Shrinky Dink

Portland and Vancouver experiment with tiny houses.

Several weeks ago, Vancouver held its first open house for a “laneway” house (Laneway houses are comparable to Seattle’s back yard cottages) built as part of its EcoDensity initiative. I haven’t seen the Vancouver project, but I did take a trip to see some very small cottages in Portland built by Orange Splot Cohousing Development called Ruth’s Cottages. These two projects reflect a growing trend in trying to legalize neighborhood density—that is, put more housing in single family neighborhoods without changing the scale of the community. Both of these projects reflect some forward thinking that goes a step beyond technology and design—this is really about bringing the benefits of the urban lifestyle to what typically look like suburban neighborhoods.

I first heard about Ruth’s Cottages from a city planner in Portland who described them as small houses—really small houses—of less than 200 square feet. The two cottages were built as Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) as part of Portland’s effort to expand new ways of doing DADUs. But these take the idea of DADUs one step further. What if the central house provided a shared kitchen in a central house? This could bring the co-housing model to single family neighborhoods. Co-housing includes individual residences, but “residents also have access to extensive common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house.” Imagine the idea of a big central house, with a few little 150 square foot houses each with bathrooms but without kitchens—and no extra parking.

The truly amazing thing about Ruth’s Cottages besides how tiny they are is how well they blend in to the surrounding neighborhood. I rode the bus up to the Northeast Portland neighborhood where they are and walked right by them. They look and feel like they belong, exactly the kind of low impact density that should be acceptable to single family neighbors.

Vancouver’s first example of laneway housing doesn’t have such a compelling co-housing element, but it does a great job of highlighting the affordability and value of small homes. The Mendoza House built by the LaneFab company, is palatial compared to Ruth’s Cottages coming in at more than 700 square feet on a 33 foot wide lot. For me—I live in a 750 square foot condo—the Mendoza House would be a big step up. If you scroll through the pictures on LaneFab’s website, it looks like a house. But based on its foot print it wears like a condo—small. The Mendoza house cost less than CN$200,000 to build, has built in energy efficiencies, and will likely rent for about $1,700 a month. That’s a pretty decent price for new construction in Vancouver.  

The lesson in the tiny house phenomena for Seattle as it considers changing its multi-family code is that smaller houses, including town houses, can offer a functional and affordable alternative for some families that want the benefits of multi-family and single family life. As the Seattle City Council considers changes they ought to allow for more experimentation and re-conceptualization of what multi-family means—including blurring the lines between single and multi-family. Housing more people closer together doesn’t always look like a high-rise. The proposal suggested by the Congress of Residential Architects for townhomes—more design flexibility using the design review process—makes lots of sense. And as both Vancouver and Portland have already demonstrated, single family density doesn’t have to mean bad design or bigger buildings.

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  1. VancouverBC says:

    @ Jun 7, 8:00 AM: “The Mendoza House [comes in at] 700 square feet on a 33 square foot lot.”Small typo. The lots are actually 33-feet wide, not 33 square feet.

  2. Eric Hess says:

    Thanks, VancouverBC, I’ve fixed the error.

  3. Eli Spevak says:

    Glad you liked the little cottages we built! To be a bit more accurate, they were permitted as habitable, detached accessory structures. Think of them as detached bedrooms, each with a full bathroom. Although the City of Portland allows Accessory Dwelling Units, there’s no point to permit something as an ADU if you’re not putting a kitchen in it. Also, there’s a limit of one ADU per residential lot. These cottages don’t have kitchens, so they aren’t ADUs; residents all share the kitchen in the primary house.- Eli

  4. Hillary @ This Tiny House says:

    Promising news & great progress! Thanks for posting.

  5. Alex @tinyhousetalk says:

    Interesting news. I just read about an eco village for the homeless project that’s being pushed in Fresno, CA.

  6. EThan Seltzer says:

    … and if you’re coming to Portland, you can now stay in a tiny house in inner N/NE Portland. Check out:

  7. Bryn Davidson says:

    The design of the Mendoza lane house was based on an earlier experiment in small space living: a 400sf condo renovated – and now occupied (comfortably!) – by the designer and his wife.

  8. John Newcomb says:

    All this too-ing and fro-ing just to avoid the most common-sense small housing: trailers (aka mobile homes, manufactured homes). They may not be stylistic super-stars, but good-quality trailers are priced right, relatively self-contained, and easy to move around. Its suburban politics that keeps them out, like halfway-houses and other NIMBY stuff.

  9. Lesa Dixon-Gray says:

    And beginning May 1, 2009, and for the next three years, the City of Portland is waiving permitting fees for the construction of ADU’s. They really want to encourage their legal development (they discovered that lots of people have smaller units on their property that they built themselves, without permitting).

  10. microhouse says:

    Here in seattle we are pretty excited about the expanded backyard cottage ordinance. It is proving to be quite popular and we already have a couple of projects in the works. For more information about seattle’s ordinance check out our blog .. or our web page .. Or check out the Seattle Backyard Cottage Design Challenge which features 35 innovative cottage designs.

  11. Dan Miller says:

    Yay for tiny houses! (From someone who built and lives in an unpermitted one in a backyard in Portland.) By “tiny” I mean 200 sq. feet or less. Portland is an epicenter of these, but they are mostly (so far) “below the radar” and largely invisible from the street. A measure of interest in them might be that Eli Spevak (Mr. Orange Splot) did a bike tour of tiny homes of NE Portland last Sunday morning and close to 100 people showed up. If you live in Portland, he’s doing Ride #2, Tiny Homes of SE Portland, next Sunday 6/20, 10:00 AM at Sherrit Square in Sellwood. Go to the pedalpalooza calendar at for deets.

  12. Kelley says:

    a slightly different take is Auntie Koko’s Urban Trailer Park costs $3500 to build and rents for $400 a month. Now that is “affordable” and it uses an existing structure, requires very little if any infrastructure and can be “built” in 30 days.

  13. HH Gregg says:

    Wow! 200 square feet is not big at all. I am glad to hear that the Ruth’s Cottages blend in to the surrounding neighborhood. I would love to see one. Are they one bedroom houses? Or are they more like a studio apartment?

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