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Randy Leonard

The "Living Smart" design competition grew out of more than a little hostility from some Portland neighborhoods that were experiencing a surge in 15 foot wide houses being constructed on 25 foot wide lots in predominantly working class neighborhoods in east Portland.

I have asked the Bureau of Development Services to accelerate the number of pre-approved, permit ready 15 foot wide house plans. The goal is to have a variety of designs that can match any taste or income level.

The design competition generated entries from literally around the world. My goal is to develop a design book that includes many of those designs that have all been pre-approved by BDS staff so that the only review necessary to receive a building permit would be a site review.

Brian Libby

If it's not too flippant, I'd like to say, "Right on, Commish!" Whatever criticisms I or other design enthusiasts have of individual aspects of Living Smart, I wholeheartedly applaud the city's embracing of design as a way to address social goals, and through a design competition at that.

Rick Potestio

First and Foremost, I wish to
thank Randy Leonard for his sponsorship of the competition, his participation in this forum, and his dedication to Portland.

That said, I would like to question the logic behind the fifteen foot wide house on a twenty-five foot lot. I did an extensive study of row housing which I presented to the city of Portland in 1989. At that time, I looked a precedents from around the country. What became evident is a common trait for this typology: The houses averaged about 20 feet wide, and were almost always two family structures. The range was between
sixteen and twenty-five feet in width, and three to five floors in height. Often the second family was a servant family, but as the class structure and economy changed, the number of families in a structure usually increased.

My point in bringing up this matter is that I believe the fifteen foot wide house is too narrow and limiting to provide for a diverse community that has families with children as its base.

I believe we should be developing a typology that has a minimum of three bedrooms in the principle unit and an accessory unit with a minimum of one bedroom, thereby providing housing for extended families, or families and tenants.

I believe this typology will attract urban oriented families that will attend our schools, use our parks and support our elderly or young populations.

Based on my study, I think this row house type must be a minimum of twenty feet wide and three stories high.

I would be happy to post my study.



We purchased our property 8 1/2 years ago and moved in 3 1/2 years ago. It was built on a 25x50 piece of property in a historic neighborhood which had design guidelines and a design review by the City of Portland. When the design competition came along I saw that it embodied many of the ideas and reasons we moved to Portland from Boston and built in the area we did. Knowing that we would have to build something contextual, rather than buying property elsewhere, it was more important to be in this location. I felt as Jacobs says when designing this because of the guidelines. However, here we can both walk to work everyday and stroll our 2 1/2 year old daughter on the way.
The house has been great to live in and works well for the three of us. The planning and spacial ideas are quite modern in terms of openness and multifunctional spaces. But it has taken on a label because of its sloped roof, which is about style. This is livable because of its planning and location, not because it has a flat roof or sloped. The flat roofed house in a sub-urban development is not livable.


I'd be interested in seeing a picture of your house Higgins. I don't much like the looks of those two houses on the livingsmartpdx website. The Metropolis article had a really interesting picture of the red house that Jacobs mentioned there. It has a flat roof, but I guess I prefer it to those steep pitched roofs on livingsmartpdx.



Just a little clarification Seaside was actually the brainchild of a private developer and DPZ- Disney was not involved. It is actually a pretty interesting experiment in easy to understand but pleasingly complex planning. The Disneyland vllage you are talking about is Celebration (I believe).

Brian Libby

My mistake.


Within the yearning for a past golden roofed age –presumed to be found in some form of the craftsman vernacular- there is crisis of confidence in the ability of architects, designers or builders to identify, and to work to provide a range of useful environmental qualities now – with the benefit of a broader knowledge base enlivened by a sense of environmental responsibilities, contemporary/engineered materials etc.

(Leaving aside for the moment the assumed compatibility of the bungalow, from its Indian subcontinent origin, introduced as a kind of reversed colonialism into this (and many other) regional climates and latitudes… or that these are the only available model to provide an appropriate or open ‘fit’ with how “families” are constituted and live their lives now…)

But then it is so much easier to decorate –even the biggest boxes- than going to the effort of thinking something more complex through….

