Chapin coined the term “pocket neighborhood” to refer to infill projects—New Urbanism on a smaller scale. Most of his developments slip into existing neighborhoods and consist of a dozen homes or less, ranging from 700 square feet to 1,000 square feet. “When we build, we need to build in clusters of natural, relatable households rather than trying to see how many houses we can fit on a property,” he says. “This isn't about density. If you map out the aliveness of an area, and the relationship to connections, and color them in terms of their strength, I suggest that in a standard big development, the colors are going to be weak. We're trying to create a map that's as colorful and rich as possible.”
Doing so has required close collaboration with city officials and developers—political skills Chapin honed as a founding member of Langley's Design Review Board, which he served on from 1984 to 1989. Still, he says he probably wouldn't have added speculative development to his repertoire had he not crossed paths with Soules, a Harvard MBA and former Peace Corps volunteer who introduced himself after a talk Chapin gave in 1996. The two formed The Cottage Company to take on individual joint ventures, which are set up as LLCs. Third Street Cottages was the first to take advantage of Langley's new Cottage Housing Development code, adopted in 1995 with the help of Chapin, who worked as an unpaid consultant to get it passed. Essentially, it permits four to 12 detached cottages on a site that would normally be developed with half that number of large homes. Each cottage must face a common area, and parking—a minimum of 1.25 spaces per cottage—must be screened from the street.
Soules says city leaders usually recognize the value of establishing an innovative design program. The greatest resistance comes from neighbors, who are afraid that cottage-style housing will devalue their larger homes. “Part of our mission is to build good examples to show what's possible while also making a profit,” he says. Soules networks to see which cities are receptive to the signature concept and finds a parcel within the city on which to build. When the code is adopted, The Cottage Company is the first to build the project. Redmond and Shoreline are two Washington towns that adopted innovative housing codes after Chapin and Soules showed them the eye-pleasing Third Street Cottages project. The company subsequently built Greenwood Avenue Cottages in Shoreline in 2003, and a year later, finished phase one of Conover Commons in Redmond.
When opposition is strong, Chapin and Soules have gotten a foot in the door by asking city officials to grant code exemptions for a pilot project. Danielson Grove—a neighborhood of 16 one-, two-, and three-bedroom homes ranging in size from less than 1,000 square feet to 1,500 square feet—is a case in point. “There was some reluctance on the part of neighbors to adopt a cottage code on a city-wide basis, so I said, ‘Why not adopt a demonstration code, set up parameters, and have a beauty contest? Developers could make proposals, and if you like them, allow a cottage project to proceed,'” Soules says. The city received five proposals from developers who had parcels of land under contract and chose two; one of them was The Cottage Company's plan for Danielson Grove. When construction finished up last year, the homes were selling for $550,000 to $650,000—roughly on par with the lowest-priced larger homes in the neighborhood.
As word of Chapin's cottage houses spreads, no doubt more and more neighborhood-planning groups will be coming to look at them. Once they step inside, it's clear that the compact homes are not simply some nostalgic anachronism but rather, smartly designed and crafted. Chapin builds in storage wherever he can: beneath alcove benches, between 4-inch-by-12-inch wall studs, and under stairways. Trees sacrificed to construction are woven back into the building as framing or paneling. In fact, Sheetrock is completely absent at Third Street Cottages, whose interiors are covered in spruce salvaged from a piano factory. Energy efficiency is top priority, too. Advanced framing, high-density insulation, and tankless water heaters reduce the buildings' heating and cooling costs.