How To Make a Pile of Dough with
the Traditional City 9: Townhouses With Parking
July 1, 2012
We've been working on a series of ideas for creating Traditional
City-type neighborhoods that will nevertheless be compatible with
Suburban Hell as it exists in the United States. In practice, this
means that each home requires at least one space of off-street
parking, and two spaces wouldn't be bad. One of our first forays
into the subject was the New New Suburbanist pattern, which combined
40x50 (2000 square foot) single-family house plots with 16-foot
Really Narrow Streets, producing population densities roughly 3x
higher than common Suburban Hell patterns today, while also
providing both a nicer human-centric living environment and
off-street parking for two cars.
Make a Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 5: The New New
14, 2010: The Traditional City: Bringing It All Together
In fact this is already a common format in Japan and elsewhere, and
produces very fine results.
That was fun, so now we want to up the stakes a bit and double
density once again, reducing the house plot size to around 1000
square feet, or 20-25 feet wide by 40-50 feet long. We will retain
at least one and perhaps two off-street parking spots per site. Once
again, we will use the Really Narrow pedestrian street of about 16
The high population density itself does a lot to solve the problem
of automobiles, because, at that level, a lot of things are now in
walking distance. Although a family will still want a car to
interact with the rest of Suburban Hell America, nevertheless,
within their neighborhood, it should be possible to walk to the
school, bank, grocery, hardware store, restaurant, bar, dentist,
friend's house, and so forth, which cuts down the amount of trips
necessary by car (and consequently automobile traffic within the
neighborhood) considerably. As we noted earlier, when there are
30,000+ people within an easy walk, a business also doesn't need to
have twenty or a hundred parking spaces to be viable.
With a plot width of only 20-25 feet wide, the buildings become
quite close together or even fully attached, a format commonly known
as a "townhouse." It's called a townhouse because it's found in a
town, as opposed to a farmhouse which is found ... on a farm. My
point is, this is a very common format throughout the world, for
people who live in towns, i.e. urban environments, as opposed to
people who live on a farm. Unfortunately, Suburban Hell is based on
the farmhouse format, which, not surprisingly, does not work at all
well when you want to make a town out of it.
7, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to Suburban Hell
26, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the
Suburbs Came to Be
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village
So, when I talk about a 20-25 foot wide plot, you have to get over
the "that's insaaaaaaane!"
reaction you might have, because it's not insane at all. It's
normal. It's a townhouse.
For living in a town. What's "insaaaaaaaane!"
is trying to live in a farmhouse -- the typical suburban house
surrounded by a lawn (the analogue to the farm's fields) on all four
sides -- in an urban environment, and expecting that there won't be
some unpleasant consequences involved, which are the hellish bits of
20, 2011: Let's Take a Trip to Julianne Moore's House
In a town -- especially a walking-based town -- you don't waste
space. 1000sf of land area is plenty. Let's say that's 300 sf of
garden/backyard/courtyard, and 700sf of building footprint. If you
build five stories high, which is common, just like Julianne Moore's
place, you get 3500sf of interior space, which is a lot actually.
The basic problem we face today is somehow integrating that
off-street parking into our townhouse design. Of course, before
cars, this wasn't an issue. You just made your house and it was
fine. No problem.
It still wouldn't be a problem today, if you lived in a city -- like
most cities in the world, but alas unlike nearly all cities in the
United States -- where there was an adequate train and bus system,
so you could live quite comfortably without a car. Many hundreds of
millions of people already live like this, so it is no utopian
fantasy, but normal life ... outside of the United States.
27, 2009: What a Real Train System Looks Like
So, I cooked up a number of formats in which we could integrate our
townhouses with offstreet parking.
Solution Number One: Make Do As
Best You Can
The basic pattern we want is townhouses on 25x40-ish or 20x50-ish
plots, with Really Narrow pedestrian streets like we saw in our New
New Suburbanism example, which in practice are about 16-20 feet wide
with no sidewalks or strips of "green space" buffers. This can
actually be used quite nicely by both pedestrians and automobiles,
with no particular ill effects.
