A Happy Story Turned Sad

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long view of the chapel on Chapel Hill, Lucas Point, the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   Two guys sticking with an idea can change a city, but one bad voice can ruin a neighborhood. Both these things happened at the Waters, which we talked about recently, and friends have asked me to tell more of the story. Here it is:

   Nathan Norris and I were founding partners of PlaceMakers, and had been invited to the Waters to discuss the creation of an architectural pattern book. The land was studded with majestic oaks, and rolled up gently toward us from all directions.

   The plan, however, had apparently been done by a conventional subdivision planner because there were "wet noodle streets" and cul de sacs slung indiscriminately across this beautiful piece of land. We were aghast when we saw it. PlaceMakers was very young at the time and needed the pattern book work, but we wanted to have no part in making better architecture in a standard subdivision.

closer view of the chapel on Chapel Hill, Lucas Point, the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   We immediately told the development team that they were making a big mistake, and that the land plan was completely unworthy of the land. I had already served as Town Architect in other neighborhoods for most of a decade by then, and was hoping in the back of my mind that they would let me do for the land plan what I had done for many home designs: meet with the designers and help them do a radical makeover of the plan.

   The Waters team took us on a tour of the land, asking our recommendations on several issues. As described earlier, the landowner pointed to a hill and said "where would you put all this dirt? The other planner said it won't work with his plan." I said "you mean the hill?" "Yes." "Leave the hill exactly where it is," I replied. "Line a street up with it, and build a chapel on the hill. We'll call it Chapel Hill." And so we did, as you can see in the top picture.

   I was also very concerned about a century-old fencerow of towering oak trees, which the conventional plan basically ignored. Most of them surely would be lost. I recommended instead that they celebrate the fencerow by making it the center of the grand avenue leading into town, making it look as if the avenue had been there as long as the trees.

Avenue of the Oaks in Lucas Point, the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   The landowner had apparently been having second thoughts about the plan for some time because, to our great surprise, he hired us to redesign the Waters. We held the design charrette ten years ago this week.

   While the previous plan sprawled 800 or so homes indiscriminately across the land, our design built almost 2,500 homes in eight compact hamlets, preserving most of the land as either lakes or farm fields. Prior to the Waters, subdivisions in the area had been selling 2-acre lots for $40,000 for a developed land value of $20,000/acre. Within hamlets at the Waters, the developed land value immediately rose to $500,000/acre, a staggering 25 times higher.

kids and parents playing checkers on the square in Lucas Point, the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   The town of Pike Road, Alabama, incorporated shortly thereafter. They were so impressed with the Waters that they spent 2/3 of their founding bank account to hire PlaceMakers to do a SmartCode for the newborn town because places like the Waters thrive under a SmartCode, but are illegal on many counts under conventional zoning. And because Pike Road did a SmartCode, the Waters agreed to be annexed into Pike Road.

   The city of Montgomery saw the town of Pike Road sitting squarely in Montgomery's growth corridor, and realized that with a SmartCode that encouraged developments like the Waters, Pike Road was likely to draw several years' worth of development out of Montgomery because by this time, the Waters had begun its first neighborhood center and a number of businesses were very interested in relocating. So Montgomery's forward-looking civic leaders banded together to bring the SmartCode to town. Dover-Kohl did the plan for downtown, and Montgomery, through the heroic efforts of many (especially including Planning Director Ken Groves,) became the largest city in the world with a SmartCode… a distinction they held until Miami21, by DPZ, was enacted a couple years later.

   All of this began,* of course, because two guys just couldn't shut up about improving a plan on one single Dog Day in 2002. We were simply focused on trying to get the planner to improve the plan… we couldn't have even imagined the chain of events that would follow. So don't ever give up… you never know where today's efforts may someday lead.

   That's the happy story… I'll tell you the sad part in the next post.

   ~Steve Mouzon

* Would the Montgomery SmartCode have happened without the Waters or Pike Road's SmartCode? Montgomery's civic leaders may have enacted a SmartCode in any case, as there are a number of very smart people there. So I'm not saying for sure that the Waters was the trigger… in reality, we'll never know. But in any case, it's important to believe that the things you do might make a difference… otherwise, the battle can get too hard, and the road too long.

The Teddy Bear Principle

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stuffed bear and cub in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

   Smaller buildings often tap into an unexpected source of lovability that just might be a basic survival mechanism for humans and other creatures as well. I call it the Teddy Bear Principle. Here's how it works: Baby bears are considered to be so cute that we give every American child a teddy bear before they're two weeks old. But the mother bear is so terrifying that nobody wants to get within two miles of her. How can this be?

Steve Mouzon in 1963

me at three - obviously not

a mini-me of me today -

and like most of us, cuter

as a kid than as an adult

   It's all about proportion. Claws and fangs get longer in proportion to the size of the bear's body as they mature, as you can see. The bear's body more than doubles in size, while its head doesn't get so much bigger. A cub's eyes appear larger on its face because while its head won't grow so much, its eyes are even closer to their adult size.

