For the last several years, narrow-lot homes have filled a market need for affordable detached single-family housing (as opposed to apartments or condos) but have also incurred the wrath of neighborhood activists with bad design. Thus, last year the City of Portland held the Living Smart design competition.
Entries came from all over the world and were judged by a panel of design experts from Portland and beyond. At Commissioner Randy Leonard’s urging, the Bureau of Development Services also resolved to pre-approve a handful of plans in order to streamline the building process and make these superior designs more likely to be used by homeowners and developers.
It has now been a year since Living Smart judging began, and I wanted to find out what progress had been made to pre-approve winning plans. After talking with Anne Hill at the Development bureau, it seems the wheels are in motion but not moving exceptionally fast.
Currently the focus is getting pre-approved and permit-ready two competition entries that were chosen both by design competition judges and as People’s Choice Award winners. A fair amount of red tape has to be overcome first, including city council approval of zoning exemptions and contracts with the designers for mass production. It’s hoped that the first two plans will be ready for use by the end of this year.
One plan was designed by local architect Bryan Higgins, who works at SRG Partnership but designed the Living Smart entry on his own. Bryan’s house has the distinction of being the only one in the competition that has actually been built. “It is located in the Lair Hill neighborhood, one block south of the tram route, which is a historic district and had design guidelines and had to go through design review with the City of Portland, which results in its contextual look,” Higgins told me.
The other design, by Roxanna Vargas Greenan and Trent Greenan of Berkeley, is, like Higgins, of a traditional architectural style, although an extended sunshade in the front is a relatively uncommon move.
I sat in with the Living Smart jury and noticed a wide chasm between what the architects on the jury liked and what the lone developer on the jury preferred. The architects almost universally preferred more contemporary designs. And I don’t think this was simply for modernism’s sake. The tall, skinny geometry of these houses is such that a triangular, pitched roof, common to more traditional style, emphasizes their thinness. A flat roof, more common to the contemporary entries, often gave the houses a more pleasingly symmetrical look. It also makes for a great rooftop deck.
The first two houses chosen by the Development bureau for pre-approval are, while singled out by the design jury for their overall quality and viability as prototypes, are in a relative minority stylistically. Most of the design jury’s choices were more contemporary. While I take no issue whatsoever with the bureau’s choosing two more traditional designs as the first to be pre-approved, and there are a plethora of issues beyond the traditional-modern debate (garage, back yard, how they face the street), I hope more contemporary plans are ultimately pre-approved as well.
And regardless, narrow-lot homes are a housing type that has to be made to work. I don’t blame neighborhoods for complaining about homes that have heretofore sprouted throughout the city. They’re atrociously ugly. But if more Living Smart designs can be made available and attractively pre-approved to homeowners and developers, the narrow lot house can be a win-win option for Portland.