Just like this. This is a residential townhouse area in Tokyo. The
street width here is more like 12 feet. You might think this is
somewhere in the country, because there is no automobile traffic,
but actually this is the Yoyogi district just west of Shibuya, quite
near the center of Tokyo. You can walk from here to Shinjuku
Station, the busiest train station in the world, and, on weekends, I
often did. There are no restrictions on driving an automobile on
this street, and many people living here own cars, but nobody drives
here unless they really have to (i.e. they live there) because it is
so narrow. You can see that it is also a pleasant place to walk or
perhaps ride a bike.
Here is another photo from central Tokyo. This is the Yushima
district near Ueno. As you can see, this is quite a dense area, part
of the central city and not a suburb at all. But, look at the
streets. They are Really Narrow Streets of about 16-20 feet wide, no
sidewalks, and people are walking right down the middle of the
street. There's hardly any traffic at all. Once again, although cars
are not banned from these streets, they just don't go there unless
they really have to.
Here are a few historic examples of townhouses:
This is from a French village. It's pretty easy when you don't have
to deal with parking. Just like this. Note the street width here.
Also, the planters add a nice bit of greenery without "green space."
This is one of our favorite images around here. How can you not love
French village, showing small townhouses.
Here are some townhouses from Kyoto, Japan. Although the
architectural tradition is very different, the basic format is the
same. About 20 foot wide plots, up against a Really Narrow
pedestrian street of perhaps 12-20 feet wide, no setbacks,
sidewalks, "green space" etc. etc.
Townhouses on a narrow Kyoto street.
The basic problem with townhouses and parking is that you can tend
to end up with the "wall of garage doors" effect. This is
particularly true if you have two cars per household, and people
don't want to use stack parking (cars parked end-to-end), but rather
want two cars parked side-by-side either indoors (in a garage) or
outdoors (in front of the house). One solution is just to have a
variety of solutions. Some houses have double-width garage doors,
some have cars parked outside, some have single-width garage doors
with stack parking, some just have parking for only one car, some
have side parking. If you have a lot of variety, that helps a lot.
These townhouses actually look pretty good. This is from the San
Francisco area, California. Tolerably good front facade treatment,
but definitely a "wall of garage doors" issue at street level. I
like that they really embrace the "townhouse" format here, without
too many "we would really rather have a suburban farmhouse format
but there's not enough space" kinds of visual elements.
Here are some newish townhouses in
the Vancouver, Canada area. Again, rather nice front facade
treatment, with the "wall of garage doors" at street level. This
design has a lot of setback in front, and that giant stairway,
neither of which is appropriate for use with a Really Narrow
pedestrian street. However, the overall effect is not bad. The
Canadians are definitely a few steps ahead of the Americans in
It helps if ... you just try to make the whole thing a little more
pleasant. For example, these 19th-century townhouses in San
Francisco are quite beautiful, integrating the ground-floor garage
door (single width, stack parking for two cars) into a lovely total
facade. It doesn't really cost any more to make it nice, but it does
take some effort and ambition and vision and imagination.
With a little more attention, you could maybe even manage to get a
double-width garage door in there. Again, the large setback and very
large stair wouldn't work when fronting a 16-foot-wide Really Narrow
Street, but the point is, if you make a bit on an effort, you can
probably figure out a way to integrate that big garage door into a
pleasing overall front facade.
These houses are really beautiful. Why not make it beautiful? You
just have to try. It's just a bit of paint and decoration. And, only
one side -- the street-facing side. You can make it ugly or
beautiful. So make it beautiful.
Solution Two: Front and Back
Even so, these are kludges. Parking is just plain ugly. Some
designers have come up with the idea of separating the parking by
"putting it in the back." This creates a lot of issues. Now you need
not just one but two streets per house, one in front and one in
back. It doesn't work at all when the streets are very wide, 19th
Century Hypertropic type streets. This has led some designers to
make the "front" street very narrow, actually more like a pedestrian
walkway. This is not a bad idea, but what happens is that the "back"
street, where the cars go, begins to be perceived as the "front"
street because it is larger, and in fact probably used more because,
actually, we drive a lot. The result in many cases is that the
"back" street (for automobiles), which is treated as a utility
alley, can tend to be ugly, while the "front" street (pedestrian)
gets some confused treatment (Suburban Hell elements such as front
yards/setbacks). I would just turn it around, and say that the
"back" (automobile) street is really the front street, and should be
treated as such, so you end up with something like our Solution #1
examples once again, integrating parking into the front facade of
the house in some pleasant fashion, and a backyard in back. The
"front" (pedestrian) street becomes the back street, and the "front
yard/setback" becomes the (much more usable) back yard, and in the
end it is pretty much the same except that you have a pedestrian
walkway in the back separating people's backyards.
