Category Archives: Design Patterns

Water Dancing on the Ceiling


As I write this, we’ve just passed the Autumn Equinox. The sun is out, the air is fresh and the leaves on the trees are beginning to color. It’s a bit cliché to say it’s a reflective time, but I’d like to share a personal experience from childhood and how this memory forward is carried through to this day.

I grew up in a bungalow-styled house with a wrap-around porch next to a lake in Minnesota. I remember lying on the living room floor looking up at the ceiling and marveling at the dancing light reflected off of the lake. We don’t live on a lake now, but we found a way to bring to water to our home.

Our current house faces south. In one of our improvements we replaced a small window with a large one that allows light to pour into our living room. After that, my nephew and I dug out a 30-inch deep basin in front and I worked with a concrete contractor to build a pool. We have a deck and covered porch overhanging the pool, but that’s another story. On sunny days like today, light is reflected off of the water onto our ceiling, animating it with dancing ripples and reviving a childhood memory.[youtube][/youtube]

Pocket Neighborhoods for Special Niches


Luna Azul community for adults with disabilities features two pocket neighborhood clusters connected to the Center House with a linear walkway.

We are currently working on a new community to provide safe and permanent housing for adults with intellectual, developmental and acquired disabilities. Over the years we’ve helped create pocket neighborhoods for singles and empty nesters, market-rate multi-generational buyers and folks needing affordable housing. When developer Mark Roth approached us about creating a safe and supportive pocket neighborhood for disabled adults like his daughter, we were all for it. “Few options exist today for adults with disabilities, or for their families,” says Roth. “Pocket neighborhoods are a great concept and already popular, especially among adults seeking greater energy efficiencies in their homes and more intimate community living and support systems.”

Builder Online posted an article with more background and information on the proposed community, named Luna Azul.

Concept Plan Luna AzulThe site Roth has chosen is in the Phoenix metro area—a very different climate condition and cultural heritage than most sites we work with. For this, we’ve developed vernacular design elements and materials familiar with the region. We’re incorporating deep arcades, trellised ramadas and fountains. Fundamentally, though, the community includes many of the design bones we’ve used in virtually all of our pocket neighborhoods: small clusters, shared commons at the heart, corralled cars, layers of personal space, room-sized front porch, private back yard, nested houses, and more.

Birdsys C3Holding the center between two clustered pocket neighborhoods (30 dwellings total) is the Center House, with community gathering spaces, exercise center, offices, and guest spaces. In the courtyard will be a pool and patio, covered outdoor room with a fireplace, and lawn.

Living in this community will be some residents who, because of their disabilities, are prone to wander. For this reason, there is a complete perimeter wall for their safety. We generally don’t like gated communities; however, in this case, it’s required. A guest coming to visit will first see the front of the two-story Center House—appearing like a gracious larger home. It is decidedly non-institutional. Cars tuck into a small lot shielded with a landscaped berm. To the side, in as non-descript manor as possible, a drive angles off to a gate. On the looped drive are parallel, pull-in and carport parking spaces for residents’ families, guests and service providers.

Birdseye C1The housing clusters, while similar, are laid out with differentiating elements. For spatial clarity, especially for residents with autism, a central linear walkway ties the pocket neighborhoods through the Center House.

—Ross Chapin

Cohousing vs Pocket Neighborhoods – What’s the Difference?

Cohousing communities are intentional by nature, with residents purposely coming together around shared values and commitments. In Pocket Neighborhoods, a sense of community may arise naturally among neighbors by the fact of living around a commons, and may be augmented with more intention.
(left: Petaluma Avenue Cohousing /photo by Grace Kim; right: Greenwood Avenue Cottages /photo by Karen DeLucas)

Cohousing has been taking hold across North America and around the world, offering an enticing option for people wanting to live in a more closely knit community. Some even call it a movement. Pocket Neighborhoods are being tossed around as a viable housing approach within existing neighborhoods, as well as sub-neighborhoods within larger new developments. Both foster a sense of community by design; but what’s the difference between the two?

Pocket neighborhoods, by our definition, are clusters of nearby neighbors around a shared commons of some sort — micro-neighborhoods with a scale of sociability. They are the physical arrangements of houses or apartments, or even trailers, designed to foster neighborly interactions while preserving personal privacy. A sense of community may arise naturally (more or less) among its residents by the fact that everyone lives around a commons.

In cohousing, community is intentional. Future residents purposely come together around clearly defined shared values and visions, and then plan and build the physical environment*, and manage the community once it is built. Residents are expected to take part in regular team-cooked meals, be on committees and engage in shared responsibilities. Decisions and disputes are handled as much as possible through consensus. Social life of the residents is often centered among members of the community.