   Humans and other creatures are similar. A young child can barely reach to the top of its head, while most adults can reach all the way over the top of their head to their ear on the other side. That's because our arms grow more than our head does from infancy to adulthood.

Katrina Cottage I at the International Builders Show in Orlando, 2006

Andrés Duany helping set up the Katrina Cottage exhibit at the IBS

   Public response to the first Katrina Cottages was so strong that it shocked me. I was one of a dozen or so New Urbanists who manned the Katrina Cottage at the International Builders Show in January 2006. People were falling all over themselves to express how much they loved the little cottage. Later prototypes got the same response. For over a year, I was at a loss to explain why so many people acted the way they did about this little cottage.

Katrina Cottage VIII on display in Silver Spring, Maryland November 2006

Katrina Cottage VIII on temporary display near Washington DC

   I finally realized that it was the Teddy Bear Principle at work. When you make a house substantially smaller, not everything shrinks equally. The windows, for example, can only get so small before they fail to meet building codes. Windows are the eyes of a building, and so windows proportioned larger to the face of the building take on the same infant proportions as cubs, babies, fawns, puppies, and kittens.

curtain blowing out window in London breeze

   These small creatures are often characterized with terms that make architects cringe: "adorable," "precious," "cute," "darling," etc. But it's precisely this outpouring of gut emotion that I believe plays a role in keeping our respective species alive. If the little ones weren't so lovable, then what might we do with them when they're screaming their heads off at three in the morning? Because they are so lovable most of the time, we suffer the sleepless nights for them, and life goes on. As it does for the other creatures as well.

   This is important because when we build smaller and smarter, all sorts of virtuous cycles kick in to help us build more frugally. Cross ventilation and daylighting, for example, come naturally in tiny buildings that are only one room deep, whereas they require increasing doses of cleverness as the building gets larger. Compound frugal patterns like these with the fact that you're conditioning a lot less space, and you're saving even more.

   The great thing about the Teddy Bear Principle is that if you know about it, you don't have to sell the idea of building smaller and smarter on cost savings alone. If you follow Teddy Bear Principle rules of proportion, then your designs will be much more lovable as well.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Smaller & Smarter

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tiny cottage at Lucas Point, the Waters, Pike Road, Alabama

This article was first published in Period Homes March 2012.

   There are likely countless details to building smaller and smarter, but only a few game-changing principles that reduce size across the board. These key principles unlock size reductions that wouldn't happen otherwise. This is more important than ever today because nobody is saying "money is no object" anymore. Every client has real choices to make, and at the core, they all come down to this: Do you want it bigger, or better? Make it bigger and the quality goes down. Make it better and it must be smaller.


Katrina Cottage VIII floor plan

Katrina Cottage VIII floor plan

   The biggest impediment to building smaller and smarter is the lack of a clear expansion path. People fell in love with the Katrina Cottages, but the first generation of designs didn't expand very well because exterior walls were so quickly eaten up with closets, baths, and cabinets. The very first design move in a smaller and smarter design should be to locate the Grow Zones so that homeowners see clearly how they could expand if their needs change.

Double Duty

hearth corner at Mount Vernon, home of George Washington

   McMansions might have three or four places to eat. NASA calls that redundancy. If you're on the way to the moon and one system fails, your life depends on having a backup. But houses don't go to the moon. Early American homes did the opposite, with single elements doing many jobs. The "keeping room," for example, was where all the housekeeping was done. Anything that didn't happen in the bedroom or the outhouse happened in the keeping room.

Light on More Sides

tiny bedroom with windows on two sides

   Smaller rooms can be more delightful than larger rooms if there are windows on more than one side. Bedrooms can be extraordinarily small, for example, with windows on three sides.

Outdoor Rooms

   Excellent outdoor rooms can be built and furnished for a fraction of the cost of interior space, and when you entice people outdoors, they get acclimated to the local environment and don't need as much conditioning when they return indoors, slashing their utility bill. They also need less indoor living space if they have outdoor rooms they can use for several months of the year.

Light Wings

   Don't just build a smaller footprint, but build an especially thin footprint so the house is only one room deep wherever possible except in the northernmost states, where the plan should be more compact to conserve heat. The thinner plan will be longer, and can better help to enclose the outdoor rooms.

Walk to the Grocery

couple shopping at fish market in Bologna, Italy

   If you live close to the grocery, you're probably living close to other necessities of life as well. And if the street in between is walkable enough, then you'll likely enjoy the fresher produce so much that you soon find yourself buying groceries by the meal, rather than by the week. That will lead to walking to buy other necessities in smaller quantities as well, so you'll need less storage space throughout your house.

