS LIBRARY where pre-approved urban plans are displayed for purchase from the architects and designers who own the copyrights. It remains to be seen whether the plans will found “acceptable” by builders for speculative projects or their own marketing agenda. Dozens of ready-to-build urban plans can be purchased from on-line plans websites.

It is worth comment what other planning approaches may be available to spur house construction action toward affordable products in the urban setting. What is the likelihood of success with the NRHA plans it is developing?

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  • GREGORY M. FRECH

    Urban Underbelly is a blog that seeks to share the back stories of successes and struggles in achieving the visions of New Urbanism, especially in Hampton Roads, Virginia

    New Urbanism: is a city planning and architecture movement directed at the creation and restoration of vibrant neighborhood places: centralized, sustainable, walkable and socially diverse.
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