Courtesy of Charles Gardner of Oldurbanist come more
examples from California. Here's the "back" street.
Here's what the "front" looks like:
This is quite good. We have the
basic format I'm talking about here: townhouses on a Really
Narrow pedestrian street of about 16-20 feet wide. No sidewalks.
No onstreet parking. The street is a mixed-use pedestrian and
automobile street. You would feel comfortable walking down the
middle of the street. Excellent use of trees, but no "green
space" in the form of strips of mown grass and that sort of
thing. The house facades are rather dull, but that is because
this is supposed to be the "back." If they made a little more
effort, making this the "front" with an entrance, the facades
could be improved a bit and the overall result would be rather
This is quite good, actually -- one
of the few examples from the U.S. which doesn't make me laugh
out loud immediately. Relieved of the difficulty of integrating
parking into the front facade, designers managed to make a
rather attractive and pleasing building. It is still in
something of a "suburban farmhouse" format, with more space
between houses than is typical of townhouses, and a substantial
front setback. If you made the space between houses just four or
five feet wider, you could use side parking, and then you would
be at the New New Suburbanist pattern and you wouldn't need the
back street and the wall of garage doors at all. Despite the
setback, we don't have a typical "front yard" of thirty feet of
mown grass here. Some setback is tolerable and even expected,
because the street it is facing would be not a pedestrian-only
street but probably a mixed-use street with some automobile
Make a Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 5: The New New
Unfortunately, despite these promising elements, the "front"
street is exactly as I feared, a full-size 60-80 foot wide 19th
Century Hypertrophic street with a segregated automobile
roadway, onstreet parking, "green space" buffer strip,
sidewalks, and all the rest. Fail!
In this nearby neighborhood, we have an even more compact,
"townhouse-like" format, and the front setback has shrunk still
further. Good. However, we still have that giant Suburban
Hell-style 19th Century Hypertrophic street. This is really
comical because the "rear" street, which is dedicated for automobile access to
the house (garage)
, is a fine example of a Really
Narrow pedestrian street, while this "front" street, which provides pedestrian access to the
, and no offstreet parking, is designed with a
giant dedicated automobile roadway! How stupid is that? Not only
that, but this huge street chews up a huge amount of land,
especially since we already have another street in back. With
all the excess land wasted here, you could have built a whole
additional row of houses, real Places for People.
Here's another "rear" street, in a newish development in Richmond,
California. Once again, the basic pattern here is quite promising: a
Really Narrow pedestrian street of about sixteen feet wide (twenty
with the concrete drainage areas), no sidewalks, "green space,"
onstreet parking (the red strips say "no parking"), etc. etc. So you
see, the Really Narrow Street and townhouse combination can be used
quite easily, even in the Suburban Hell environment of California.
Of course we have a "wall of garage doors" issue here. If you made
this "rear" the front, and added an entrance and a little more
attention to beautifying the facade, the overall result would be
quite nice and you wouldn't need another "front" street.
Below is an example where we have a "rear" street which is a Really
Narrow pedestrian street of about 16 feet wide, which serves
(ironically) as access for the garages in the "back," and in the
"front" we have a little pedestrian walkway. This is good, because
we got rid of the ridiculous 19th Century Hypertrophic Suburban Hell
street that we saw in previous examples.
However, the "back alley" is much larger than the "front" street
(pedestrian walkway) and is probably perceived as the "front." The
pedestrian walkway is not a bad idea, but we see some confused
"suburban front yard" type setback here, which basically wastes this
area on a low value "green space" buffer when you could have a nice,
useful backyard. Also, the house designs are close together, but not
really in a "townhouse" format like our San Francisco Victorian
example, more like a "we wish we could do a suburban farmhouse
format but our plot size is really small" effect. There is some
confused area between the houses, sort of a "green space" buffer
that is not really a yard, garden, or other usable human space. I
would just make the houses closer together, as in the San Francisco
Victorian example, with a few feet of airspace between them. When
space is at a premium in a design like this, you want to make the
most of it!
