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Why spec house snobbery has to go

Gone. Credit: Pete Garland

A couple weeks ago, in a Carbon Efficient Cities UW graduate class I'm taking, one of the other students referred to modern high-density Seattle housing developments as 'monstrosities.' As someone who spent a year and a half designing, project managing, permitting, and planning for these homes at Alloy Design Group as an intern, and then as a junior designer, I have a slightly different view.

True, many of our clients were developers. True, the houses did not conform to the existing rules of one arts and crafts home per 4000- 7000 SF lot. True, the homes are taller than many of their counterparts, and true, they often exploit the changing zoning codes for density to add homes where many thought the existing density would last forever.

But, monstrosity? Are these homes, modern architecture and density so destructive to the city of Seattle? I think not. Believe it or not, care is put into these homes and projects. Sure, we would start with lot coverage and maximum zoning, and plan to edge any square foot out of the lot that we could. Rules about car backing distance, setbacks and access dominating the early schematic phases.  More units typically equals higher success. 

Then, we would consider views, add a roof deck in the most optimal area of the home, create an experience with the stair, design circulation and flow. Open floor plans, master suites, flex space and natural light in every room (yes, even bathrooms and closets and pantries whenever possible) rounded out the design package. We planned out optimal furniture arrangements to make sure windows weren't placed right where a TV was necessary, spent hours laying out kitchens and bathrooms, so space felt bigger than it was, and always worked extra hours on the entrance and façade. We worked closely with engineers to make sure there were no surprises during construction, and carefully detailed joints for well-made homes. 

And guess what else? These projects are green. The form and materiality comes from farmed pine 2x4s, Hardi-board and local cedar plank exterior finishes. The homes additionally feature electric water heaters, outdoor permeable pavers, bio-retention planters, local drought-resistant plantings, crushed quartz countertops, low-emissions paint and bamboo floors. Not to mention the positive environmental impact of adding density.

Formulaic? Sure. Better designed and oriented than other development speculative homes? Definitely. One of our row-houses with 5 units sold off in 18 days last March, before construction was complete. Office discussions of the sales success centered around the project's design, which was done not as one building with 5 units, but as though each was a separate home.

For a price of $325K, a family can own a real home, with a garage, three bedrooms, an open plan and modern kitchens and baths. These aren't just real estate listings; these amenities are 'market drivers' that will make or break a home sale. People don't actually care that they have a postage stamp front yard and they need to drag the grill up to the roof deck, if they can keep an eye on the kids while they cook dinner. 

A number of development and design companies are creating modern homes successfully, including Build LLC, B9 Architects and Shed Architecture. The phenomenon has spread to Portland, where Path Architecture and Holst Architecture are similarly thriving.  How are these companies successful amongst so much vitriol?

Seattle has one of the best housing markets in the U.S. and global trends are showing rapidly growing urban populations.  Companies like Amazon are setting their sights on South Lake Union and people like Matt Dillon are opening restaurants in Pioneer Square, formerly a place to steer clear of after dark. As more and more people are looking to buy in the city, prices are naturally being driven up.

A Redfin search of homes, rowhouses and townhouses (places where each unit has direct access to the ground floor outside) on Capitol Hill returns an average cost of $1,495,000. Compared with $618,000, the average price when condos are added to the mix, we see that low-density development is truly cost-effective. 

The median Seattle household income is $52,000, which is high compared to the national average of $45,000. So, if a family without debt brings in the Seattle median household income of $52,000 and can afford a down payment of $45,000 (this is high, but maybe they received an inheritance or have been saving bonuses), they could afford a home value of $290,000 at the high end. Suddenly a price tag of $325K is looking very affordable. 

Love them or hate them, these projects are here to stay. They open opportunities of home and land ownership previously unattainable in the best neighborhoods of Seattle. They challenge Pacific Northwest style and herald in a new school of young designers making an impact. Our craftsman neighborhoods are here forever in my opinion, but opening the doors of density and diversity is inevitable in this market. We might as well open our eyes.

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