Where I've Been

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Mouzon Design conference room surrounded by bookshelves

my library at the office

   I've taken my longest break from blogging in years for three awesome reasons: a new way to build, a new way to draw, and a new way to do business.

A New Way to Build

   Hurricane Katrina changed everything. Andrés Duany and I came up with the idea of Katrina Cottages on the Saturday after the hurricane. On that day, we conceived of them as "FEMA trailers with dignity", but they've grown to be so much more. In the years since, we've built an entire toolbox of ways of building smaller and smarter from lessons learned from the Katrina Cottages, and they charmed people like we never anticipated.

   Katrina accelerated another problem that exists through much of the US: moisture. Simply put, we build our houses so tight today that we need to put them on life support. Get one hole in the envelope and the whole thing starts molding, mildewing, and rotting. The time has come for the sheetrock-free house.

   I'm joining with two close friends to found a company that puts these ideas together with other great ideas of how to build better. Our SmartDwellings will not only breathe and be smaller and smarter, but they'll condition themselves without outside power for much of the year. More soon on this new venture.

A New Way to Draw

   Our SmartDwellings are such a departure from normal ways of building that they actually changed the way we draw. Architectural drawings have changed radically since the 1970s on the production side as we moved from hand drawing and blueline machines to CAD and plotting. But they've scarcely changed at all in terms of the user experience. We asked ourselves "what happens if we do a radical upgrade to the user experience?" And so that's what we're doing. We'll roll out the new system at the University of Miami School of Architecture soon. Stay tuned.

A New Way to Do Business

   The ways we do business as designers and builders are now broken, and I believe we are now in a true paradigm shift as great as the Industrial Revolution. Even the three prime virtues of business (better-faster-cheaper) are fading as we move from the Era of the Company to the Age of the Idea. I'm on the brink of finishing a new book: New Media for Designers + Builders that lays out how we need to be thinking and what we need to be doing if we hope to thrive. Even the book is a bit revolutionary on at least two counts, doing things that e-books should have done for some time, but haven't.


   Any one of these tasks could have been almost all-encompassing. Trying to do them all at once has been completely so, as I've done little else for six months. But since each is close to done, I'll start blogging again soon. The next post will be fun: "How Steve Jobs Hit What Gropius Missed". One other note: I just got word today that Kaid Benfield gave a citation to an Original Green initiative: His Best of 2012 in Green Community Solutions post today tags Walk Appeal as the Best Expansion of the Green City Vocabulary. Thanks so much, Kaid!

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: I'll get to the Steve Jobs/Walter Gropius post soon, but there are other things we need to talk about now.


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Legacy Comments

Lloyd Alter · Contributor at Corporate Knights

I wondered what was going on with Steve Mouzon - he explains.

Dec 31, 2012 11:51am

Tom Hoch

Great to hear....I eagerly await...happy New Year!

Dec 31, 2012 3:28pm

Roland Beinert · University of Idaho

Auugh! Not ANOTHER new way to draw! First I learned hand drawing and drafting, but all the employers wanted CAD. So I learned CAD, but then all the employers wanted sketchup. So I learned sketchup, but all the employers wanted Rhino. I'm trying to learn Rhino now. You killing me here, Steve:)

Jan 1, 2013 11:00am


The Fall of the Waters

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   The Waters story took a very dark turn this week, but that never would have happened without bad advice finally heeded several years ago. The Waters' original landowner was a timber man by trade, but after he bought the land on which the Waters sits, he said: "these trees are too beautiful; I can't cut them." So he decided to develop the land instead.

   Having never developed before, he wisely decided to seek out expertise from those who had. And so he asked for recommendations and settled on a development expert from Atlanta who had loads of experience under his belt. They hired us to do the pattern book and then the land plan shortly thereafter.

   From the beginning, there was a problem: we were advocating building a traditional neighborhood, whereas the development expert on the team was pushing the patterns of conventional sprawl development. So although he was a really good guy, there was always an underlying tension.