PN Cluster

A classic cottage courtyard pocket neighborhood tucked behind two existing houses on a town street.

All during the research and writing of my book, I asked, ‘what is the right size of a pocket neighborhood?’ I was aware that cohousing communities typically have 20–30 households, a number that advocates believe to be optimum – large enough to have a diversity of residents and social coherence, yet not too large where decision-making becomes cumbersome. My sense was that pocket neighborhoods were smaller – with 6–10 households (more or less), which is a natural scale of sociability among humans. These are one’s closest neighbors who relate informally during the comings and goings of daily activity. Then I recognized that most (but not all) cohousing communities are configured with a series of pocket neighborhood-like clusters. The larger community is an aggregate of smaller subgroups. My hunch is that this was design by common sense, rather than an intentional social configuration.

PN clusters in Coho

Pocket Neighborhood clusters within a cohousing community.

Pocket neighborhoods that were not originally organized as cohousing communities sometimes become more cohousing-like by instigating regular shared meals, garden work parties, social events, and decision-making and dispute resolution practices.

Cohousing, with it’s larger size and it’s emphasis on community, will usually have a large (3000–5000 SF) common house with a commercial kitchen, community dining room, living room, guest rooms, children’s playrooms, workshop, exercise gym, and more.


Cohousing common houses have extensive spaces and amenities to serve the community.
(Common House at Nevada City Cohousing)

Pocket neighborhoods initiated by developers tend to have modest community facilities, but they have at least a place where nearby neighbors can come together – such as a picnic shelter or open-air barbecue. If budgets allow, they may have a four-season community room with a kitchen and bathroom, and perhaps a guest room. They almost always have a shared toolshed.

PN commons

Pocket neighborhoods have more modest common gathering spaces, such as a community room or outdoor fireplace. (left: Salish Pond Cottages; right: Seabrook)

Whether a pocket neighborhood stands on its own, or is a sub-cluster of a larger cohousing community, the social size of the cluster is what they are about. Of course, other patterns factor in to their design, but their essential ingredient is the particular scale at which neighborly relations tend to blossom.

Hope this helps. Please chime in with your perspective and experience.

—Ross Chapin

*post script: the US Cohousing Association recently updated their definition of cohousing, loosening the requirement that residents be involved in planning their communities to use the term “cohousing”. A common house is not a requirement either, though there is an expectation to have ample common amenities.

Outside the Box

What is lovable—or not— about the street you're on?

What is lovable—or not— about the street you’re on?

Whether designing a single house or a pocket neighborhood of homes, we always begin outside the box. What is the larger environment that surrounds us? What is lovable —in particular— about the street we’re on, or the houses to either side? Is it the massing and proportion of the neighboring buildings, their pleasing palate of related colors, or the detail of a roof bracket?

What is not lovable? What is missing? Do the houses seem to stand alone rather than being in conversation? Does the street feel too wide and vacant? Are there are trees missing in a rhythm?

And then we ask, how might we make the larger better with our smaller action? As we arrange the car connection, building positions and layout of the gardens and major trees, how can we add to the qualities we love and repair the broken patterns or missing elements?

These initial questions are the most important efforts we do to ensure a successful project.

A courtyard cluster focusing in on itself, while its buildings and the parking lot shun all who pass by.

A courtyard cluster focusing in on itself, while its buildings and the parking lot shun all who pass by.

I’ll risk illustrating this with a bad example. Here’s a classic cottage courtyard with a central commons. The homes are relatively affordable. Yet a parking lot hangs out in front like an afterthought. The ends of the buildings are blank and landscaping almost non-existent. Clearly, no attention was given to how this project connects and contributes to the fabric of the surrounding houses and streetscape. It does not add to the walkability of the neighborhood, the engagement of the community, nor the prevailing home values.

The street face of Danielson Grove makes a gesture to the surrounding neighborhood and passersby.

The street face of Danielson Grove makes a gesture to the surrounding neighborhood and passersby.

This counter example is a bit unfair. It had a much larger budget, but I want you to notice the core patterns.

Danielson Grove is also a classic cottage courtyard nested within an existing neighborhood of single-family homes. While the front of the homes face onto the courtyard, the buildings on the street offer a friendly gesture: the Common House has an entry porch and garden, and the End House has a gabled dormer and trellis. Large conifer trees along the street were preserved, helping the new development feel settled in on Opening Day. Parking is out of view completely, in a cluster located off of a lane on the backside of the court.

To say this in another way, outside-the-box thinking leads to “both/and” solutions, where our own needs and desires are met in ways that enrich and enhance the surrounding neighborhood. Have your cake and eat it, too.

~Ross Chapin