Q. You’ve designed small houses for people who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina, and you’ve also designed houses in a walkable neighborhood. Do you think there’s more of an interest in these kinds of walkable neighborhoods and maybe even smaller spaces?
A: Because of the size of some of the houses I have designed, people sometimes mistake what I say as “everyone should live in 300 square feet.” That’s not the message. The message is: Live in the space that works for you.
All square feet are not made equal. When you have the ceiling height that’s 9 or 10 feet and windows on multiple walls and connections to the outdoors, and when you can actually use the space in your yard because you have private outdoor living space, then the space that you have feels so much larger. It’s not a matter of square footage, it’s more about how that square footage is utilized.
Q. In the book you say that a smaller back yard, if it’s designed well, can be more useful than a larger yard.
If you can walk outdoors and feel that your neighbors are not just staring down at you, you’ll go outside. When the space doesn’t work, you’re not going to use it. You can plant trees and help to define the space.
It’s learning to read a house and knowing what you’re looking for. Other things to look for: How the house flows. Is there privacy between rooms? Can you have a private conversation? Does the furniture fit?
Q. What should people look for on the street?
One of the big things is: Does the streetscape form an outdoor room? Elements like pushing the garage back and the porch forward — that actually helps the space because it puts the person as a primary element and the car is secondary. When the car is primary it’s hard to get out and walk, and that’s led to a lot of isolated places.
Q. You mention mother-in-law apartments, but zoning laws often prohibit them. Do you find that zoning sometimes stands in the way of changes to housing policy, such as allowing for denser development?
Zoning laws are usually quite well intended but they have consequences that go deeper than people would plan on. There’s nothing greater to enrich a community than being able to have a mix of incomes — which doesn’t mean we’re bringing housing projects in. It means you could have an accessory apartment in the back of your house for an aging parent, or a young professional or your college-age kid who’s home for the summer and needs a little more privacy. When you add those demographics into a community, you enrich the community. It can also help the homeowners offset their mortgage costs.
Q. Housing construction seems to be picking up again after years of very low levels. What trends do you see in home construction for the next couple of years?
I think we’ve seen a much savvier consumer. When anything will sell, anything will be built. And that’s what we ran into, up till the housing bust. Now we’re seeing consumers who are asking for something different. If you look at Millennials, they’re not asking for their parents’ homes. They don’t want to live the way they grew up. That’s natural; most generations react against where they’ve come from. They have college debt. They want their house to be efficient. They want a home that makes sense and is livable and has proximity to the things you do in a day.
There is also a shift toward more urban and dense areas, especially in places where the formula already exists. You’re in an area where there’s precedent for that, and people like living like that.