“Most zoning is for suburban development, not community,” says Chapin, who grew up in a small town north of St. Paul, Minn., in a shingled bungalow on a lake. It seems poetic that he ended up here in Langley—the first municipality in the Northwest to adopt the Cottage Housing Development provision, and perhaps the smallest town in the U.S. with a design review board. And yet, it is perfectly logical, in the way that people return to the values with which they were raised. His grandfather built the house Chapin lived in as a boy; his sister owns it now. “I was growing up in a location that had a very strong sense of place,” he says. “I got to know the history of the neighborhood and the people who'd lived for generations in the same place. My grandmother would talk about when she was young, sitting in the crook of a particular tree, and [she would] point to the tree and say, ‘Look how big it is now.'” When I looked at trees, I saw them not just as trees but as a continuum of life.”
Fast forward to the early 1970s, when Chapin saw his hometown suffer the fate of other traditional settlements. As the freeways came out from St. Paul, the first waves of suburbia lapped the edges of the small town. Thousands of cookie-cutter houses went up in what used to be cornfields, and the town center began to decline as more and more people settled close to the shopping centers that were sprouting. It's a familiar story, but Chapin says the loss hit home as he was heading off to architecture school at the University of Minnesota. “My grandfather would walk in the woods; my dad played there, and I played there,” he says. “When the ravine was filled in and the creek was straightened and put in a culvert, and houses went up, I felt almost a pain in my body.” So he went off to college, determined to create memorable places that respond to history, neighborhood, the sun, and the contour of the land. “To me it was play,” Chapin says of learning to make architecture. “It was all about not only form, but about people and relationships and detailing so that I could feel a place come alive when I would draw.”
These pocket cottages are quaint in the best sense of the word. Their welcoming porches, flower boxes, and Craftsman details are strikingly familiar, with references to Northwest vernacular architecture and echoes from across the Pacific. But the compositions are contemporary, and might include a glassy tower or second-story terrace. When designing them, Chapin says he thinks about the deeply practical choices a farmer or shopkeeper might make. Some houses have a lively combination of shed and gable roofs, as though they were added onto over the years. And the details are never a pastiche. Deep eaves, cedar battens, and wide covered porches are indispensable for keeping out the Northwest drizzle. “I like to make houses as fresh as possible—not novel or gimmicky, but in a way that brings out the delight of the place,” Chapin says. “What I'm going for is vitality and life, and it's not so much a mental aesthetic as a felt character and beauty.”
The unprecedented appeal of these diminutive neighborhoods has led to knockoffs by other developers, who often miss the defining idea that makes Chapin's work so successful—the way the site layout encourages social interaction while protecting personal boundaries. At Danielson Grove, a Cottage Company project in Kirkland, Wash., garages sit outside the commons, so residents walk through a shared courtyard to get to their houses. The courtyard is bordered by perennials and a low fence, providing a friendly edge between the commons and private yards. Flower boxes on shaded porches add another low-key boundary, and Dutch front doors offer the possibility for informal visiting. And one side of each nesting house has high windows, ensuring privacy between neighbors.