Bed and Breakfast Benefits

   Do everything you can to see that a bed and breakfast opens near you. If so, you'll save tens of thousands by not building the guest suite which will save enough on your mortgage to pay your guests' bill at the inn if you want to.

Silver Bullets

dining booth in 2011 Coastal Living Idea House, East Beach Norfolk, Virginia

   If we hope to build radically smaller and smarter, where a client would choose to live in half the space because they like it better than the bigger, less intelligent house, then we need a few silver bullets that save far more than half the footage. For example, consider which seats fill up first at restaurants. It's the booths, right? A comfortable booth for six people can easily be designed in 36 sq.ft. or less. Seat those same six people in a dining room with adequate space to serve around them, and it takes about 180 sq.ft. Why not give people what they'd really prefer in a fifth of the space? And in the spirit of doing double duty, the booth can double both as a light-duty home office and as a homework station with just the addition of appropriate receptacles.

Children's Realm

bed alcove in Katrina Cottage VIII

   The bed alcove is a special type of silver bullet because it has an extra benefit: it allows the sleeping enclosure to be curtained off at night. This means you can cut the thermostat down ridiculously low on winter nights, and your body heat will likely keep your alcove warm. The master bed alcove might open into a larger bedroom, but it's possible to put all the children's bed alcoves around a single "children's realm," which saves a lot of footage versus individual bedrooms and baths. Because privacy is achieved with each alcove's curtains (wardrobes are built into each alcove) the children's realm doesn't need a door, and the computer can be located at a table where parents can see where their kids are surfing.

Compartmentalized Baths

bathroom in 2001 Coastal Living Idea House, Habersham, South Carolina

   Build baths with compartments for the toilet and shower, so that more than one person can use them at a time. A single properly-designed compartmentalized bath can serve the entire children's realm, whereas you'd likely need another bath if one kid can lock the door and keep the others out. Compartmentalization works great for the parents' bath as well, because there are some things that shouldn't be shared.

Furniture vs. Closets

   Ever notice how early American homes often had much cleaner floor plans than today's homes? If you study them carefully, you'll notice it's because they weren't burdened with today's assortment of clothing and utility closets. Instead, clothes were stored in furniture such as armoires, dressers, and chests of drawers. This allowed the rooms to be much cleaner, and the inside and outside walls to each be better composed. This also allowed rooms to be repurposed over the years as household needs changed. What once was a bedroom could become a study, for example, simply by changing out the furniture.

Armoire Advantages

armoire in private residence designed by Jose Plecnik in Lubjana, Slovenia

   There are other advantages to furnishing instead of closeting: By the time you frame the wall for a wall closet, install the sheetrock, the door frame, the door, the hardware, and the door casing and baseboard, and then paint it all (except the hardware, of course) you've spent enough money to build an armoire that stores every bit as much as the plain sheetrock closet, and looks much better. And the walls of the armoire can be as thin as ¾ inch instead of the 4-¾ inch sheetrock walls (assuming ⅞ inch sheetrock.) So you're saving 4 inches of floor space at every wall. Add that up across a house and it's a notable difference. But those aren't all the advantages. There is no need for the armoires to be taller than eight feet, while the ceiling might be nine feet, ten feet, or higher. So your perception is that the room is larger when it's furnished with armoires rather than gummed up with closets that run all the way to the ceiling. Need the equivalent of a walk-in closet? No problem… just design two facing armoires.

Don't Waste an Inch

basket under bed in Katrina Cottage VIII

   The attitude of recovering every cubic inch possible leads to a plethora of patterns, including Booth Seat Shelves, Kitchen Corners, the One-Item Deep Pantry, Box Spring Drawers, Under-Bed Baskets, the Book Bench, the Reach-In Closet (where you still have closets), and several things you can do under the stairs.

Open Walls

open walls with shelves in 2001 Coastal Living Idea House, Habersham, South Carolina

   The most radical result of the "don't waste an inch" attitude is to open the interior walls where possible. Use wood boards instead of sheetrock on one side, then leave the finish off the other side and build shelves between the studs so that every interior wall becomes a shelving unit. Boarded walls are much more interesting than sheetrock, and allow the attachment of shelves, pegs, hooks and even fixtures and appliances at any point, stud or not. Eric Moser began this train of thought in 2001 with the Idea House at Habersham. I did my first open-wall design with Katrina Cottage VIII. We now do this on all our new designs; it's incredibly charming and radically space-saving because you can store so much stuff in the walls.

   I'll blog soon about several benefits of building smaller and smarter. The Teddy Bear Principle shows how smaller buildings can be more lovable. Because they're smaller, it's easier to make them more durable because you don't need as many materials and can therefore afford to use better stuff. Buildings that are both smaller and smarter are also more adaptable in several ways. And there are many virtuous cycles that kick in with smaller buildings that make them more frugal as well.

   ~Steve Mouzon

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