Originally published in the October 2004 issue of Professional Builder magazine

American consumers have always preferred detached homes. But rising land costs are now driving builders toward higher-density forms of detached housing. The goal: Keep prices affordable for mainstream buyers.

The curious thing is, these economic forces are actually running headlong into an emerging market for higher-density communities. Many people actually prefer quaint neighborhoods with a European feel, especially when they’re planted in high-energy, urban-lifestyle locations. But detached density comes with challenges. How do you handle all the cars without creating a sea of garage doors that ruins curb appeal and pedestrian safety? How do you preserve privacy and still maximize use of the small yards?

New Answers

If we don’t meet these challenges, it will become harder to find municipalities that will accept density, and we’ll miss a market that’s eager to snap up these products. I’ve been wrestling with this, and here are some ideas that may advance the ball a little further toward the goal we seek: higher density neighborhoods that stand the test of time, enhancing the property values of residents and neighbors alike.

We’ve designed these communities to reduce the impact of the automobile. Nothing can separate Americans from their cars. (Every home still needs a two-car garage and two visitor parking spaces.) But it’s better if we don’t have to look at them all the time, and we definitely don’t want neighborhoods where cars seem to be more important than people.

Each concept is also designed to enhance privacy. At the same time, we have increased livability by utilizing use easements that allow us to concentrate exterior spaces where they relate better to indoor living areas. In every case, the land and development costs per home are much lower than in conventional, four-units-per-acre subdivisions, but the neighborhood has the look and feel of a much lower density than it actually achieves.

Keep in mind that, with one exception, these concepts are designed for flat sites. Don’t use them on sites with 5% grade or higher, or you’ll pay more for retaining walls than you save in land costs.

Secluded Lane Homes

7.3 units per acre – 1400-1800 sq. ft.

While many of these high-density concepts work best where the target is empty-nesters or young couples without children, the secluded lane is great for families. It creates a safe mini-neighborhood facing the motor court within the context of a larger neighborhood hat borrows some elements of New Urbanism. (The houses at the motor-court entry face the neighborhood street with front porches.)

Side and rear yards are 15 feet, so the houses don’t feel tight, as is often the case in Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) communities, where houses may be only ten feet apart. Living areas of the homes can be concentrated toward the corner of the lot where yard space is the greatest, allowing real indoor/outdoor living. Lots at the back of the motor court are larger and may even be candidates for premiums. They can also accommodate ranch-style homes, which require a larger footprint.

Best of all, the secluded lane creates a safe space in front where kids can play. Any cars in the motor court will move slowly. We’ve learned that kids are social creatures. They seek out other kids and play in front yards rather than in sterile, isolated backyards. In a secluded lane, they can play stick ball or street hockey without fear.

Builders should fully landscape front yards, so there’s a feeling of an established neighborhood instantly. We’ve shown how side and rear yards, enhanced via easements, can be spiced up with trellises and decks.

Parkwood Court Homes

8.8 units per acre – 1200-1400 sq. ft.

At nearly nine units per acre, this is one of the highest-density forms. It’s really a neighborhood of detached townhouses, grouped around a T-shaped motor court, but facing outward to landscaped pedestrian lanes leading to the public street where visitors park on both sides. The motor court is strictly for residents.

Parkwood court lots are 40 x 80 feet, and the buildings are 30 feet wide, with ten feet of separation. As a result, this plan is extremely cost-efficient to develop. Still, it also separates cars and pedestrians. Use easements concentrate the side yards facing each blank wall.

The landscaped courts provide a pleasant walkway to the front doors of the homes. But these courts are utilitarian as well as aesthetic, meeting requirements for on-site storm water detention.

Sawtooth Lot Homes

9 units per acre – 1400-1900 sq. ft.

This is a refinement of the wide-and-shallow concept that came out of California in the early 1990s. (Nothing is ever totally new; some of these design elements can be seen in Roman villas.) The trouble with wide-and-shallow comes when you run the back-lot line straight down between the houses. The back yards are just too small.

Here, we don’t change the actual lot line. But by running a sawtooth pattern of use easements against blank back walls (mostly on garages), combined with privacy fencing, we concentrate the back yard space on the corner of the home where interior living spaces can face the outdoors.

Best of all, the street scene is terrific, with wide elevations on 62-foot frontage lots that defy any perception of density. Once again, I believe this is a concept that will prove its value over time in the resale market, because it does not allow cars and garages to dominate the architecture.

Keyhole Lot Homes

7 units per acre – 1400-1900 sq. ft.

Beginning with zero-lot-line homes built in California in the 1980s, there’s a whole generation of high-density detached housing that lives well on the inside, but the street scenes and neighborhoods are disasters. The outdoors belongs to cars, and people don’t go there. How dumb is that? You live in California, where the weather is great, and end up living inside all the time?

What we’re doing with keyhole lots is alternating narrow and wide dimensions of the homes facing the street. We sometimes call them zipper lots.

The narrow-dimension lot has its yard space concentrated at the side, the wide one in the back. In each case, the major living area of the home faces the concentrated yard. The alternation of housing forms also allows more sunlight into the yards.

The lot line runs along the zipper (as shown), between the houses, but we have use easements in place to allow the narrow house to use all of the side yard. Fencing is used as an extension of the architecture and to protect privacy. When the master bedroom is upstairs (in two-story homes), it always faces the street, to avoid windows looking down into neighbors’ yards. Secondary bedrooms, with higher windows and clerestory glass, are at the back.

Courtyard Lot Homes

8 units per acre – 1800-2200 sq. ft.

This last concept is the exception on several fronts. It can be used on sloping or wooded sites, and it can accommodate ranch walk-outs and larger homes than the other high-density plans. Because of that, courtyard lots are great for in-fill sites where you want to build more expensive houses. You can get four large houses onto a site measuring just 140 x 118 feet.

One house faces the street; the others are on the private court, which could be gated. Some of the houses have private patios on two sides. New Urbanism has problems producing private outdoor spaces. But here we see use easements and blank walls used to create two very private outdoor spaces for every home – still at eight units per acre.

Final Thoughts

We need to overcome those aspects of high-density housing that lead so many people into political opposition of virtually all residential development. Detached density can do that if we plan it carefully to maintain the single-family character people cherish. This means separating cars and people as much as possible, while coordinating indoor and outdoor living spaces.

I believe these concepts can gain acceptance on in-fill sites where political opponents fight tooth-and-nail against even townhouses. And they can be used in suburban developments to gain an affordability advantage that will drive sales. We need to push innovation in land plans, just as we constantly update floor plans to match changing buyer lifestyles.

To view the original article, click here: 2004 Professional Builder Article – Final