Several weeks ago, Vancouver held its first open house for a “laneway” house (Laneway houses are comparable to Seattle’s back yard cottages) built as part of its EcoDensity initiative. I haven’t seen the Vancouver project, but I did take a trip to see some very small cottages in Portland built by Orange Splot Cohousing Development called Ruth’s Cottages. These two projects reflect a growing trend in trying to legalize neighborhood density—that is, put more housing in single family neighborhoods without changing the scale of the community. Both of these projects reflect some forward thinking that goes a step beyond technology and design—this is really about bringing the benefits of the urban lifestyle to what typically look like suburban neighborhoods.

I first heard about Ruth’s Cottages from a city planner in Portland who described them as small houses—really small houses—of less than 200 square feet. The two cottages were built as Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) as part of Portland’s effort to expand new ways of doing DADUs. But these take the idea of DADUs one step further. What if the central house provided a shared kitchen in a central house? This could bring the co-housing model to single family neighborhoods. Co-housing includes individual residences, but “residents also have access to extensive common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house.” Imagine the idea of a big central house, with a few little 150 square foot houses each with bathrooms but without kitchens—and no extra parking.

The truly amazing thing about Ruth’s Cottages besides how tiny they are is how well they blend in to the surrounding neighborhood. I rode the bus up to the Northeast Portland neighborhood where they are and walked right by them. They look and feel like they belong, exactly the kind of low impact density that should be acceptable to single family neighbors.

Vancouver’s first example of laneway housing doesn’t have such a compelling co-housing element, but it does a great job of highlighting the affordability and value of small homes. The Mendoza House built by the LaneFab company, is palatial compared to Ruth’s Cottages coming in at more than 700 square feet on a 33 foot wide lot. For me—I live in a 750 square foot condo—the Mendoza House would be a big step up. If you scroll through the pictures on LaneFab’s website, it looks like a house. But based on its foot print it wears like a condo—small. The Mendoza house cost less than CN$200,000 to build, has built in energy efficiencies, and will likely rent for about $1,700 a month. That’s a pretty decent price for new construction in Vancouver.  

The lesson in the tiny house phenomena for Seattle as it considers changing its multi-family code is that smaller houses, including town houses, can offer a functional and affordable alternative for some families that want the benefits of multi-family and single family life. As the Seattle City Council considers changes they ought to allow for more experimentation and re-conceptualization of what multi-family means—including blurring the lines between single and multi-family. Housing more people closer together doesn’t always look like a high-rise. The proposal suggested by the Congress of Residential Architects for townhomes—more design flexibility using the design review process—makes lots of sense. And as both Vancouver and Portland have already demonstrated, single family density doesn’t have to mean bad design or bigger buildings.