Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Big Enough to Live, Small Enough to be Urban

In my last post, I raised the issue of home size.  I noted that, everything else being equal, smaller units do a better job of creating urban life.  The benefits of smaller units double up.  The smaller units become, the more people can be accommodated in the same building mass.  And the smaller units become, the more the residents are motivated to live a portion of their lives on the street, energizing the life of the city.

(Acknowledgement: My house isn’t particularly small.  In fact, it’s fairly large.  However, it’s multi-story and sits on one of the smallest lots in a neighborhood that is walkable, so I don’t feel overly guilty about the size.  Although my friends who live in 400 square feet make me slightly uncomfortable.)

Of course, in an economic system that aspires to be as free as possible, we can’t force people to live in small units.  But we can look for ways to make small units as attractive as possible.

In that vein, this video is worth a view.  Patrick Kennedy is a Bay Area developer who has constructed several fine additions to downtown Berkeley.  In this video, he shows off his attempt to build the smallest unit possible under California law.  It’s a grand total of 160 square feet, but the detailing makes it surprising livable.

I can’t say that I’d want to live in it myself, but if it was 275 square feet, there have been a couple of times in my life that I might have been interested, especially if the rent had been commensurate with the size.  Rather than living in a 750 square-foot apartment at the end of a commute, I would have enjoyed the city life while at the same time saving money.

And I suspect that most communities have at least a few people who feel the same.

Then we have Emily Badger of Atlantic Cities who worries about her fascination with small homes.   She talks with someone who tries to decipher the typology of Badger’s obsession.  After rejecting the possibility that she has a deep belief in a reduced footprint (the Walden typology) and the possibility that she doesn’t have a choice (the New York apartment dweller typology), they decided that Badger’s fascination was with how much stuff she could cram into a small space (the puzzler typology).  Personally, I wish I was more Walden, but I’m mostly puzzler.

Badger links the Patrick Kennedy video I offered above.  She also links a video of a 258 square-foot home, 100 steps above the sidewalk, that the owner proudly acknowledges was based on the space conservation techniques of a boat.  If your time permits, I recommend it.

Then we have Ross Chapin, a Northwest architect who specializes in pocket neighborhoods.  His projects are filled with homes that not always really small, but nestle together in ways that allow lots of families to live in a small neighborhood.  His book, “Pocket Neighborhoods”, lays out his design philosophy.

The website for Chapin’s architectural firm also offers a list of his pocket neighborhood projects.  I expect to visit the Pacific Northwest at least once and perhaps twice this summer.  I look forward to viewing some of Chapin’s project and to sharing photos.

A regular participant in our monthly Petaluma Urbanist Chats brought Chapin to my attention.  I appreciate it.

Next time, I’ll write about home size in the outer ring of urbanism.  The scale is different, but the tug-of-war between having enough space to live while still retaining neighborhood walkability is the same.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Ross Chapin is a local boy up here. I'm a step removed but he is a personal friend of several of our personal friends. Wonderful projects of his in Langley near our office. Very inspiring. And inviting.

    Love your posts. Keep 'em coming.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. It's always good to hear from a new voice.

      There is a lot of interesting stuff going on in the Northwest. The new Amazon headquarters in Seattle, the ongoing experiments in Portland, and some forward-looking projects in Bend. I'm looking forward to visiting the region this summer.