LOCAL COLOR/When every foot counts
Imagine designing a house to fit on a 25-foot-wide lot. That is what Portland, Ore., asked architects to do last year for its Living Smart Project, an effort to create a catalog of attractive houses that residents and designers could draw inspiration from when building homes on the city’s popular, but narrow, “in fill” lots.
The concept of building on 25-foot-by-100-foot tracts started becoming prevalent about six years ago, according to Susan Feldman, a Bureau of Development Services division manager and competition administrator. Portland takes pride in minimizing its urban sprawl, but a lack of space for new homes had become a problem. Developers began looking to smaller lots in established neighborhoods, which often meant demolishing existing homes for their land and replacing them with cookie-cutter houses lacking curb appeal.
“The neighborhoods just began rebelling,” Feldman says. In 2003, the City Council considered residents’ concerns about aesthetics and decreasing property values but ultimately decided to support narrow-home construction. To mollify protesters, City Commissioner Randy Leonard suggested a contest that would produce creative designs that meet building regulations. At that time, the council prohibited building on in-fill lots that had not been empty for at least five years and added provisions that limited the height of the homes, for instance.
“The houses don’t have to be unacceptable to the neighborhoods they are in,” Feldman says. “With the contest, we wanted to gather new ideas that people could use to do something different.” A project committee asked for plans that addressed problems specific to narrow-lot homes. While the lots are 25 feet wide, after the city’s side-yard setback requirements, the homes themselves are left with about 15 feet. Because of space limitations, the garage door typically takes up most of the front exterior, and the entry doors are hard to find.
By the August 31 deadline, 426 designers submitted plans. A seven-member jury of local architects, developers and designers then pored over the entries before proclaiming the winners, which were divided into two categories. Forty-nine plans received Design Excellence Awards, which applauded entries that did not meet all of Portland’s building requirements but showcased inventive concepts. The 23 Portland Catalogue winners, on the other hand, presented plans that met most requirements and fit well with the city’s architectural character. To get Portlanders excited, the committee also posted the submissions on the Web and encouraged online voting for a People’s Choice Award.
Following local art galleries’ tradition of hosting openings on the first Thursday of each month, the city presented the selected designs at the AIA Portland Gallery on December 2. The event included a question-and-answer session with city representatives, along with food and wine. The exhibit remained at the gallery through January.
The winning submissions were compiled into two catalogs, “Living Smart: Big Ideas for Small Lots” and “Portland Catalogue of Narrow House Designs,” which were sent to real estate agents, architecture schools and anyone requesting them for no charge. The committee also includes comments on each house. “None of the designs are perfect themselves, but we are hoping that people will be able to take something from all of them and be inspired,” Feldman says.
Currently, anyone wanting to use the plans has to purchase them from the architects. But the city is negotiating with two of the People’s Choice winners to buy their permit-ready designs and make them available for public use. “People keep calling and asking about the plans,” Feldman says.