Builder subdivisions are often the visual expression of bottom-line thinking. So can these meticulously constructed pocket neighborhoods be profitable? Soules says they cost no more or less to build than the average single-family home. Although the cottages use fewer resources than larger houses, as a group they're more intensive to build and develop. “We see it as just another opportunity to step out from being in the herd,” he says. “The homes in highest demand are those that have character, and a pocket neighborhood is an ensemble, not just a series of small houses around a courtyard.”
an engaging proposal
Cluster housing is just one building type in Chapin's busy practice, which has recently grown from five to eight staff members. After years of designing modestly sized custom homes, which represent half of his practice, he's begun to offer a dozen or so stock plans on his Web site. And it's not just homeowners who've been calling. Chapin has been asked to modify the plans for developers, which, in turn, has led to site consulting on projects ranging in size from eight to 200 homes in Calgary, Alberta; Denver; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Hilton Head, S.C. “I don't accept everyone,” he says. “I'm hesitant to work with developers we don't follow through with.”
Still, Chapin is clearly energized by the idea. One of his most exciting consulting projects is right in his backyard. The Highlands, an eight-minute walk from downtown, will consist of 50 houses on 15 acres of forest and farmland. Chapin was called in after three rounds of site designs by another architect. “The plans they'd come up with were a monoculture for Harriet and Ozzie and their grandkids,” Chapin says. He promptly called a town meeting, where residents filled two walls with 3-inch-by-5-inch cards on which they'd listed their concerns. Chapin posted those ideas on a community Web site and met with city officials and the project's key stakeholders. What emerged was a strong need for diverse housing types for retirees, families, and singles, as well as concerns over affordability for a workforce being marginalized by land costs. A large grove of trees, some 3 feet in diameter, was also being threatened. The community wanted to preserve them not only for close-up enjoyment, but because they were part of the skyline.
Chapin eventually proposed a plan that increased the housing density while saving 75 percent of the trees and allowing more open land to be preserved. He observes that when a town center is more than a five-minute walk from home, people get in their cars. So he drew a neighborhood “living room”: a cluster of low-impact workplaces—say for a caterer, graphic designer, or massage therapist—around a courtyard. He's also suggested limiting the size of houses to 2,500 square feet and offering a mix of housing types, including pocket neighborhoods that fit into the larger context. Chapin points out that if you commingle housing types, you're tapping into a number of niche markets—families, retirees, singles, working people, and the wealthy—and that means you have only 10 houses to sell to each group, rather than 50.
Chapin's presentation at the next town meeting drew two standing ovations. “It's an engagement with the town rather than a strong-arm,” he says, noting that large national builders often dig in for two years of aggressive legal maneuvering to get what they want. “We're changing a place people care for,” he says, “and if you slap the faces of the people who care, you're going to get a big fight.”
Like the big national builders, Chapin is helping to package and sell an American dream, but one that appeals to a different subset of Americans. “There's a huge group of people—100 million? I don't know—who are saying smaller is beautiful,” he says. “Their values are about family and neighbors. There are people who are saying, ‘I've had a successful life, but success isn't related to how big my house is.' They want to go traveling and hiking on the weekend, and [they] can do that if their place is a good fit. Those people are the ones I'm trying to provide options for.”