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July 17, 2009

Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

As is the case in some other parts of the country, Washington state has put considerable effort into legislating and regulating urban growth. In Seattle, zoning revisions for certain areas allow as many as four housing units to replace a single unit.

Last Sunday, the Seattle Times' magazine "Pacific Northwest" dealt with the matter. A link to the article is here. I won't extract from the text, simply noting that its treatment was reasonably fair. My main interest is presenting some of the photos from the piece for your evaluation. (The Times describes the writer and photographer as follows: "William Dietrich is a former Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.")

The article deals with, among other things, problems faced by architects working on new high-density single-family and townhouse housing. Presumably the examples I show below are considered to be some of the better fruit of the enforcement of higher density standards.


Judkins Park house of David Sarti
A detached dwelling in what seems to have been a back yard.

Urban Canyon project - street view

Urban Canyon project - court view

Urban Canyon project - view from on top

Boulders project - court view

Boulders project - interior

The house I grew up in was on a lot with perhaps a 70 foot frontage and 120 feet of depth. Where I live now is situated on a pie-shaped lot that probably has less acreage, but still plenty of elbow room. I lived nearly 30 years in a house on a third of an acre lot in Olympia, Washington. About nine years were spent in apartments, mostly of the garden variety. Then there were nearly three years in Army barracks. So I'm prejudiced in favor of traditional quasi-suburban housing.

That means I wouldn't be hot to move into any of the units illustrated above unless circumstanced dictated it. Mind you, they aren't seriously bad, aside from that former-backyard house -- though I hate the newly-pervasive "industrial" exteriors I see on the Urban Canyon units.

I guess my main problem is that these squeezed-in dwelling are neither fish nor fowl, as they say. They're not sensible detached housing. Nor are they honest row or courtyard-facing housing. They're an odd breed of "pretend" housing struggling against the dictates of our betters -- politicians and planners.

I am sure many of you will disagree in Comments.



posted by Donald at July 17, 2009


Interesting, they have solar panels. Now there's a lifestyle statement for the northwest! They aren't close to viable in the 340 days of sunshine southwest, can't imagine how it'd work in cloudy Seattle.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on July 17, 2009 2:56 AM

They're an odd breed of "pretend" housing struggling against the dictates of our betters -- politicians and planners.

Can't this be said of the detached suburban homes you (and I) grew up in and to which we have some degree of emotional connection? The suburbs were/are created by developers following a set of planning & zoning regulations adopted by cities and towns that reflect(ed) the "will of the people" as interpreted by politicians and planners. I suspect you'd get riots in the cul de sacs if anyone could do anything they wished without following the planning and zoning requirements adopted by municipalities. Someone might then plunk a ten-story building with forty apartments on a two acre lot surrounded by McMansions offering housing affordable to the workers who labor cleaning the homes and mowing the lawns of their neighbors.

In the fifties the ideal was the detached single family house, placed near the center of a lot ... the larger the required lot, the wealthier the community/neighborhood. Working class areas might have half or even quarter acre minimum lot sizes, wealthier areas might top two acres as the minimum required. Various P&Z regulations were adopted that presumed a wide array of givens, for example, the primacy of the automobile. In short, the dominant dynamic was one of fleeing crowded urban areas and freeing oneself from walking and public transit by getting a car or two.

The zeitgeist has changed. Today's citizens are more concerned about energy efficiency, sustainability, protecting open spaces and similar "green" elements while being less inclined to perpetuate the sprawling suburban approach favored in the fifties and sixties. The examples you show seem to be decent efforts to respond to this dynamic and create the sort of "New Urbanism" that Michael Blowhard so often sings the praises of here. How well they'll wear over the decades, and whether children who grow up in them will look to them and the values they reflect with warm nostalgia, seeking similar homes for themselves as adults or whether they'll insist on something else remains to be seen.

As for the viability of solar panels, what percentage of energy savings is required to make them "viable"? If they reduce the cost of hot water by 15% or cover 12% of electrical needs is that "viable" or do they need to enable homeowners to go completely off the grid? And, if they have a minimal impact but folks still like to have them, is that different in any appreciable way to the persistence of shutters as a design element still (if less frequently) being put onto houses despite having been rendered non-functional since roughly the early 1900's? Does anyone here remember ever living in a house with functioning shutters? [FWIW my grandparent's home built in I believe the twenties had them, although their primary function seemed to be adding days to the time it took to paint the house. I vaguely seem to recall them being closed once when a hurricane was due to hit.]