An underlying local difficulty stems from the imperfect political nature of the selected designs.. and a conflicted history with design competitions. In the “open public process” some rules of the Narrow Lot competition were changed mid-stream; originally both first and second phases were to be anonymous submissions, and the second phase competitors were to be passed forward from the first phase selections.

As it occurred anonymity was lost with the publicly named notification of the first phase selections.

The second phase was then “re-opened” to all first phase submissions.

The reason offered later was that there were questions about presumed construction costs – not an unreasonable concern. However there was then no request for a statement of costs, nor a method of verification proposed for determining those costs – either thru estimate and/or quantity survey (as is fairly typical in other international two-stage competition processes) or by demonstration through presentation of previous building construction costs similar in scope and nature to the proposal.

Again a win for the “same old begetting more of the same” with the not so hidden presumption that professional design would -by default- be more expensive (…of course what is it being compared to; the usual sows ears? …and granted that not all irritants result in pearls of course!) Then there is ample evidence of the lack of responsibility to budget concerns in many of the explorations… Design, it seems, is not considered to be a skill distinct from fashion/styling in the “commonsense”.

Many of the planning restrictions of the competition also did not help: the scope of the design exploration was limited. No allowance for multiple lot assemblages, row houses, flag lots, zero lot lines… along with the pretend neutrality of the requirement of a flat site with no vegetation being the Portland norm! … an a-contextual situation combined with a lack of other regional grounding (no solar, wind orientation etc…)

How difficult would it have been to set out several types of specific infill sites – corner, in mid block etc. with particular orientations and adjacent building locations & heights rather than the one type fits anywhere scenario? … this was highlighted by the fact that the required presentation board layout wasn't even pre-checked by the organizers to see if it could hold the lot sizes at the scales requested … the implication here was the building plan would of course have no relationship worth describing - even to the abstract isolated parcel it was sitting on! – or regardless of anyone to the sides or rear… how neighborly is that!

While there is a public interest in providing for the possibility of existing narrow lot development for houses - the intent of the zoning code amendments have some utility if they are openly applied to narrow lot house designs as a class. However, to limit these amendments to the only two (or three, or four) “permit –ready” designs raises problematic issues.

There is the possibility that by limiting, and overtly directing, potential developers to only two designs – that a “monotony of two” will result. In terms of neighborhood fit and site compatibility the “permit-ready” designs would seem by default to preclude modifications to adapt to particular site constraints and local characteristics – including views and privacy relative to adjacent properties, as well as sustainability issues such as solar orientation and existing tree locations.

Regardless of the process; this approach has the City essentially marketing a “turn-key” dwelling design - providing certainty for speculative builders, property developers and lenders – while preempting the interests of other community stakeholders including current neighbors, prospective owners, architects/designers, and design-builders/contractors amongst others.

Greg Moore

I personally own and live in a 15' wide home on a 25'x100' lot in the Woodstock neighborhood. I've been here now for 5 years and take great pride in my home. There are 5 others on my block.

The comment that these houses are "Too Narrow" is simply misguided and based on a concept of traditional living standards.

The narrowness puts into perspective that Americans love their space and tend to fill it with things. Things they don't need.

Living in a narrow house more or less forces you to become more cognizant of your possessions. It's taught my fiance and I to question every purchase with considerable forethought.

This is GOOD. Smaller house = Less consumption.

I will admit that many skinny house owners purchased their dwellings and then let them fall into disrepair (there are plenty of examples in my neighborhood) or put them up as rentals.

Our home was perhaps one of the worst examples of craftsmanship I've ever seen. We purchased it at a bargain price and have been fixing the details that contractor (a fly-by night developer) missed entirely. It's not as bad as one might think, though. Even though we bought a "new" skinny house, it's a canvas of opportunity for molding it how we want it. The smaller footprint makes us study options more thoroughly than we might otherwise.

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