"…why should I buy here?
The Waters is just across the street…"

   After several years, and in spite of the success of the Waters, the development expert finally prevailed and convinced the landowner that "this New Urbanism stuff is OK, but lots of people want sprawl as well." So he persuaded the landowner to buy land across the street from the Waters and do a sprawl subdivision, complete with "wet noodle" cul-de-sacs, front-loaded lots, and nothing except houses. They called it Waterscapes. They. Never. Sold. One. Single. Lot. People would look at it, then say "why should I buy here? The Waters is just across the street." The land and infrastructure costs of Waterscapes hit the Waters landowner at the worst possible time (the Meltdown) and ended up taking him under. And let's be clear: the Waters did not fail because of the Waters, but because of Waterscapes. Between the subprime meltdown in 2007 and the big Meltdown in October 2008, the Waters was actually the great success story of the region. Most conventional developments were already shut down by then, but really great planners about to design in the Montgomery region were coming to the Waters to study what was done there.

…what is more dangerous than good guys with bad ideas?

   The failure was really sad, because the original landowner is a really great guy, but for the couple hundred homeowners at the Waters, the sadness had only just begun. The remaining property was bought by a Birmingham development company that appears to know nothing about traditional neighborhoods, nor do they appear to want to learn the principles that helped the Waters generate 25 times the developed land value of the land all around it. Some of my developer colleagues in Alabama know them, and assert that they (like the original development expert) are really good guys. Which begs the question: what is more dangerous than good guys with bad ideas? It's much harder for most people to challenge a good guy than it is to challenge a slimeball.

…a complete betrayal of civic trust…

   The new owners soon let the architectural quality standards begin to slip, which was not a big surprise. But it is fundamentally changing the character of the Waters in a bad way. People have built their homes at the Waters precisely because the architecture was better… and now that is slipping away.

   What came recently, however was completely and unthinkably shocking. They have rammed through what can only be described as a complete betrayal of civic trust: they are taking Crescent Park and dividing it up for lakefront lots! From the first day I drew Crescent Park a decade ago, it was always intended to be not only the great civic park space of Lucas Point, but indeed, the center of all the hamlets of the Waters. It has always been shown on all drawings, the Waters website, etc., as a park.

   To now divide that up for private lots… that's something so unthinkable it never entered my mind. And that fundamentally changes the character of the Waters as well. All because the developer has ignored the things that are known to work in traditional neighborhoods, treating the Waters instead like just another sprawl subdivision. They say on their website that they "view The Waters as the “crown jewel” of the investment group’s real estate assets". If so, then why aren't they interested in learning how the Waters got so good, and why it's so different from a regular subdivision?

…garages… mooning Lucas Point…

   Beyond that, the ineptness of execution of the demise of Crescent Park is stunning. The center of Crescent Park was meant for an obelisk or other element that could be seen from distant hamlets, so I naturally lined an important street up with it. But because the lots front to the lake, that means that the view at the end of the street isn't a civic monument, but rather the back ends of the garages, which are effectively mooning Lucas Point! One of the basics of competent planning is getting fronts and backs of buildings arranged properly on the land. Not doing so reminds me of an old Southern adage that comes in several similar versions, the sanitized version of which is about "not knowing head from tail."

…the first pattern book with no patterns…

   In the process, and to close the iron fist even tighter around future development of the Waters, the new developers informed the neighbors that they had gutted the pattern book last week, leaving it with little more than pretty pictures. It may well be the first pattern book with no patterns! So the decline in the quality of architecture is almost certain to continue. And in this week's meeting before the Town of Pike Road Planning Commission, they also demonstrated that they were going to disregard the SmartCode! The Planning Commission, calling it a "very complicated issue" nonetheless approved the developers' request to take the park. You can read all about it here.

… will they be able to muster themselves to the very difficult task of fighting for the dream of the Waters they believed in at the beginning?

   Now comes the hard part: Southerners are for the most part friendly people, not given to public confrontations. The Waters neighbors have created a Neighbors United for the Waters group on Facebook, so that's a start. But will they be able to muster themselves to the very difficult task of fighting for the dream of the Waters they believed in at the beginning? Or will this place that once had so many great stories to tell be reduced to nothing more than just another subdivision by a bunch of reputed good guys with a bad idea? You really should stop by their Facebook page and offer a word or two of encouragement for the battle that's ahead for the neighbors at the Waters.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Jack Horner · The University of Mississippi - Ole Miss

We miss you, Steve, along with the leadership of Dale, Ed, Rusty, and Nathan - all quality people.

Oct 12, 2012 12:30pm

George Matthew Linkert IV · Program Coordinator at Sojourn Adult Day Services

Just when you think you are taking a step forward, you take a step back. Thanks for sharing your story.

Oct 12, 2012 12:45pm

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Here's the sad and even shocking part of the story. Everyone who sees this really should stop by the Neighbors United for the Waters page to encourage them for what's ahead! Here's the link: http://www.facebook.com/groups/224440590903890.