Another alternative would be to make a sort of three-sided courtyard
on the side, sort of like this:
Here's a three-sided courtyard from an old house in Kyoto, Japan --
a dense urban area of townhouses on small plots. You can see that
the courtyard is bordered by the house on three sides, and one side
is the property border, where there is a wall and the side of the
adjoining house. This space is quite compact -- about 10x10 feet
perhaps -- but it is a beautiful, usable space for people, and
allows a lot of light and air into the center of the house. This is
so much better than just having some wasted "green space" buffer
Here's the floorplan of the house in Kyoto. The total square footage
is 210 square meters, about 2260sf. This is a big house, with three
toilets and two baths.
here for more information about this Kyoto house, including more
pictures of what a really great townhouse should look like.
(This stuff in Richmond is such an abortion by comparison.)
I would make the "back alley automobile access road" into the "front
street," treating the front facade of the house in a beautiful and
dignified manner rather than as a utility automobile storage area,
and make the other side of the house into a functional backyard,
with a small pedestrian walkway if you want one. You would end up
with essentially Solution #1, but with a little pedestrian walkway
in the back.
What if you insisted that the pedestrian street is the "front" and
the automobile street is the "back"? This is fine too, but a lot
depends on treating the "front" (pedestrian) street properly -- in a
Traditional City manner. I would suggest very little front setback
or yard of any kind, which is actually the norm for these situations
throughout the world, in both Europe and Asia. Like this:
Note the street width. This is a pedestrian-only environment, so
you don't need a setback to create a buffer between the house
entrance and automobile traffic. Definitely no "wall of garage
doors" issues here. Look how the houses open right onto the street
with no need for a setback or other buffer. This would be the
A similar format in Japan.
No setbacks, no front yards.
For the "back" (automobile) street, I still think you should do your
best to avoid the "wall of garage doors" effect, but maybe you can
just do that two-car garage and be done with it.
The problem we have now is: no backyard. We have a garage in the
back and nothing in the front. So, here I would put a
deck/patio/garden on top of the garage in the back. Now we have a
beautiful pedestrian "front" street, a two-car garage in back, and
also a very pleasant deck/patio/garden area built on top of the
garage. This is the basic format:
We still have an issue with having two streets per house, which
chews up valuable land in the form of roadways. However, this would
still be a workable design in my opinion, and much better than so
many other options. Our density is already pretty high due to the
1000sf plots, so maybe we can slack off a bit when it comes to
roadways. We now get to design the beautiful front facade of the
house any way we like, without having to try to integrate a garage
door or some other form of parking. And, we get a real
pedestrian-only street. So, there's a lot to be gained here too.
Solution Three: Shared Parking
Once we've come this far, it is not much of a stretch to deck over
the entire "rear automobile roadway", and in effect make the whole
thing into a shared parking structure. It looks like this:
I already mentioned this sort of thing before, but it is worth
looking into with a little more detail.
2012: How to Make a Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 8:
In some ways this is similar, but I think it would be perceived very
differently. Rather than having "two streets," and a "wall of garage
doors," instead we have a large shared parking garage. We don't have
any confusion about which is the "front" and which is the "back."
The shared parking garage could have just one entrance and exit, and
there are a lot of options on how that could be organized. Plus, we
get some extra backyard/garden/patio space -- great! Our land use is
now "100% Places for People" because although we have a large
garage, we're also using the entire space as a wonderful
garden/patio area by building over the garage. You could even make
the garden/patio area into a shared area, like a sort of public
park, although I think that people would prefer to have their own
private space. You can also have a public park somewhere in the
general vicinity. It's not one-or-the-other. Have both!
This is a pretty good solution, in my opinion.
Solution Four: the Teeny New New
This is a rather different approach. We are still
using a plot size of about 1000sf, but instead of a traditional
attached townhouse, we are basically using a downsized version of
our New New Suburbanism pattern, i.e. single family detached
residential with outside parking, fitting it into a 1000sf plot
instead of the 2000sf plots we used for that example.
