Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and
what you do Ross Chapin: First off, thank you for inviting me to
this interview. It’s an honor. I am an architect living and working in
Langley, a town of about 1100 people on Whidbey Island, north of
Seattle. My firm focuses on custom homes and pocket neighborhoods
around the Pacific Northwest and across North America. We design
buildings and outdoor spaces, but our attention is how they support
personal and family life, and foster a sense of community.
Novedge: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do
Ross Chapin: First off, thank you for inviting me to this interview. It’s an honor.
I am an architect living and working in Langley, a town of about 1100 people on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. My firm focuses on custom homes and pocket neighborhoods around the Pacific Northwest and across North America. We design buildings and outdoor spaces, but our attention is how they support personal and family life, and foster a sense of community.
Ross Chapin:Langley is on an outer metropolitan fringe, and as such, there has been a great deal of concern about the pressures of sprawl. In a preemptive move, our town passed an innovative housing ordinance that offered an incentive to land owners and developers to build small, infill housing rather than larger, car-dependent homes on large lots — up to double the underlying density of homes in any residential zone. Three basic conditions had to be met: houses must be no larger than 1000 SF, with room-sized porches facing a shared garden, and with parking shielded from the street. The ordinance recognized that one- and two-person households represented more than 60% of all households, yet were not served in the market. The intention was to increase local housing options and affordability for this group, and to preserve the character of existing neighborhoods.
I teamed up with a developer to build the first community under this zoning code, with eight cottages and a common house clustered around a garden. They were tucked off of a busy street, which seemed to me like a pocket safely tucking away its possessions from the world outside. I began calling it a “pocket neighborhood”, and the term stuck.
Novedge: What are Pocket Neighborhoods and why are they important?
Ross Chapin: In my definition, pocket neighborhoods are groupings of a few houses or apartments around a shared open space — such as a garden courtyard like our first community, or a series of joined backyards. Think: micro-neighborhoods, or a neighborhood within a neighborhood. Urban, suburban or rural ... they can be anywhere.
Residents around the common space take part in its care and oversight, which enhances a felt and actual sense of security and identity. These are settings where nearby neighbors can easily know one another, where empty nesters and single householders with far-flung families can find friendship or a helping hand nearby, and where children can have shirttail aunties and uncles just beyond their front gate.
Ross Chapin: Having a Scale of Sociability is the first principle. Imagine a dinner party … Conversation is spontaneous in groups of 6 or 8. But in large groups, anything resembling communication needs an organizer. The same goes for where we live: conversations among neighbors in a pocket neighborhood happen naturally in the daily flow of life, while people living in large subdivisions can feel isolated, even while surrounded by a sea of houses. So, if we were to layout a neighborhood of 40 homes, it might have 5 or 6 pocket neighborhood clusters within it.
The Shared Common Space at the heart of a pocket neighborhood is what holds it together and gives it vitality. This space may take the form of a garden courtyard, a playspace at the center of a block, a reclaimed alley, or a community room shared by urban apartment dwellers. The commons is neither private (home, yard) nor public (a busy street, park), but rather a defined space between the private and public realms.
Privacy is an essential ingredient of a positive experience of community. To achieve this, we create Layers of Personal Space. Rather than a front door opening directly to the street or the commons, we might have several layers from the door outward: a room-sized porch with a low railing, steps to a private front yard (small is fine), a low fence with a gate, a border of perennial plantings, then the sidewalk and public space. Layers do not have to take much space, but having them makes engaging with others more of a choice rather than a forced meeting.
To ensure privacy between neighbors, we make sure there are Nested Houses where the ‘open’ side of one house faces the ‘closed’ side of the next. You could say the houses are spooning! The open side has large windows facing its side yard (which extends to the face of neighboring house), while the closed side has high windows and skylights. The result is that neighbors do not peer into one another’s world.
These are just a few of the key principles we work with. Read about more on our website and in my book, Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World.
Ross Chapin: With our custom residential clients, we are much more involved. Expanding on the services and processes described here, my design approach and philosophy draws on the work of Christopher Alexander, an architect and author of A Pattern Language and The Nature of Order – both seminal books that provide a framework for how to make places that are deeply satisfying, and how they can support or hinder our relationships as human social beings. This blog space is too small to describe the way this plays into a collaborative process with clients, but the results are apparent.
Developer clients are often drawn to us after seeing our work, which for some has sparked a radical re-think of their approach to building. We’ll have a conversation about the key ideas these communities are based on, and the many ways that a neighborhood plan can be designed. Because developers are usually so market-driven, our philosophy pretty much stays “under the hood”, and we get right down to business. We gather the site information, discuss the target market and price point, study the zoning codes, talk with the local city planner, then sketch out one or more concept site plans and related houses plans. From here, developers can make a quick proforma of project costs, and the city staff can review the plan.
Novedge: What software do you use?
Ross Chapin:Most of my early concept designs are generated with hand-sketches on trace. As soon as possible, the site drawings are transposed over a digitally-generated topographic model using SketchUp. With pocket neighborhood plans, we bring in model buildings from our library, or generate new models in ArchiCAD and import them into SketchUp. For presentations, we’ll use SketchUp for fly-through movies and as a base for hand-drawn watercolor images, with Photoshop as needed. I create my slide-talk presentations using Mac’s Keynote program. Construction drawings are done in ArchiCAD and PowerCADD. And for daily time tracking and project status reporting, we use ArchiOffice.
Novedge: What is a recent project that you worked on?
Ross Chapin:Wow … What to choose? I’ll start with the Inglenook Neighborhood in suburban Indianapolis where Casey Land engaged us in designing a neighborhood on a 27-acre parcel. My ideal location would have a high WalkScore, but it's what he had. As you can see with this plan (be sure to click the boxes), we organized 148 homes in pocket neighborhoods of 8–10 houses surrounding shared greens. Cars access the homes via rear lanes, and there is a network of pedestrian walkways, a central park and a neighborhood/retail node. The first cluster of homes is being completed this season.
A very different project on the boards now is a glass hot-shop studio addition to a house in Seattle. The lot slopes steeply behind the house, which we took advantage of to create a high-ceilinged workshop with a rooftop garden and outdoor room above.
Novedge: What do you hope to achieve over the next 20-30 years?
Ross Chapin:Uh … Change the World? … Seriously, in this time of increasing climate and cultural weirdness, I want to play a part in creating resilient neighborhoods in walkable, human-scaled communities. I want to help build compelling urban examples as well as rural models. And as I am beginning to grok how beautiful and life-supporting places are made, I’d like to engage with a young generation of designers to pass on the seeds of what I’ve learned. The next 30 years and beyond belongs to them.
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