Oct 12, 2012 1:05pm

Rusty Daniel · Principal (school) at SDS Property Group, LLC

Steve, your thesis on the fall of The Waters is just as wrong as those that don't know the first thing about The Waters. Waterscapes, while a failure, did not bring down The Waters. There were two primary reasons:
1. The failure of Colonial Bank, which wiped out the liquidity of the owner; and.
2. The development of Welch Cove 1 year ahead of the collapse.
And by the way, the "Atlanta Developer" was not the decision maker on Waterscapes.

Oct 12, 2012 2:06pm

Nathan Norris · Works at Downtown Lafayette

Not all mistakes are created equal. The former owner of the Waters made a mistake regarding timing of infrastructure/leveraging that could not be corrected once Colonial Bank failed. That was a mistake that did not directly compromise the character of the community. What it did was cause the bulk of the lots at the Waters to be sold to a new owner. The three most recent mistakes by the new developer are substantially worse mistakes because they directly undermine the character and quality of life at the Waters. First, they have abandoned the planning principles by removing Crescent Park in favor of private lots (for the reasons you stated). This was the only large flat area with a panoramic view of the county's largest lake. Second, they have abandoned the architectural principles as you stated. Third, by not being transparent or sensitive to the neighbors concerns they have caused neighbors, the development's most valuable sales referral machine, to stop referring friends.

Oct 12, 2012 2:35pm

Kenny Craft · Director of Design at South Main Development, Inc.

Very sad story. It's been several years since I visited the Waters, but I've always considered it an exemplary project... Nothing worse than a Developer compromising a project with such a strong start! I hope the bad press and sentiment will sink in and convince the new Developer that they are making bad choices...!

Oct 13, 2012 4:12pm


A Happy Story Turned Sad

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long view of the chapel on Chapel Hill, Lucas Point, the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   Two guys sticking with an idea can change a city, but one bad voice can ruin a neighborhood. Both these things happened at the Waters, which we talked about recently, and friends have asked me to tell more of the story. Here it is:

   Nathan Norris and I were founding partners of PlaceMakers, and had been invited to the Waters to discuss the creation of an architectural pattern book. The land was studded with majestic oaks, and rolled up gently toward us from all directions.

   The plan, however, had apparently been done by a conventional subdivision planner because there were "wet noodle streets" and cul de sacs slung indiscriminately across this beautiful piece of land. We were aghast when we saw it. PlaceMakers was very young at the time and needed the pattern book work, but we wanted to have no part in making better architecture in a standard subdivision.

closer view of the chapel on Chapel Hill, Lucas Point, the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   We immediately told the development team that they were making a big mistake, and that the land plan was completely unworthy of the land. I had already served as Town Architect in other neighborhoods for most of a decade by then, and was hoping in the back of my mind that they would let me do for the land plan what I had done for many home designs: meet with the designers and help them do a radical makeover of the plan.

   The Waters team took us on a tour of the land, asking our recommendations on several issues. As described earlier, the landowner pointed to a hill and said "where would you put all this dirt? The other planner said it won't work with his plan." I said "you mean the hill?" "Yes." "Leave the hill exactly where it is," I replied. "Line a street up with it, and build a chapel on the hill. We'll call it Chapel Hill." And so we did, as you can see in the top picture.

   I was also very concerned about a century-old fencerow of towering oak trees, which the conventional plan basically ignored. Most of them surely would be lost. I recommended instead that they celebrate the fencerow by making it the center of the grand avenue leading into town, making it look as if the avenue had been there as long as the trees.

Avenue of the Oaks in Lucas Point, the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   The landowner had apparently been having second thoughts about the plan for some time because, to our great surprise, he hired us to redesign the Waters. We held the design charrette ten years ago this week.

   While the previous plan sprawled 800 or so homes indiscriminately across the land, our design built almost 2,500 homes in eight compact hamlets, preserving most of the land as either lakes or farm fields. Prior to the Waters, subdivisions in the area had been selling 2-acre lots for $40,000 for a developed land value of $20,000/acre. Within hamlets at the Waters, the developed land value immediately rose to $500,000/acre, a staggering 25 times higher.

kids and parents playing checkers on the square in Lucas Point, the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   The town of Pike Road, Alabama, incorporated shortly thereafter. They were so impressed with the Waters that they spent 2/3 of their founding bank account to hire PlaceMakers to do a SmartCode for the newborn town because places like the Waters thrive under a SmartCode, but are illegal on many counts under conventional zoning. And because Pike Road did a SmartCode, the Waters agreed to be annexed into Pike Road.

