Los Angeles, for much of its storied existence, has been the fabled land of horizontal sprawl, where houses are built to take up space rather than maximize it. A 2004 city ordinance, however, has recently shown some potential to change that, at least bit by bit. The Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance allows builders to subdivide lots normally zoned for multi-family structures into smaller single-family parcels. The resultant houses must be detached, but setback requirements between houses are minimal, effectively reducing the minimum space requirement for housing lots. Unlike condominium developments, small lot homes are not subject to Homeowners Association fees or insurance requirements, and buyers own the land that the home sits on, further reducing costs for developers and buyers.
A spate of developers and architects have been taking advantage of this in recent years, which is great news for affordable home ownership. It also has the intriguing potential to change the way LA residents think about living, which can be explained in one word: density. Many of these developments, built more densely than the land around them, serve as miniature communities in which residents living close to one another share outdoor space and pedestrian thoroughfares. LA residents tend to drive everywhere, with the aforementioned sprawl meaning that walking from one place to another is often rendered unfeasible by distance. Small lot developments that contain communal outdoor space encourage pedestrian life and the possibility of enjoying a day without driving, though the degree to which residents can conduct their lives on foot, of course, depends on what is already available in the neighborhood as well as proximity to transportation.
Images via Local Construct
One such development is Blackbirds, a new community of small lot homes by developer Local Construct that broke ground in April 2014 in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood. Designed by Bestor Architecture, Blackbirds is a prime example of a new paradigm of a relatively dense, walkable community made up of single-family houses. The 18 homes are situated on a one-acre lot atop a hill, and range from 1,300 to 1,800 square feet each. The development is modeled after Dutch housing complexes, with housing placed around a communal pedestrian thoroughfare, which will also serve as the parking area for the community. Barbara Bestor, the architect, notes that the development is close to LA's DASH bus system and to shops and restaurants west of nearby Echo Park Boulevard, making it so that residents can potentially leave their cars at home if they so choose.
While plopping a new “micro-community” into a neighborhood that already has an infrastructure and design vernacular could seem problematic, it actually presents an opportunity for architects and builders to more deeply understand and build upon existing fabric. Bestor spoke about the process of mapping the neighborhood before planning the development in order to "[use] the same level of density" that already existed. "The massing is very similar to the existing neighborhood," she said, which was achieved by creating “duplexes,” or placing two single-family houses very close to one another so that their mass was equivalent to one house in Echo Park, a planning practice she labels "stealth density." Small-lot homes are generally required to have parking spaces for two cars, but Bestor noted that many families or couples only have one or use one at a time, which can take the pressure off of roadways and thoroughfares.
Photos by Nico Marques of Photekt.
Similarly, for Heyday, a small lots design-build developer who has launched multiple successful small-lot projects in LA, such as Glassell Park's Peak Place and Echo Park's Buzz Court (above), paying attention to a neighborhood’s culture is important. When approaching one of their previous projects, they “observed a high concentration of multi-generational households, so rather than a typical risk averse three-bedroom home, we decided to build the homes with two master bedrooms, one on the ground floor and one on the third floor, so the retired parents could live downstairs and the younger homeowners could live on the third floor, and they shared the living space of the middle floor,” said Kevin Wronske in an email, who runs the firm with his brother, Hardy Wronske.
Heyday was also propelled to make unique design decisions due to the constraints of small lots. Due to their proximity, small lot houses have to be constructed carefully with privacy, sound, and light in mind. Accordingly, the homes of Peak Place feature stairs in the center of the building, and kitchens adjacent to the neighboring garage as a way of preventing noise from disturbing living areas.
Photo by Nico Marques of Photekt.
These decisions also affect the visual landscape. Buzz Court, which was built in a relatively dense area, was presented with a challenge in its long, narrow site – how to situate homes while allowing for maximum privacy and a healthy amount of light? Heyday designed the homes to have lots of windows for maximum natural light, but installed long vertical fins on the exterior facade of the houses that provided shading for some of the windows and allowed for a greater measure of privacy. The fins echo the narrow site, and also exemplify the vertical proportion that homes with a smaller footprint can start to bring to Los Angeles’s broad boulevards.
Photos by Nico Marques of Photekt.
Density, and building small, is of course a boon for sustainability as well. Heyday, who have built many LEED Platinum homes, focus heavily on sustainable project features such as passive heating and cooling and low-flow fixtures. However, Kevin Wronske noted: "Holistically, density has a much larger impact than something like adding photovoltaic panels or tankless hot water heaters (of which we do both as well)." Citing the city's Housing Department statistics, he explained "We typically build at a rate of about 25 units/acre; in LA overall this figure is often closer to 5-8 dwelling units per acre … If the housing stock in LA was five times denser, imagine the benefits to traffic, pollution, infrastructure, public transportation, walkability, etc."
Bestor cited the example of Tokyo in discussing the possibilities for “exuberant architecture” in small lots in LA, hoping that ultimately, small lots will start to change the very common occurrence of “driving into your parking garage and going up the stairs and never talking to any of your neighbors.” Her thoughts solidify what’s most promising about the ordinance at the moment: that it compels talented architects to get excited about designing thoughtful, affordable housing with a mind toward creating healthier and happier communities.