What is a Pocket Neighborhood?

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Photography by Nat Rea

The term “pocket neighborhood,” sometimes referred to as “bungalow courts” or “cottage clusters,” was first coined by Ross Chapin of Ross Chapin Architects, an award-winning firm that began this now fast-growing trend with the creation of the Third Street Cottages in Langley, Wash. The idea of the pocket neighborhood is not a new idea, but rather a modernized version of the bungalow courts built in Pasadena, Calif., in the early 20th century.

Third Street Cottages is a community of eight detached cottages located on four standard single-family lots. To help this vision come to life, the municipality adopted an innovative Cottage Housing Development (CHD) zoning code. The code allows for up to double the density of detached homes in all single-family zones — provided that the ground floor area is less than 700 square feet, and total area including the second floor is less than 975 square feet. The cottages must also face a usable landscaped commons and have parking screened from the street.

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From there, pocket communities really took off in the Pacific Northwest in collaboration with developers and builders, including The Cottage Company in Seattle, land development consultant Triad Associates in Kirkland, Wash., and Artisan Fine Homebuilding. Conover Commons Cottages was developed in joint venture with The Cottage Company and was the first community built under the City of Redmond’s Innovative Housing Code, which gave incentives for developing size-limited homes. The community is bordered by nearly 5 acres of permanently protected woodland, effectively also making it a cluster development.

While pocket neighborhoods are traditionally comprised of homes less than 1,000 square feet, there is also a market for this type of community with larger families who wish to take advantage of the pocket neighborhood lifestyle but need a bit more space. Conover Commons Homes is a second pocket within the community, consisting of twelve 3-plus bedroom homes, ranging from 1,700 to 2,700 square feet, and one income-qualified affordable home.

Today, one can find pocket neighborhoods popping up in areas of the country such as Indiana and Massachusetts. The design concept can be incorporated in infill, suburban and rural settings, and a development does not need to be limited to a single pocket. A pocket neighborhood can consist of multiple pockets, as long as each pocket includes all of the essential elements of a pocket neighborhood. Union Studio, an architecture firm in Providence, R.I., is applying pocket neighborhood principles to larger homes and communities such as Heritage Sands in Dennis Port, Mass.

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Designed in the tradition of a New England seaside cottage colony, this new community of 65 modestly sized, 1- to 3-bedroom seasonal cottages are designed to maximize privacy while bringing the outdoors inside. Walking paths, community parks and pavilions connect the cottages to each other and offer settings from which to enjoy ocean views, while a community pool and recreational building create additional places for gatherings and celebrations.

Pocket communities also are a solution for increasing the number of affordable units within a municipality. Cottages on Greene in East Greenwich, R.I. was designed by Union Studio architects, and consists of 15 units of mixed-income condominiums across a range of housing types. While the neighborhood appears as a single-family pocket neighborhood from the outside, it actually consists of single-family homes, duplexes and three-unit townhomes.

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How to design a pocket neighborhood

Pocket neighborhoods tend to consist of about 12 homes that all face a common area that residents must walk through to access their front door. The parking for these homes is located in groupings on the exterior of the pocket, hidden from view and accessed via a walkway, or located behind the homes and accessed through alleyways.

The homes include outdoor areas of private space through side, rear and front gardens, often lined by picket fences, which separate the homes from the common area while also helping frame the common area. Each home includes a front porch, from which residents may enjoy the common area while still maintaining some privacy. Roof terraces can also function as a private outdoor space. The common area may include amenities such as community gardens, a play space or an outdoor fire pit for residents to enjoy.

It is important to include a common building for use by all residents. Smaller footprint living does not remove the need to entertain guests, enjoy an outdoor BBQ, or utilize other amenities typically available in a larger home setting. A common building fully equipped with a kitchenette, areas for exercise classes, and a common tool/gardening shed can increase the livability and marketability of these communities.

Cottage-style homes with craftsman or bungalow elements are the most common architectural styles, but there are others as well. The specific interior and exterior architecture of the home is also an important component of a pocket neighborhood since residences are closely spaced. Therefore, each home should be designed with open and closed sides that nest together to shield views into neighbors’ homes. Any loss of light may be compensated for through the use of skylights and high windows, as well as the opportunity for additional windows where an attached garage may have been located in a traditional home.

It is important to orient the active interior rooms, such as the living room or kitchen, toward the front of the home so that they look out on the common area. Design details such as exposed ceiling joists and open floor plans that connect indoor and outdoor spaces can make homes feel larger without adding square footage. Using spaces for multiple purposes, also called flex space, and better utilizing vertical space can help reduce the floor area needed within a home.

Storage areas become more important than ever in smaller homes. Additional storage areas, such as built-in book cases, shelving under the stairs, the use of bunk beds, drawers under the beds, attics and basements, can provide a surprising amount of extra space. However, individual external storage areas separated from the homes themselves — much like in an apartment building — are still also very necessary, for storing bikes, sporting equipment, keepsakes, etc.

Why design a pocket neighborhood?

Creating small homes on small lots allows more compact development, which uses land efficiently and can offer greater access to amenities. Living in smaller homes requires more places to go to get out of the house, so residents tend to spend more time socializing with neighbors.

Residents may also enjoy a smaller mortgage, with the option to enhance their home by selecting higher-end finishes. Then there’s the increasing value of these small homes. The Third Street Cottages, the first of the pocket neighborhoods, have resold for as much as 250 percent of their original price, proving their enduring appeal and value.

Small homes feed our recent fascination with resilience and sustainability because they meet the needs of communities that wish to increase density and reform land use patterns without losing the feel of a single-family community. Smaller homes also can reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions through the use of passive solar energy, low water-use fixtures, and the abundance of vegetation in these communities found in the interior courtyard, personal gardens and surrounding open space. Additionally, the demographic shift toward smaller households and the rise in single-person households is driving a need for a more diverse housing stock that includes small homes.

The original article, written by Claire Worshtil, was published in the Winter 2017 issue of Best in American Living.

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