Posted by: Chris White on July 17, 2009 8:25 AM

No privacy. From your photographs, it would appear that all the views are looking into someone else's space. This should be called "fish bowl" architecture.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 17, 2009 9:51 AM

Actually, they don't seem to be too odd to me now that I'm living in New Mexico. The small city I live in has very little new construction due to water constraints, but a lot of the existing traditional homes, whether they be Vics, bungalows or adobes, do have small cottages or secondary dwellings at the rear of the property behind the main residence. Furthermore, the old adobes were added on to multiple times as families grew, so an adobe that looks very tiny face on from the street can actually extend quite a way back into the property, sometimes turning in an L-shape.

Posted by: KR on July 17, 2009 10:01 AM

In the Judkins thing, what on earth is that surface on which reside the two tracks that lead to the house in the rear? Indoor/outdoor carpeting? It can't be grass cut to look all cross-hatched, can it?

I ask this because, while I don't find the houses that bad, or the crowding that severe (I'm a downtown boy born and bred and I hated the burbs my entire life), I just can't get past that bizarre arrangement...two tire tracks laid on top of carpeting. My Lord, what am I seeing here?

Posted by: PatrickH on July 17, 2009 10:07 AM

Looks to me like some kind of brick or paver pattern filled in with some kind of ground cover. Less grass to mow? I'm all for that.

Posted by: KR on July 17, 2009 12:10 PM

I like the aesthetic of these new developments. I would not live there, though, because they are landscaped and HOA'd to the hilt, and I garden. (HOA's are notorious for complaining about real gardens as being "weedy" or "unkempt".)

Posted by: CyndiF on July 17, 2009 12:45 PM

Oh. Man oh man, did they have to paint it green? That's sad. And not to say butt-ugly too. Yuck.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 17, 2009 1:50 PM

We used to live in a Georgian flat in Edinburgh and used the shutters routinely. But they were internal shutters and saved a fortune: no curtains.

Posted by: dearieme on July 17, 2009 2:00 PM

For high density living, this is very nice. In the right area, I'd live there no problem, although I agree with Donald, the industrial look has got to go.

Yes, that's grass in the driveway, I've seen it a lot where I live. Kind of nice, although it's actually MORE grass to mow because you usually don't mow your driveway. Of course, these houses probably don't have a lawn.

As I get older, I've found I'm more drawn to these densely populated developments, especially with kids. A new one such as the one pictured probably attracts fairly stable family types mixed with professional childless couples, so the people you'd be living next to I'd probably find pleasant. There, I said it. Money as a gatekeeper. I'm all for it!

Posted by: JV on July 17, 2009 2:09 PM

The first time I encountered something like what is seen in the driveway is when a museum renovation I was involved with wanted to make it possible for loaded trucks to back over a lawn area. Think concrete blocks on edge allowing grass to grow and, what is more important, allowing rainwater to soak into the ground rather than running off into storm drains, as is the case with conventional paving.

And I'm with Cyndi about wanting to see more garden space ... although there might well be some form of community garden area that was not shown in these images. I know there are quite a few dense housing areas in the east coast Portland that provide residents access to garden plots on adjacent land.

Posted by: Chris White on July 17, 2009 2:58 PM

It is worth mentioning that the townhomes at The Boulders cost as much or more than a comparable single-family home in the neighborhood.

I've actually been looking at real estate for sale in Seattle for a while now, and I don't think I've seen a single townhome that doesn't immediately strike me as having all of the drawbacks of a detached unit with none of the benefits (what's the point of windows that just look directly into the unit next door?). East Coast cities are full of rowhomes...why is this style so difficult to replicate elsewhere?

Posted by: Sean P on July 18, 2009 3:53 AM

In Southern Spain, I found house after house rising from narrow streets offering nothing but blank walls and a wrought-iron gate to passers-by. You entered into a lovely courtyard, filled with peace and flowers, which was surrounded by the home.Thus houses had no front or rear or side yards, but were private and placid. The streets were simply utilitarian arteries, and had no other purpose. This way of life is not suited for much automotive traffic, however.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 18, 2009 2:16 PM

I'm an architect in Seattle and actually know the designers of both these projects personally. Seattle's zoning code promotes the construction of "neither-fish-nor-fowl" housing in low-rise multifamily zones by imposing a suburban-style set of development restrictions on cluster and townhouse projects. These regulations were put in place in the 1980s during a fit of NIMBYism, and have been fairly disastrous. Seattle can't have row houses like most cities because they're against the law.

That's likely to change in the next year or two. The City Council is in the process of undertaking a wholesale re-write of the multi-family zoning code, and one of the goals is to implement rules that would allow and encourage row housing.

Posted by: GW on July 19, 2009 7:05 PM

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