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Ross Chapin: Recreating a Strong Sense of Community

Architect Ross Chapin grew up in a shingled bungalow on a lake in what was the very livable, close-knit small town of White Bear Lake, Minn.

The idyllic setting, about 20 miles north of St. Paul, was built between 1880 and 1910 -- when community counted. Then the 1960s freeway building frenzy brought sprawl and sameness and all the negatives that have motivated him to build throwback cottages.

"My grandparents settled there. I grew up there," Chapin said. "Then the freeway came in from the city the and surrounding farm land was taken over by housing -- all the same ranch houses with ugly garage doors, wide streets. .

"I looked at the places where I played in the woods behind the house, where my grandparents settled, where my father played, where I grew up," he continued. "I looked at the woods taken down, the stream culverted, the ravine filled in, and I felt like a part of my body was torn apart."

Chapin turned that trauma into a lifetime of making small houses, shared courtyards and communities that bond like they did more than a half century ago.

Based on Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound since 1982, Ross Chapin Architects has gotten a lot of national attention for building well-designed, properly-scaled, 21st century-functional small and cottage-sized houses.

In 1996, Chapin teamed with developer Jim Soules to create pocket neighborhoods -- with houses smaller than 1,000 square feet on shared garden courtyards.

By 1998, they completed Third Street Cottages -- eight quaint and deeply detailed homes in an existing neighborhood on land originally zoned for four larger houses. The cottages -- in Langley, Wash., on Chapin's home base of Whidbey Island -- sold out immediately.

Chapin and Soules have gone on to build several other pocket neighborhoods throughout the Pacific Northwest, and developers all over the nation are talking to Chapin about exporting pocket neighborhoods far beyond the state of Washington.

"When I travel, I see more and more precious land being paved over," Chapin said. "I see housing developments with thousands of houses and no sense of neighborhood. Something has to be done."

Chapin's response has been to work with cities so that incentives -- more density -- are given in return for limiting the size of the house, which is exactly what Langley's cottage housing code did to pave the way for the wildly successful Third Street Cottages.

"There is a broad interest in the smaller neighborhoods. We're seeing a shift in the mainstream thinking both from the consumer point of view as well as from builders, developers and city planners," he said.

The market is there, because greater Seattle buyers have snatched up Chapin's craftsman-style cottages for upwards of $600,000 for a 1,000-square-foot dwelling.

"We need to work with the city planner who wants to develop models of zoning for more livable communities -- so we work with them, not against them. We need bankers and realtors that understand it."

To further spread the word, Chapin has teamed with New Towns' own Jason Miller to author the soon to be published Taunton Press book: "Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World."

"I'm taking a look at the social dimension of design. I'm recognizing how the design, the shaping of the personal/public continuum, affects how neighbors relate with one another," Chapin explained. "Typically, architects look from the property line inward. Planners look at town planning and they often miss the scale that is comprised of nearby neighbors."

Chapin is focusing on the shared realm between the sidewalk and the front door, creating at least a half dozen layers within 15 feet of space, including:

• A 30-inch perennial border at the sidewalk.
• A knee-high fence to mark the territory of the private yard.
• A small private yard of between 6 to 12 feet.
• A porch with a low railing about 30 inches high -- a good height to sit on while talking to a neighbor. • "Not so high that it's a boundary, but a demarcation between the private realm of the porch and the public realm of the street," he noted.
• A flower box on the railing, to make a further demarcation between realms and to provide the homeowner some space for personal expression.
• The porch itself.
• The door, which could be Dutch cut, to encourage casual conversation through the opened top half opening while protecting the privacy of the home via the closed bottom door.

"I see a lot of mediocrity. I see a lot of people who could be better served by communities that have vitality to them," Chapin said of modern neighborhoods. "What I'm trying to do is create places that have a quality of life, that foster a strong sense of community."