   The city of Montgomery saw the town of Pike Road sitting squarely in Montgomery's growth corridor, and realized that with a SmartCode that encouraged developments like the Waters, Pike Road was likely to draw several years' worth of development out of Montgomery because by this time, the Waters had begun its first neighborhood center and a number of businesses were very interested in relocating. So Montgomery's forward-looking civic leaders banded together to bring the SmartCode to town. Dover-Kohl did the plan for downtown, and Montgomery, through the heroic efforts of many (especially including Planning Director Ken Groves,) became the largest city in the world with a SmartCode… a distinction they held until Miami21, by DPZ, was enacted a couple years later.

   All of this began,* of course, because two guys just couldn't shut up about improving a plan on one single Dog Day in 2002. We were simply focused on trying to get the planner to improve the plan… we couldn't have even imagined the chain of events that would follow. So don't ever give up… you never know where today's efforts may someday lead.

   That's the happy story… I'll tell you the sad part in the next post.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Debbie Dobbs Burlingame · Mississippi State University

Educational Steve. I learned things I never knew about the Waters. I'll stay tuned for...the rest of the story. Good day!

Oct 12, 2012 12:09pm

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Here's a cautionary tale for a Friday afternoon... this first part tells the story of what can happen if you have hope of making things better. Ask Ann DaigleWanda MouzonNathan Norris, and others, who were there from the beginning.

Oct 12, 2012 1:03pm

Mark DeBacker · Major Project Architect at County of Sonoma

Looking (nervously) forward to Part II.

Oct 12, 2012 10:13pm


The Teddy Bear Principle

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stuffed bear and cub in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

   Smaller buildings often tap into an unexpected source of lovability that just might be a basic survival mechanism for humans and other creatures as well. I call it the Teddy Bear Principle. Here's how it works: Baby bears are considered to be so cute that we give every American child a teddy bear before they're two weeks old. But the mother bear is so terrifying that nobody wants to get within two miles of her. How can this be?

Steve Mouzon in 1963

me at three - obviously not

a mini-me of me today -

and like most of us, cuter

as a kid than as an adult

   It's all about proportion. Claws and fangs get longer in proportion to the size of the bear's body as they mature, as you can see. The bear's body more than doubles in size, while its head doesn't get so much bigger. A cub's eyes appear larger on its face because while its head won't grow so much, its eyes are even closer to their adult size.

   Humans and other creatures are similar. A young child can barely reach to the top of its head, while most adults can reach all the way over the top of their head to their ear on the other side. That's because our arms grow more than our head does from infancy to adulthood.

Katrina Cottage I at the International Builders Show in Orlando, 2006

Andrés Duany helping set up the Katrina Cottage
exhibit at the IBS

   Public response to the first Katrina Cottages was so strong that it shocked me. I was one of a dozen or so New Urbanists who manned the Katrina Cottage at the International Builders Show in January 2006. People were falling all over themselves to express how much they loved the little cottage. Later prototypes got the same response. For over a year, I was at a loss to explain why so many people acted the way they did about this little cottage.

Katrina Cottage VIII on display in Silver Spring, Maryland November 2006

Katrina Cottage VIII on temporary display near
Washington DC

   I finally realized that it was the Teddy Bear Principle at work. When you make a house substantially smaller, not everything shrinks equally. The windows, for example, can only get so small before they fail to meet building codes. Windows are the eyes of a building, and so windows proportioned larger to the face of the building take on the same infant proportions as cubs, babies, fawns, puppies, and kittens.

curtain blowing out window in London breeze

   These small creatures are often characterized with terms that make architects cringe: "adorable," "precious," "cute," "darling," etc. But it's precisely this outpouring of gut emotion that I believe plays a role in keeping our respective species alive. If the little ones weren't so lovable, then what might we do with them when they're screaming their heads off at three in the morning? Because they are so lovable most of the time, we suffer the sleepless nights for them, and life goes on. As it does for the other creatures as well.

   This is important because when we build smaller and smarter, all sorts of virtuous cycles kick in to help us build more frugally. Cross ventilation and daylighting, for example, come naturally in tiny buildings that are only one room deep, whereas they require increasing doses of cleverness as the building gets larger. Compound frugal patterns like these with the fact that you're conditioning a lot less space, and you're saving even more.

