Missing Middle Housing

ASLA 2015 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Sweetwater Spectrum Residential Community for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Sonoma, CA. Roche+Roche Landscape Architecture / image: Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA
ASLA 2015 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Sweetwater Spectrum Residential Community for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Sonoma, CA. Roche+Roche Landscape Architecture / image: Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA

The wide gap between the diversity of American households and the housing stock available is widely acknowledged and well-documented. Given demographic trends—more households of single individuals, fewer households with children, a growing 65+ population—this disconnect will only become more dramatic if different housing types are not made more readily available.

To that end, there is a growing interest in strategies and policies that remove barriers to and incentivizes building what has come to be known as “missing middle” housing. These are house-like, multi-unit buildings planned within walking distance of retail and amenities. This kind of housing, scaled between single-family homes and apartment buildings, can provide attainable, walkable, and neighborhood-based housing options.

On September 6, 2018, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., hosted a lecture on missing middle housing presented by Daniel Parolek, AIA, of Opticos Design, co-author of Form Based Codes: A Guide for Planners, Urban Designers, Municipalities, and Developers
and a founding board member of the Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI). This program was part of a series complementing the museum’s exhibition Making Room: Housing for a Changing America, extended through January 6, 2019. A publication documenting the exhibition, created in partnership with AARP, is planned for release this fall.

ASLA 2016 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. The Rivermark, Sacramento, CA. Fletcher Studio / image: Mariko Reed
ASLA 2016 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. The Rivermark, Sacramento, CA. Fletcher Studio / image: Mariko Reed

Historically, more housing choices were readily available, such as courtyard apartments, side-by-side duplexes, and bungalow courts. Zoning and other regulatory changes put in place over time have cut down on that variety. Now, with a growing desire for walkable urban living and as rising costs put single-family homes increasingly out of reach for many, those older and more diverse housing types are coming back into focus.

Parolek defines missing middle housing as a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types that are compatible in scale with single-family homes. The need for this new term was prompted by architects’ poor handling of communicating what this meant. Words like “density” and “multifamily” have negative connotations for many audiences, instantaneously sparking opposition when used to describe different proposed housing options.

The “middle” piece denotes scale and form rather than income bracket or class. Missing middle housing is approximately the size of a standard single-family house, but with multiple units. However, this type can also offer greater affordability, bringing home ownership within reach for a larger segment of the community.

Parolek has visited and studied the historic housing stock of Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, Norman, OK, and elsewhere—all cities with a range of missing middle-type developments. These housing types are highly flexible, adapting to the setting to fit the cultural and climactic context.

Given all the apparent positives, it might not be immediately apparently why these desirable options are so often missing. Parolek outlined just a few of the most frequent causes for this absence, including zoning, financing, NIMBYism, the cost of land and construction, and few builders familiar with these types. He then outlined the shared traits that characterize missing middle housing:

  • A walkable, people-oriented context, including streets designed for comfortable and safe walking, neighborhood-scaled structures with a lower perceived density, and placemaking considerations.
  • Smaller units (500-1,000 square feet) that are thoughtfully designed.
  • New living configurations that are affordable by design and are people-focused rather than car- and parking-centric (publications like The High Cost of Free Parking assert that some cities provided better spaces for cars than for people).
  • Provide community.
ASLA 2010 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Pacific Cannery Lofts, Oakland, CA. Miller Company Landscape Architects / image: Miller Company
ASLA 2010 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Pacific Cannery Lofts, Oakland, CA. Miller Company Landscape Architects / image: Miller Company

Projects mentioned to illustrate these shared traits and show how cities are starting to construct missing middle-type pilot projects included:

Richmond Street Studios, Albuquerque, NM

Sonoma Wildfire Cottages, Santa Rose, CA

Oleson Woods Apartments, Tigard, OR

Cottage court demonstration project, Decatur, GA

Daybreak community, South Jordan, UT

For more information, see Opticos Design’s Missing Middle Housing website.

Are you passionate about the future of housing and community design, and looking to connect with other ASLA members who share your focus? Consider joining the leadership team for ASLA’s Housing & Community Design Professional Practice Network (PPN). We are seeking a few volunteers to grow the PPN’s leadership team. Let us know if you’re interested in getting involved!

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