In the 1990s, an architect named Ross Chapin started building small housing developments in the Pacific Northwest on a model he called “pocket housing.” A bit like the cohousing movement in Denmark, Chapin grouped small clusters of homes around a shared outdoor space, inviting people to get involved in one another’s lives. “Because of their watchfulness, strangers are taken note of and children are free to play,” Chapin wrote. “These are the first ones to call on in an emergency, and the closest to join you for an impromptu order of takeout pizza.” Urban planners call this type of housing the “missing middle”: duplexes, townhomes, and mansion apartments, which fell out of popularity after World War II, when a single-family home became the American dream.
Chapin’s work, which he broadcast through a book called Pocket Housing: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World, has had a slow but steady ripple effect in American architecture. For students and professors at the University of Arkansas, it provided a roadmap for a downtown Little Rock housing project that last week received an AIA Honor Award for Urban Design. Jurors at the AIA are calling the Rock Street Pocket Housing “the next frontier” for the construction industry, an example of the future of middle-class housing in American cities.
The Rock Street project came about after a local housing nonprofit tapped the university’s Community Design Center (a consortium of architects and students) to design housing for a plot of land stretched over nine vacant lots in Little Rock’s Pettaway neighborhood. Instead of building nine homes on nine lots, the team grouped the individual homes a la Chapin’s designs, creating shared outdoor spaces and pooling infrastructural resources. Homes are grouped in fours and sixteens, creating unique typologies that ring a common courtyard. “The project does a very interesting and successful job of co-mingling variations of public and private space,” commented the AIA jurors.
Stephen D. Luoni, the director of the Community Designer, acknowledges that Rock Street is a huge leap forward for most American homeowners. “Shared space is a difficult concept in contemporary America,” he tells Co.Design. “Even in urban neighborhoods, the prevalence of single-lot housing has inured residents to the homogenization in their neighborhoods and skewed conceptions of compatibility.” Community feedback from Pettaway residents was uncertain at first, because residents saw the design as a “separatist” development, which hugely surprised the design team. But after explaining the concept behind the proposal–that the entire neighborhood will benefit from the shared outdoor spaces–the community signed on.
Fascinatingly, the AIA jurors are calling Rock Street a model for not only the regeneration of blighted core neighborhoods but also for the future of the American housing industry. “The industry has nearly optimized construction discipline in the single-family dwelling, the next frontier for achieving affordability with high livability returns is design of the neighborhood template–the shared spaces,” explained the jury in a statement. In other words, shared housing (the “missing middle”) will be the next big boom in the American construction business. And on Rock Street, we’ve got a perfect model for how to do it well.
For now, Rock Street remains a proposal, due to financing concerns with the nonprofit. But according to Luoni, interest from outside investors may have construction under way this year. Check out the rest of the AIA’s 2013 Urban Design Honor Awards here.