   The great thing about the Teddy Bear Principle is that if you know about it, you don't have to sell the idea of building smaller and smarter on cost savings alone. If you follow Teddy Bear Principle rules of proportion, then your designs will be much more lovable as well.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

I discovered the Teddy Bear Principle while trying to figure out why people love Katrina Cottages so much. But the Teddy Bear Principle doesn't just explain how to design smaller cottages better... I think it's actually a much deeper phenomenon that keeps life going by creating strong bonds between the adults and the little ones.

Sep 10, 2012 9:15am


Intriguing points, but there also are non-teddy bear spaces/places that people seem to love too. (If someone wanted to demo Grand Central today, people would throw a fit!)
It seems that large spaces, if properly proportioned and detailed, can also be comforting in a different way: I've never heard anyone call GCT "cute" or "adorable," but I've heard "spiritually uplifting" and "ennobling" and "empowering." 
But yeah, I'd definitely agree that intimate spaces/places (and objects) stir something in us - "Oh, look at that weeny.." 
I guess the mystery is why so many people fell for the cavernous, poorly-proportioned McMansions with their drafty, banal "great halls" and other oversized, alienating spaces?

Sep 10, 2012 10:38am

Doris Sussman Goldstein · Works at Doris S. Goldstein, Planning Consultant

In my hodgepodge neighborhood--which ranges from riverfront mansions to small cinder block homes--someone fixed up an old cottage that sat at the front of their property, in front of their much larger home on the river. As I walked by with friends, they invariably commented on how appealing the cottage was and how they would enjoy living in the renovated cottage--even though it was a quarter of the size of the homes they actually lived in.
I believe it appealed to them because it promised a simpler lifestyle: that if they lived in this smaller, cozier space, their lives would be stripped of much of its complexity, and they would be happier as a result. Perhaps it also reminded them of their younger days, before they had all the possessions that accompany middle-aged life.
I do think that you are right about the proportions of the Katrina Cottage, particularly how the (relatively) over-sized windows and porch add to their appeal. But I also think that the purity of its form allows people to project onto the cottage a wish for calm and tranquility accompanying the simpler life they imagine they would have there.

Sep 11, 2012 2:02pm

Liesl Schick · Processing at Cromaine District Library

We stayed in a cabin recently that was 13 x 29 feet. The bedroom had a queen size bunk bed in the middle and a twin size bunk along one wall so that all six of us slept in one room. Our kids ages are 15, 12, 10, and 7. The kids most memorable experience and what they are still talking about 2 months later? Sleeping all together in the same room. They loved it and still say that was their favorite part and why can't we do that all time?

Sep 29, 2012 6:44am


Smaller & Smarter

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tiny cottage at Lucas Point, the Waters, Pike Road, Alabama

This article was first published in Period Homes March 2012.

   There are likely countless details to building smaller and smarter, but only a few game-changing principles that reduce size across the board. These key principles unlock size reductions that wouldn't happen otherwise. This is more important than ever today because nobody is saying "money is no object" anymore. Every client has real choices to make, and at the core, they all come down to this: Do you want it bigger, or better? Make it bigger and the quality goes down. Make it better and it must be smaller.


Katrina Cottage VIII floor plan

Katrina Cottage VIII floor plan

   The biggest impediment to building smaller and smarter is the lack of a clear expansion path. People fell in love with the Katrina Cottages, but the first generation of designs didn't expand very well because exterior walls were so quickly eaten up with closets, baths, and cabinets. The very first design move in a smaller and smarter design should be to locate the Grow Zones so that homeowners see clearly how they could expand if their needs change.

Double Duty

hearth corner at Mount Vernon, home of George Washington

   McMansions might have three or four places to eat. NASA calls that redundancy. If you're on the way to the moon and one system fails, your life depends on having a backup. But houses don't go to the moon. Early American homes did the opposite, with single elements doing many jobs. The "keeping room," for example, was where all the housekeeping was done. Anything that didn't happen in the bedroom or the outhouse happened in the keeping room.

Light on More Sides

tiny bedroom with windows on two sides

   Smaller rooms can be more delightful than larger rooms if there are windows on more than one side. Bedrooms can be extraordinarily small, for example, with windows on three sides.

