A big week for the cottage cult

Backyard cottage housing is a benefit, not a threat, to single family neighborhoods, and in keeping with the values that shaped Seattle. Let's have more.
Backyard cottage housing is a benefit, not a threat, to single family neighborhoods, and in keeping with the values that shaped Seattle. Let's have more.

This week (9/23), members of the Seattle city council will once again be talking about whether to legalize Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, or DADU's, smartly re-branded as "backyard cottages" by their proponents — a name that also beats the other term for them, "mother-in-law" flats. Seattle loves cottages, bungalows, studios, and cozy hideaways. Alphabet soup and in-laws? No so much.

It's a good week to take up the topic, because two other events provide some context for the decisions that will be made.

The 11th annual Arts and Crafts conference will be held in Seattle this week (9/23-9/27), featuring academic presentations at venues ranging from the Museum of History and Industry to the Frye and Bellevue art museums, and architectural tours of First Hill, The Highlands, and the Eastside's Beaux Arts Village. The conference is a look at the legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement in all its forms. This is the movement that shaped Pacific Northwest architecture (including our modern movement) and our major cities, and it's one that sowed many cultural seeds in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, BC, Spokane, Bellingham, and other communities.

The conference will be followed by Historic Seattle's 12th annual "Bungalow Fair" at Town Hall. This exhibit puts the public together with designers, furniture makers, antique dealers, textile artists, and all manner of craftspeople catering to bungalow and Arts & Crafts fans.

From the practical (buying lighting fixtures?) to public policy (land-use planning) to academic theory ("Modernity and Identity in the Native Art of the Pacific Northwest"), this week is a feast for Seattle's cottage cult.

Many people have raised concerns about the move to more backyard cottages, including my Crosscut colleague Kent Kammerer of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition. Many defenders of the city's single family neighborhoods worry that a law permitting them citywide (they are currently allowed only in Southeast Seattle as part of an experiment) is, in effect, allowing the multi-family zoning camel to stick its nose under the single-family tent. Allowing cottages across the city would be, they say, tantamount to eliminating single family zoning altogether, and replacing it with zoning for duplexes.

Cottages could also be bothersome: invading a neighbor's privacy, eating up backyard habitat for animals or displacing mature trees, creating a local parking crunch. Skeptics also worry that Seattle's Department of Planning and Development might not be able to police cottage builders and dwellers well enough to ensure they aren't cheating on things like residency requirements. Valid concerns.

What the council members are considering is fairly modest, however: Backyard dwellings would be restricted to good-sized lots (4,000 square feet or more) on which the property owner would have to live too; they would be subject to height restrictions (15-23 feet); and the cottages could only be a maximum of 800 square feet. One idea is to limit the number of cottages citywide to 50, but that number might be bumped up to more like 100. Some, like land use attorney Chuck Wolfe, suggest having no cap at all. In any event, they augment existing housing, they're built on lots with room, they're modest structures. Truth be told, many are already built as studios or work spaces in converted sheds or garages. They are simply waiting for the rules to change so they can be transformed into legal dwellings and people can move in.

Backyard cottages also offer a number of benefits. While they don't do much for increasing neighborhood density, they do offer the possibility of more affordable rental housing. Looking ahead, they offer other benefits too. One is that all of us have been sobered by the Great Recession, and recovery is predicted to be slow. In addition, we know we have major issues ahead with Social Security and Medicare funding. Backyard cottages, it seems to me, give some homeowners another way to achieve self-sufficiency — a revenue stream from rent, a place to house adult children or grandparents, a future on their own land for owners if the main house becomes too big or too much. It adds hands to the number of people who can do upkeep or work the garden. It offers a way for people to stay in their homes and neighborhoods in tough times.

Supporting self-sufficiency, I think, augments values that are part of Seattle and much of the Northwest's urban neighborhood fabric. The original bungalows were often erected by their owners, who could order them from Sears and other catalogs. (In Scandinavia and the UK, you can do the same today, thanks to Ikea.).

The Arts & Craft movement (see the current exhibit at MOHAI), in vogue in the first 20 years of the 20th century, did much to establish the values of do-it-yourself crafts, landscaping, and home beautification and improvement. It encouraged people to build their own furniture, throw pottery, make art. Schools sprouted programs that taught Industrial Arts and Home Economics to teach kids the value of being able to make objects from start to finish, without assembly lines. Who knew that shop class was rooted in such ideals?

The Arts and Crafts movement was a kind of statement against industrialism and corporate dependence. It's reflected in arts and crafts today, from the Seward Park's pottery studio to Dale Chihuly's world famous glass art. It's been a thread through green thinking and trends reviving self-reliance, from the back-to-the-land movement of the '60s and '70s, to the craft brewing and winemaking of the '80s, to the DIY music of the '90s, to the slow food and locavore movement of the '00s. In Seattle and the Northwest, much is available in its artisanal form, from French bread to soda pop. There is a continuum in Seattle of a cottage culture that is more than cutesy turn-of-the-century faux Tiffany glass and tiled fireplaces. It's an ethic of living artfully and doing it by your own hand.

This isn't to say some of the problems with new cottage housing shouldn't be addressed. Undoubtedly, if Seattle approves more backyard cottages, ugly ones will be built, and some will allow neighbors to peer in once-private windows. Some good yards could be spoiled. But reviews from South Seattle have been largely positive, according to a city survey of back yard cottage neighbors last year. Eighty-nine percent thought cottages should be allowed; more than half hadn't even noticed them; only 5 percent were "strongly opposed" to them.

Beyond cottage design, some problems should be addressed. The council, especially Richard Conlin, has worked to improve the city's tree protections, notably in cases of large stands of mature trees, to avoid problems like the proposed cutting of Waldo Woods (a disaster averted). But more needs to be done to protect individual trees on private property. Backyard cottages that stick to existing building footprints (like, say, a taller remodeled garage) ought to be favored over ones that eat up green yards and open space. On that score, why not also find a way to ban mega-mansions and monster-houses? The move to approve cottages should be accompanied by other land use reforms.

Overall, though, I think backyard cottages help preserve and sustain, rather than threaten, single family neighborhoods. They can help support families, and they're an extension of what makes so many of our neighborhoods strong in the first place — a collective repository of artful individualism.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.