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Is The Small House The Next Big Thing?

by Susan Brautovich, LEED AP

While you can argue that a house doesn’t have to be small to be green, it certainly doesn’t hurt. And it may be a trend that’s poised to take off.  In terms of greener building, resource consumption and the amount of conditioned space involved in smaller houses are just the beginning. Smaller houses also touch on broader issues around sustainability and play into some emerging social trends that would all bode well for the environment. One interesting outgrowth of the move toward smaller houses is the growing popularity of cottage communities.
Reports from this month’s meeting of the National Association of Home Builders tell us that home sizes may finally be trending downward and that at least in terms of housing, a growing number of home buyers want less, not more. Less interior and exterior space to maintain, fewer formal rooms they don’t use, less space to accumulate stuff, and a lower monthly cost overall. Add that to growing desire to live within walking distance of work, play, and services and to live in a community where neighborly interaction is the norm and not the exception, and you have cottage communities.

Clusters of small(ish) individual houses on infill plots within existing neighborhoods, cottage communities embrace a of mix of modern and old-fashioned values: thriftier, less wasteful dwellings, a strong sense of community tempered by autonomy, connection to the environment, and an effort to take up less space, fewer resources, and to live more lightly on the land.

At the forefront of the movement is Cottage Communities, which has completed seven small home communities in Washington state with an eighth in progress. The company’s Greenwood Avenue Cottages near Seattle, for example, contains eight homes averaging around 880 square feet on less than one acre. The homes themselves are built to the surrounding county’s Built Green program standard and feature tight building envelopes with high-efficiency appliances and windows.

Cottage communities emphasize building onto existing infrastructure and in   proximity to existing services, amenities, and city centers. The communities themselves favor a “village” atmosphere with built-in opportunities to interact with the neighbors - small yards that front a central green or other common area, front porches that encourage neighbors to stop by (but maybe not actually come in), and parking situated away from homes and out of site.

While not all small homes are built to any kind of green standard, by definition they tend to use fewer resources and marketing verbiage for the “new” small homes never seems to leave out the green angle.  But what may be even more important about cottage communities is their encouragement and support of smaller homes built within communities where an infrastructure already exists, and where people can walk more, consume less, and maybe even live better.

3p Contributor

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