Make a Pile of Dough With the Traditional City 5: The New New
I've mentioned it before, but it is even more clear to me now the
extent to which Americans really own waaaay too much house. They
kill themselves for their stupid shelter. What if shelter were
something cheap and easy, and you didn't have to become an
indentured servant for thirty years to own some?
20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It's All In Your Head
The Problem of Scarcity
Our housing is killing us. It's been this way for a long time. We
see today how so many families have destroyed themselves financially
by trying to own more house than they could afford. What we don't
often realize is that this has
been going on for the last two hundred years. Henry David
Thoreau noted that the very same thing was happening to families
back in the 1840s.
When I consider my neighbors, the
farmers of Concord, who are at least as well off as the other
classes, I find that for the most part they have been toiling
twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the real
owners of their farms, which commonly they have inherited with
encumbrances, or else bought with hired money—and we may regard
one third of that toil as the cost of their houses—but commonly
they have not paid for them yet. It is true, the encumbrances
sometimes outweigh the value of the farm, so that the farm itself
becomes one great encumbrance, and still a man is found to inherit
it, being well acquainted with it, as he says. On applying to the
assessors, I am surprised to learn that they cannot at once name a
dozen in the town who own their farms free and clear. If you would
know the history of these homesteads, inquire at the bank where
they are mortgaged. The man who has actually paid for his farm
with labor on it is so rare that every neighbor can point to him.
I doubt if there are three such men in Concord. What has been said
of the merchants, that a very large majority, even ninety-seven in
a hundred, are sure to fail, is equally true of the farmers. With
regard to the merchants, however, one of them says pertinently
that a great part of their failures are not genuine pecuniary
failures, but merely failures to fulfil their engagements, because
it is inconvenient; that is, it is the moral character that breaks
down. But this puts an infinitely worse face on the matter, and
suggests, beside, that probably not even the other three succeed
in saving their souls, but are perchance bankrupt in a worse sense
than they who fail honestly. Bankruptcy and repudiation are the
springboards from which much of our civilization vaults and turns
its somersets, but the savage stands on the unelastic plank of
famine. Yet the Middlesex Cattle Show goes off here with
éclat annually, as if all the joints of the agricultural
machine were suent.
The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by
a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his
shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle. With consummate
skill he has set his trap with a hair spring to catch comfort and
independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into
it. This is the reason he is poor; and for a similar reason we are
all poor in respect to a thousand savage comforts, though
surrounded by luxuries.
Read the rest of Thoreau's Walden.
Even people who are quite well off - Nicholas Cage and Annie
Liebowitz being two recent cautionary examples -- seem driven by
this peculiar American urge to blow yourself up with too much house.
And the corporate 1%-ers -- the Wall Street bankers, lawyers and so
forth making perhaps $250,000-$600,000 per year -- are so often up
to their eyeballs in debt and financial commitments that it has
become a cliché. I've seen even genuinely wealthy people, who
end up with perhaps $60 million in cash from the sale of a company,
blow every penny of it on personal residences.
As a general rule of thumb, a house that costs three times a year's
income is about the most you can realistically afford -- with a
thirty-year mortgage! But that doesn't mean you should buy a house
that costs that much. That is the heaviest
financial burden you can bear while being reasonably
capable of avoiding bankruptcy. But why should we all try to bear the heaviest financial burden that we
can bear? That seems like a recipe for unhappiness. (If you
want to make money on your house, go with an investment property,
i.e., one with a tenant.) Instead, I propose that we have a very
light and easy financial burden, such as one times a year's income.
Since the median household income these days is about $50,000, for
many people that means a $50,000 house.
I think Henry David Thoreau would know exactly what I'm talking
about. He built himself a cabin that was 10x15 feet, for a total
cost of $28.125 in materials, which even then was only 1.36 ounces
Even one times a year's income is no joke. That is still a lot of
money. The Native Americans could build themselves a nice long-term
shelter with about two weeks of work. Not fifty-two weeks. Just two
weeks. So, maybe even one times a year's income is ... kinda pushing
it. But, let's not be too silly here.
