The Katrina Cottage versus the McMansion

After Hurricane Katrina, there was a need for innovative housing designs in order to quickly rebuild the city’s housing stock. One such design was the Katrina Cottage, a 308 square foot dwelling that was quite portable but was well made and fit with existing architectural themes. The Chicago Tribune asked an employee of an urban planning firm who lives in one of these homes why exactly these homes did not catch on:

Q. You’ve said these little houses have a lot of fans who are attracted to their simplicity and see them as the anti-McMansion. Why didn’t Katrina Cottages catch on?

A. Well, you know, this kind of project would be illegal in most places; building codes restrict room size, and zoning codes restrict lot size. It wouldn’t work in a suburban subdivision; it has to be a small infill development. Dropped randomly into (traditional) subdivisions, the houses look eccentric and experimental.

The reason it works in Ocean Springs is that it’s around similar houses and it’s within walking or biking distance of places to eat and drink, a grocery store, a YMCA, hair salons, barbershop and retail. I rode a bike everywhere and didn’t need a car. If you have easy, walkable access, you don’t need all kinds of stuff in your house.

You see, in a conventional suburban development, they’ve taken an entire town and compressed it into a McMansion — you have the bar somewhere, you have the basement rec room, there’s the TV room, the coffee shop in an espresso machine. There’s a room with workout equipment. In a conventional subdivision, you have to (put all those features into the house) because you don’t have access to anything you can walk to.

There are a few developments based on the idea — there’s Cottage Square, where I stayed. Ross Chapin, a developer in Langley, Wash., builds so-called “pocket neighborhoods” — he’s got people buying 400-square-foot homes for $600,000. And Lowe’s created and still sells plans and kits for (individuals) who want these houses.

Several things are interesting in this response:

1. Conflating all suburban homes with McMansions is a common mistake.

2. The idea that suburban developments don’t want anything too different in terms of design or architecture is accurate. Homes that look too different might just negatively affect property values. On top of this, the idea that many places would find these homes to be illegal seems silly but is likely true.

3. I would be very interested to know what would lead people to pay $600,000 for a 400-square foot home. Check out Ross Chapin’s designs here.

4. You can read more about Ben Bowen’s thoughts here. It sounds like his argument for these small houses includes a certain kind of neighborhood where amenities and daily needs are within an easy walk. These ideas seem quite similar to those of New Urbanism.

Small home – 89 square feet

I’ve seen this guy, Jay Shafer, in the news before with his 89-square foot home. Here is a video of his small space from Yahoo.

I have always liked small spaces like this, particularly for their coziness. Every time I go to Ikea, I’m attracted to the 280-square foot home they usually have set up.

Stories like these occasionally pop up, often with some sermonizing regarding American consumption. With the average American home around 2,400 square feet, very small houses are rare. Smaller spaces may be common in places like Manhattan (where we occasionally hear about studio apartments created out of closets) but probably don’t appeal to many.