Outdoor Rooms

   Excellent outdoor rooms can be built and furnished for a fraction of the cost of interior space, and when you entice people outdoors, they get acclimated to the local environment and don't need as much conditioning when they return indoors, slashing their utility bill. They also need less indoor living space if they have outdoor rooms they can use for several months of the year.

Light Wings

   Don't just build a smaller footprint, but build an especially thin footprint so the house is only one room deep wherever possible except in the northernmost states, where the plan should be more compact to conserve heat. The thinner plan will be longer, and can better help to enclose the outdoor rooms.

Walk to the Grocery

couple shopping at fish market in Bologna, Italy

   If you live close to the grocery, you're probably living close to other necessities of life as well. And if the street in between is walkable enough, then you'll likely enjoy the fresher produce so much that you soon find yourself buying groceries by the meal, rather than by the week. That will lead to walking to buy other necessities in smaller quantities as well, so you'll need less storage space throughout your house.

Bed and Breakfast Benefits

   Do everything you can to see that a bed and breakfast opens near you. If so, you'll save tens of thousands by not building the guest suite which will save enough on your mortgage to pay your guests' bill at the inn if you want to.

Silver Bullets

dining booth in 2011 Coastal Living Idea House, East Beach Norfolk, Virginia

   If we hope to build radically smaller and smarter, where a client would choose to live in half the space because they like it better than the bigger, less intelligent house, then we need a few silver bullets that save far more than half the footage. For example, consider which seats fill up first at restaurants. It's the booths, right? A comfortable booth for six people can easily be designed in 36 sq.ft. or less. Seat those same six people in a dining room with adequate space to serve around them, and it takes about 180 sq.ft. Why not give people what they'd really prefer in a fifth of the space? And in the spirit of doing double duty, the booth can double both as a light-duty home office and as a homework station with just the addition of appropriate receptacles.

Children's Realm

bed alcove in Katrina Cottage VIII

   The bed alcove is a special type of silver bullet because it has an extra benefit: it allows the sleeping enclosure to be curtained off at night. This means you can cut the thermostat down ridiculously low on winter nights, and your body heat will likely keep your alcove warm. The master bed alcove might open into a larger bedroom, but it's possible to put all the children's bed alcoves around a single "children's realm," which saves a lot of footage versus individual bedrooms and baths. Because privacy is achieved with each alcove's curtains (wardrobes are built into each alcove) the children's realm doesn't need a door, and the computer can be located at a table where parents can see where their kids are surfing.

Compartmentalized Baths

bathroom in 2001 Coastal Living Idea House, Habersham, South Carolina

   Build baths with compartments for the toilet and shower, so that more than one person can use them at a time. A single properly-designed compartmentalized bath can serve the entire children's realm, whereas you'd likely need another bath if one kid can lock the door and keep the others out. Compartmentalization works great for the parents' bath as well, because there are some things that shouldn't be shared.

Furniture vs. Closets

   Ever notice how early American homes often had much cleaner floor plans than today's homes? If you study them carefully, you'll notice it's because they weren't burdened with today's assortment of clothing and utility closets. Instead, clothes were stored in furniture such as armoires, dressers, and chests of drawers. This allowed the rooms to be much cleaner, and the inside and outside walls to each be better composed. This also allowed rooms to be repurposed over the years as household needs changed. What once was a bedroom could become a study, for example, simply by changing out the furniture.

Armoire Advantages

armoire in private residence designed by Jose Plecnik in Lubjana, Slovenia

   There are other advantages to furnishing instead of closeting: By the time you frame the wall for a wall closet, install the sheetrock, the door frame, the door, the hardware, and the door casing and baseboard, and then paint it all (except the hardware, of course) you've spent enough money to build an armoire that stores every bit as much as the plain sheetrock closet, and looks much better. And the walls of the armoire can be as thin as ¾ inch instead of the 4-¾ inch sheetrock walls (assuming ⅞ inch sheetrock.) So you're saving 4 inches of floor space at every wall. Add that up across a house and it's a notable difference. But those aren't all the advantages. There is no need for the armoires to be taller than eight feet, while the ceiling might be nine feet, ten feet, or higher. So your perception is that the room is larger when it's furnished with armoires rather than gummed up with closets that run all the way to the ceiling. Need the equivalent of a walk-in closet? No problem… just design two facing armoires.

Don't Waste an Inch

basket under bed in Katrina Cottage VIII

   The attitude of recovering every cubic inch possible leads to a plethora of patterns, including Booth Seat Shelves, Kitchen Corners, the One-Item Deep Pantry, Box Spring Drawers, Under-Bed Baskets, the Book Bench, the Reach-In Closet (where you still have closets), and several things you can do under the stairs.