You can't buy a lot of house for $50,000. Certainly not the American
Dream House. Certainly nothing like those San Francisco Victorians,
which would cost something like $500,000+ to build new, for
construction costs alone. If we're going from 3x income (and 5x
income during the bubble) to 1x income, then you should expect the
square footage to also decline by two-thirds or more. This is not
some magic trick where everyone gets their American Dream House but
doesn't have to pay for it. But, even within that downscaled
context, you can buy a perfectly pleasant, dignified and functional
place to live, and it would fit very easily on a 20x50 (1000sf)
piece of land. Because that's so much smaller than the typical
suburban 1/8th acre (5400sf), our land costs would also be a lot
less, even in relatively expensive cities.
Let's say you could have 350 square feet. That might not seem like
much -- it isn't -- but it is enough, certainly for one or two, and
even for a family of four. (You could do something like a sleeping
loft to help stretch this a bit.)
Using regular wood-frame construction, you can do a lot with 350
square feet. Here's a family of four that lives in a 168sf house
that the father built himself for $12,000:
here for video on family of four living in 168 square feet.
That is only half the size of our 350sf proposal.
Four people in 168sf is pushing it. The family in the video is
planning a new house, to better accommodate the family. The new
house they have planned is: 16x24 feet. That's 384 square feet. Of
course, they plan to do it without borrowing money. They're saving
so much by living in their 168sf tiny house that they'll be able to
build their new house with cash.
That's another nice thing about a small house: you can probably
built it yourself. If you have more time than money, you can
probably build your "$50,000 house" for under $25,000 in materials.
This is what people do in Mexico, which is one reason the
homeownership rate there is 80% and only 13% of homeowners have a
mortgage. If Mexicans (per capita GDP $10,153) can do that, don't
you think that Americans (per capita GDP $48,386) should be able to
do the same?
very nice 280sf cottage that was built by the owner for $28,000.
Here are a bunch
more plans for small houses in the 68-400 square foot range.
Let's see what they look like:
These houses are all presented in something like a country
environment, but they could also fit in nicely in a 20x50 plot in an
urban area. The largest house, the "Whidbey," is 15.5 feet wide.
What I really like about these designs is that they are beautiful,
dignified and well-built. We can live in a little house, but we
don't have to be shabby about it. Indeed, when you are only building
400 square feet, you can really go all-out on design and quality
because you aren't killing yourself on quantity.
If 350 square feet really isn't enough, you can add a second story.
Now you're up to 700sf with the same building footprint.
However, the problem with all of these designs is: where do you put
the car? Obviously, there is no garage, so the natural thing to do
would be to leave about twenty feet in front of the house, which
would serve as parking for two cars side-by-side.
This is a tolerable solution, so maybe you can leave it at that.
However, the overall effect would be to have a street that is,
instead of a "wall of garage doors," is rather a "wall of parked
cars." That's maybe not the worst thing in the world, and with a
little care -- like some trees and shrubs -- you could probably make
a nice environment out of it. And, you would own your house for as
little as $25,000, if you built it yourself. Not a bad solution at
However, another possibility would be to use side parking, just as
we used in our "New New Suburbanist" example. You could just about
barely fit it in with a plot size of 25x40 (1000 sf), which would
allow you to use a design like the "Whidbey" (fifteen feet wide)
with ten feet between houses. The houses would move up against the
street, with just a little setback of a few feet, and the cars would
go on the side. The "Whidbey" is about 22 feet deep, so if you had
three feet in front, that would leave 15 feet in back for a nice
little backyard. The other nice thing about side parking is that it
also creates a space between houses, which allows effective side
Solution Five: The New Shotgun House
In decades past, lower-income people often lived in a "shotgun
house," which is a very long and narrow house. This was because they
had very long and narrow land plots, for the simple reason that it
is not too easy to make the land plots shorter (that would involve
making the streets closer together), but it is quite easy to make
them narrower. If you had some land that was, say, 12 feet by 100
feet (because 200 feet between streets is a common 19th Century
Hypertrophic layout, for example in Manhattan), then you made a very
long and narrow house.
Shotgun House, New Orleans.
Note the side parking on the right.
As you can see, they can be quite charming and nice. But narrow.
Shotgun House, New Orleans (with side parking).
Shotgun houses were zoned out of existence in a lot of towns, which
is one reason why we seem to have an "affordable housing" problem
all the time. Traditional affordable housing designs became illegal.
