Langley, Wash., a beach town on Whidbey Island, is the kind of place that draws outsiders. An hour north of Seattle, tourists arrive here by the boatload to watch the orcas feeding in Puget Sound, to spot migrating gray whales in springtime, or to take in the restaurants, shops, and galleries of this pristine village, population 1,000. Ross Chapin, AIA, was a tourist who passed through Langley in the late 1970s. A few years later he came to stay, attracted as much to its strong sense of community as to its panoramic views of Saratoga Passage and the Cascade Mountains. In the past decade, though, Langley has struggled with the growing pains common to all prosperous towns. Big residential developers are beginning to eye the area, and while Chapin bemoans the sad “spaghetti bowl of cul-de-sacs and beige boxes” they usually bring with them, he doesn't care much for pitched NIMBY battles. Instead, living and working in such an unspoiled spot has inspired him to come up with housing solutions that preserve small-town style and scale, changing local zoning ordinances if necessary.
Chapin knows that the loose edges of towns, with their mind-numbing mazes of streets, cannot be improved simply by sending out talented architects. Innovative solutions must come from better planning. So he's teamed up with ace developer Jim Soules to create The Cottage Company, a Seattle-based residential development firm that specializes in what the pair calls pocket neighborhoods—sensibly sized houses and lots that share a courtyard garden. In 1998 they completed their first joint project, Third Street Cottages, which consists of eight exquisitely detailed homes in an existing Langley neighborhood originally zoned for four larger houses. It sold out immediately, and within months the national press picked up the story. Since then, Chapin has completed eight other pocket neighborhoods throughout the Northwest with The Cottage Company or other developers. Last year, the partners' Greenwood Avenue Cottages, in Shoreline, Wash., won a national AIA Housing Committee Award.
On his Web site, Chapin calls these cottages “the equivalent of the Mini Cooper—small, sensual, well-engineered, and reliable.” And indeed, just as the Mini's market appeal is its design and performance, Chapin doesn't use the D word when discussing the cottage concept, even though it is denser than the typical new-home development. He wants to make these homes so inviting that people who can afford more space actually choose less. When they're offered an intimate neighborhood with carefully articulated public and private spaces, he believes people will choose quality over quantity, and a street-friendly approach to security over a gated community of big houses and big yards. “I'm trying to create models other people can step into, take for a spin, and be inspired by,” he says. “Hopefully a homebuyer can walk into a house that's 1,000 square feet, metaphorically kick the tires, and say, ‘Oh, this isn't that small.' Or they'll say, ‘I couldn't live in anything this size, but it makes me think about how much time and money I spend taking care of my house.'”
Few would question the need to broaden the housing palette. Chapin points out that demographic statistics put the number of one-person U.S. households at roughly 40 percent, and 60 percent are one- and two-person households. That's a large group of people for whom a big home on a 7,000-square-foot lot may not make sense in terms of space, money, or time spent on upkeep. By offering a detached alternative to townhouses and condos in single-family neighborhoods, he aims to provide the missing link between home and a spirit of camaraderie that both multifamily dwellings and 250-home suburban subdivisions ignore.