Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

The Neighborhood within the Neighborhood

Pocket neighborhoods prove that an edited home can take on many shapes and sizes and be located most anywhere. The term, coined by architect Ross Chapin, refers to clusters of houses that share common, car-free outdoor areas like gardens, joined backyards and even alleyways. The idea is to design the conditions that promote tight-knit communities–where neighbors look out for one another, where children can play safely, where it’s not a big deal to ask someone to walk your dog or borrow a cup of sugar.

In a smart move, pocket neighborhoods are designed to promote community but also have enough autonomy and privacy for members to do their own thing. One particular design flourish that supports this is the orientation of the houses. By nesting the houses–i.e. the ‘open’ part of one house like its entrance faces the ‘closed’ part of another like its side or back–separation is created without a big yard. Strategic use of low fences and perennials create further barriers for the tightly spaced houses.

Pocket neighborhood houses need not be new and they can be any style, as indicated on PN’s website:

Residences in a pocket neighborhood can be any style — Craftsman Cottage, Contemporary, Spanish Mission, Screaming Solar or Modern Modular. They can be detached single-family houses, attached townhouses, or clusters of urban apartments. The key idea is that a limited number of nearby neighbors gather around a shared commons that they all care for. There are a number of design principles that make pocket neighborhoods successful, but style is not one of them.

Those design principles include a cap on the number of houses in the neighborhood (12 max, but multiple clusters can be joined by walkways), no cars or traffic in the commons, no parking in front of the houses and the active rooms like porches should face the common spaces.

While there are a number of pocket neighborhoods with larger houses, Ross Chapin Architects (RCA) seems to promote “cottage style houses” as the optimal house-style for the neighborhoods. The PN site explains why:

If houses are too large, residents tend to spend all their time indoors. With slightly snug houses, the porch, gardens and shared common buildings get used more, which fosters connection among neighbors. As well, a house that is ‘not so big’ is more likely to be fully lived in and cared for.

These cottages are less than 1000 sq ft and include design elements like large windows and built-in cabinetry that make the space feel larger and use every square inch of space to its fullest capacity. This layout of multiple small homes clustered together reminds us of the upcoming Napoleon Complex by Four Lights.

So far RCA has helped build 14 pocket neighborhoods in the northwest. They take pains to say they are an architecture firm, not a developer, and that there are numerous zoning issues that make establishing a pocket neighborhood difficult in certain areas. They have resources for developers and a book if you’re interested in establishing a pocket community of your own.

We see the pocket neighborhood as a great option for establishing a strong community while using minimal resources and being adaptable to environments ranging from urban to rural.

Do you have firsthand experience with pocket neighborhoods or similar communities? If so, let us know your thoughts in our comments section.

images via Pocket neighborhoods

This post was originally published May 20, 2013 and has been updated slightly. 

  • MerryPaws

    I used to live in Pitman, NJ and its a very old example of a pocket neighborhood. The central part of town is an outdoor auditorium/church. It was built in the late 1800’s as a summer retreat for Methodists. The paths to the cottages come out as 12 spokes of a wheel. They are definitely less than 1000 sf. Since its been modernized and turned into single family housing, parking has been added in the backs of the houses but the walking paths have been retained and the houses have not really been increased in size much. Its a very cute little area. I definitely loved my tiny house. I just had to get out of NJ 😉 History

  • LauraSomeNumber

    Living in Copenhagen nearly all big apartment buildings have a communal yard or courtyard in the middle.

  • cgulyas

    This is a direct result of the co-housing movement, which started in Europe; it would be nice if you would acknowledge that; renaming does not constitute inventing.

    • Sharon

      Oh for heaven’s sake…..chill out. Enjoy the site or leave! (There’s one in every crowd.)

  • LindaPruitt

    The Cottage Company thanks you for the kind comments about our work as illustrated by our Danielson Grove and Third Street Cottages featured in the photographs. To see more and learn about our innovative single family infill development…or to find a home of your own in our communities, visit Thank You!

    • maggi schrock

      very nice!

      • LindaPruitt

        Thank You! The idea of a bungalow court and cluster cottages is not a new idea! It was commonplace in pre WWII neighborhoods. But post-war Zoning made this sort of development illegal! An accidental and unintended consequence! Now, with changing demographics, visionary cities and counties are putting codes in place that would allow some of the ‘old’ ideas about detached single family homes to be made legal again! Hopefully communities developed by The Cottage Company can be used as examples of what is possible in new construction!

    • thanks for checking us out linda and great work!

  • maggi g

    we have a small block of houses in south tampa that all face a walkway instead of a street. the parking and garages are behind the houses, leaving the front for gardens and a close friendly community. it was built back in the 1930s. nothing new here.

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  • Ani

    I love these. We have one in VT- in S. Burlington, and there is a unit for sale right now. I’d live there if I could afford it. They are right sized, well built and so cute. These houses tend towards being smaller, which I love, and being clustered, use space more efficiently.

  • Pontifikate

    There are some examples of this in older neighborhoods (Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, NY, designed by Lewis Mumford, Fresh Meadows, etc.). I grew up in one and though it was very humble, I thought it was Utopia.

    I’d like city, state and federal officials to promote these kinds of neighborhoods or revise zoning laws that make it difficult to build them. Older adults, (Boomers) would be able to create communities of friends and relatives to help each other instead of paying tons of money to corporate senior housing that does not have their best interests at heart.

  • LBKM987

    There is one in Rancho Mirage, CA out in the desert that has a communal yard and pool. The only way to get to it is through one of the 10 houses and it is amazing. I would love to see more of these.

  • Carol Setters

    We have one in Boulder, CO which is a lovely example of price-controlled, affordable housing. Its layout is almost identical to the drawing shown. I would say that overall, the concept is great. It does lend itself to some issues though, in terms of “getting along.” If even one or two of the homeowners don’t share everyone else’s commitment of care for the shared spaces or even their own, the friction can be intense.

  • I live in one, and I love it. It reminds me of my childhood, with a better defined set of values. We have common area, and we use it. We eat together, watch everyone’s kids, garden together (I don”t – black thumb), build stuff together, explore ideas, and look to the future to improve our footprint in this world.

    Ours is a purchased apartment complex, that is now an intentional, multi-generational, mixed income, ecologically responsible, and socially active community. Birthdays are a hoot here. Yes, we also have those who leave the place a mess, and there are issues about dog droppings, and lit candles and so on. In the end though, we show up to work, meet, and eat together at the monthly HOA. We care for one another. To me, that’s what its all about.