However, we are still building a lot of shotgun houses. We call them
"manufactured houses." "Manufactured houses" take two forms: one is
the basic camping trailer, which is repurposed for full-time use. A
luxury brand in this sector is Airstream, with the iconic rounded
silver sheet metal exterior.
As we know, a lot of people live in really shabby, cheap travel
trailers full-time. They are ugly as anything, but ... they are
cheap. You can buy a used one for less than $10,000. Then, you can
live in it, with all the basic features of modern living, like flush
toilets and a shower and electricity and a gas range and a
refrigerator and hot and cold running water and television,
especially if you are in a warm climate. And, it is about eight feet
wide and maybe 25 feet long. Which is only 200 square feet.
I decided to focus on one of Airstream's new luxury models, because
it looks really good (on the interior). Of course, the exterior
still looks like a stainless-steel suppository, because this is
still intended for travel and highway towing, not long-term
residency. We're just looking at the interior here. The point is,
you can take a space of these dimensions and you don't have to be
shabby about it. With a little care, this basic format can be really
So you see, the eight-foot-wide
house is not silly at all. About 32 million Americans are
already living in them. Instead of a trailer, you could just
build a normal structure of the same dimensions, and live there
in a respectable way, without thirty years of debt slavery. On a
20x50 plot, you would have enough room on the side to park two
cars end-to-end, and also have a nice backyard of about twenty
The other form of "manufactured housing" today is actually
something much like a normal house, for long-term residence,
although they too tend to be long and skinny. One manufacturer
of these houses is Clayton Homes, which is part of Berkshire
Hathaway, Warren Buffett's company. (Clayton accounts for 47% of
total industry production.)
I was hoping that I could find a way to simply plug these
existing manufactured home models, from companies like Clayton,
right into my overall design. However, that didn't work as well
as I hoped. The basic reason is that they tend to have pretty
large footprints, of about 800 square feet. It is hard to fit an
800sf footprint into a 1000sf plot and have enough room left
over for parking and a little yard.
However, we can say this about them: they are cheap. Clayton
makes 800sf models for as little as $45,000, which is only $56 a
square foot for new construction. I've seen similar size models
from other companies for as little as $21,000, although I bet
the build quality is truly hideous.
Clayton Homes 800sf house plan. The dimensions are
approximately 15x53 feet.
"Our country's social goal should not be to put families into
the house of their dreams, but rather to put them into a house
they can afford."
--Warren Buffet, 2012
This particular plan, as you
can see, is in "shotgun" configuration (the front door is
along the narrow side), with a nice porch in front. The
price for the basic model is $45,000.
However, the footprint is quite large, about 15x53. You
could fit it in a 25x60 (1500sf) plot with side parking, or
in a 17x70 (1190sf) plot with parking for one car in front.
If density wasn't that much of a concern, you could do
something on a 25x80 foot plot (2000sf), which is still
pretty dense actually, and the result could be pretty good.
But, that isn't our design goal here.
What I'd like to see is for a manufacturer like Clayton to
provide smaller models, for example 15x25 (375sf), which is
still nearly twice the size of that Airstream, and which
would allow us to fit it in a 25x40 (1000sf) plot with side
parking and a little backyard. Plus, you'd think they could
do it for $25,000, since it's smaller. For a larger model,
could they do two stories? They could also do a narrower
version, perhaps ten feet wide and 35 feet long, which is
still two feet (25%) wider than that Airstream, and a lot
Mostly, these manufactured homes, especially the cheaper
models, look pretty awful, particularly when viewed "in the
round" in the middle of a big lawn. They're cheap and they
look cheap. However, if you used them in "shotgun"
configuration, you would only see the front facade. It
wouldn't take much to make a nice front facade, since it is
only 15 feet wide, or maybe even ten feet. Build a nice
porch out of Genuine Wood, paint it cheery colors, and the
result would be pretty respectable.
So, there you go: Get a Clayton 15x25 home for $25,000, put it on a
25x40 plot, and you are done. If you want more space, get the
"deluxe" two-story version for a big $50,000.
We are already not too far from these design formats. Here are some
photos I took of places in my own little town:
Most of my town is laid out in 19th Century Hypertrophic format,
with a street width of 60-80 feet including two dedicated automobile
lanes, on-street parking, and segregated sidewalks with a Green
Space buffer between the sidewalk and the road. Your basic Suburban
Hell pattern. However, this street, as we can see, is in the Really
Narrow Street format, of about 16 feet wide with no segregated
sidewalks. There is no paint stripe in the middle either,
delineating automobile traffic lanes. You would feel comfortable
walking right down the middle of the street. No traffic.
7, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to Suburban Hell
26, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the
Suburbs Came to Be
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown
Let's Take a Trip to an American Village
Here's another street, once again a Really Narrow Street of about
sixteen feet wide, etc. etc. The interesting thing here, I think, is
the fact that the house doesn't have much setback at all. There's
only about seven feet from the street edge to the front stair. This
is despite the fact that this town is actually rather low density
and land is not at a premium at all. But, if you make a Really
Narrow pedestrian street, people don't feel the need for thirty feet
of green buffer between them and all that roaring automobile
traffic. If you were aiming for higher density, you could make a
setback of as little as three feet and I think it would be OK.
Another Really Narrow Street from my town. I often walk here on the
way to the post office.
The density is in fact quite low here. However, you can see again
that the house doesn't have much front setback at all. This street
is not threatening.
Here's that same house. As you can see, it is not real wide. Maybe
about twenty feet across the porch. Which is a little wider than our
15 foot examples, but not that much wider. Two stories. Side
parking. Works fine. Definitely avoids the "wall of garage doors"
look. This house is probably from the late 19th century.
Here's another neighborhood in my little town. This is the
"manufactured housing" I was talking about. The houses here are
pretty old and run down. This "manufactured housing" stuff doesn't
age well. It's cheap for a reason. But, as you can see, we have
about a 15 foot house width and side parking. If you put the front
door in the front, in "shotgun configuration," with a nice porch and
front facade, I think it would look better. More like the 19th
century house we looked at just previous.
Same neighborhood of "manufactured homes." Once again, a Really
Narrow Street of about sixteen feet wide, no sidewalks etc. etc.
High density is not a goal here at all, but nevertheless we are
coming pretty close to my design goals. The overall effect isn't
bad, especially with the nice trees.
We see most of the elements I've been talking about, although at a
much lower density.
Another thing not apparent here is: if we are in a high-density
human-centric neighborhood -- the natural result of the combination
of 1000sf plots with 16-foot wide Really Narrow Streets -- and you
can walk to school, the bank, the grocery store, the post office,
the local cafe, bar and restaurant, the bus stop and maybe train
station, and maybe to work, then maybe the family can get by without
that second car. A car
costs about $600 a month, all-in. If you could get rid of that
second car, you would be saving enough money to actually pay for the
entirety of your $50,000 house.
By living in the Teeny New New Suburb, where you only need one car,
in a sense you would get your house for free!
I know what you're thinking: "I don't want to live in such a teeny
house." OK, fine. Don't. Live in a 3500sf McMansion on the beach in
Hawaii. If you can afford it. And pay that mortgage for thirty years
-- if you can. Ha ha ha. Sucker.
If you can buy the 3500sf McMansion on the beach in Hawaii, and pay
cash, and it really doesn't meaningfully change the amount of assets
you have left over, then please do so. You have my permission. I am
all for big spectacular houses, for people who can easily afford
18, 2010: How to Live the Good Life in the Traditional City
For most Americans, I think they would be better off living in
something like the examples above. Because, there are other things
to do in life than slave away for decades for your stupid shelter.
(Watch the video of the family living in the 168sf house for
examples of how greater financial freedom has changed their entire
lifestyle.) Also, if you haven't noticed recently, capitalism is
tough. There is a lot of turmoil and uncertainty. It's bad enough as
it is without making things much more difficult, with too many
financial commitments. If you own a house free and clear, even if it
is a little one, and have a 30% savings rate -- which is less than
the 50% that Chinese families save -- then that occasional round of
unemployment becomes a lot less threatening. Maybe Mom can even stay
home to raise the kids. That might be nice.
I hope a developer will actually make something like this. Really
Narrow Streets of about 16 feet wide. 1000 sf plots. Small,
affordable, respectable, dignified, beautiful houses. You can plug
it into Suburban Hell easily ... but, this is actually quite close
to a Traditional City format. The developers might find that it is
Here for the Traditional City/Heroic Materialism Archive