Open Walls

open walls with shelves in 2001 Coastal Living Idea House, Habersham, South Carolina

   The most radical result of the "don't waste an inch" attitude is to open the interior walls where possible. Use wood boards instead of sheetrock on one side, then leave the finish off the other side and build shelves between the studs so that every interior wall becomes a shelving unit. Boarded walls are much more interesting than sheetrock, and allow the attachment of shelves, pegs, hooks and even fixtures and appliances at any point, stud or not. Eric Moser began this train of thought in 2001 with the Idea House at Habersham. I did my first open-wall design with Katrina Cottage VIII. We now do this on all our new designs; it's incredibly charming and radically space-saving because you can store so much stuff in the walls.

   I'll blog soon about several benefits of building smaller and smarter. The Teddy Bear Principle shows how smaller buildings can be more lovable. Because they're smaller, it's easier to make them more durable because you don't need as many materials and can therefore afford to use better stuff. Buildings that are both smaller and smarter are also more adaptable in several ways. And there are many virtuous cycles that kick in with smaller buildings that make them more frugal as well.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

There are likely countless details to building smaller and smarter, but only a few game-changing principles that reduce size across the board. These key principles unlock size reductions that wouldn't happen otherwise. This is more important than ever today because nobody is saying "money is no object" anymore. Every client has real choices to make, and at the core, they all come down to this: Do you want it bigger, or better? Make it bigger and the quality goes down. Make it better and it must be smaller.

Sep 7, 2012 5:55am

Dawn Claus

Good ideas to keep in mind. I'm excited to learn more about the "Teddy Bear principle." As the house cook, I'm still not sure about the keeping room. I have never been interested in having my kitchen, as one of the first things I see when I come home. What are your thoughts Steve?

Sep 8, 2012 5:55am

Christopher M. Pizzi · Associate at Hart Howerton

Steve, the Katrina VIII Kernal Cottage plan is excellent. It has an abrupt utilitarian quality that reminds us that every square foot counts, where comfort is redefined as necessity. And even a figural space and thick-wall zones that would make Steven Kent Peterson and Mike Dennis proud!

Sep 9, 2012 10:43pm

Liesl Schick · Processing at Cromaine District Library

I love this! We have been looking at your Tiny big giant ( don't remember if that is the name) to build for our family of 6 and 60 pound dog. A lot of these ideas could be put to use in that home. How would be compartmentalize that bath?

Sep 29, 2012 6:38am

Kenny Craft · Director of Design at South Main Development, Inc.

Steve - Just finally read your Smaller & Smarter article. Really great concepts, masterfully presented! I wanted to ask..., have you had success convincing an Appraiser to "count" an Armoire as as "closet" in terms of "officially" qualifying it as a bedroom in an appraisal? I have attempted to advocate for this strategy before (makes total sense), but..., unfortunately the appraisal/financing "system" in this country doesn't appear to have the flexibility for great ideas like this, no matter how rational... Maybe if there were some "success stories" with specific Appraisers/Lenders, these could be used as case studies to help transform the industry.

Oct 10, 2012 8:35am


Sitting Lightly on the Land

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Avenue of the Oaks at the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

Avenue of the Oaks at the Waters

   Civil engineers are spending countless millions of dollars and clear-cutting untold trees needlessly because they have forgotten one essential point of sustainable design: Roads and other infrastructure should sit very lightly on the land.

mass-graded development site with raw dirt and erosion control fence

here's what a mass-graded site can look like

   Left to their own devices, engineers will usually "mass-grade" a site, which means that they first cut every tree on the site. Next, they remove all of the topsoil, piling it in a huge mound somewhere. Next, they move many truckloads of dirt around all over the site, cutting some areas and filling other areas by a dozen feet or more on some sites. After they've put the storm sewers and other utilities in, they pave the roads and spread all the topsoil back out over the land. During this entire process, they must install erosion control all over to keep the soil from washing away. They go to all this expense in order to make the streets less humpy, so you're able to drive faster.

porches of houses along the Avenue of the Oaks at the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

another view of how things look more natural when
a neighborhood sits more lightly on the land

   See the top picture? That's at a place called the Waters that I planned while I was a partner with PlaceMakers a decade ago. I had to fight tooth-and-nail with the engineer for weeks on end so he would sit the streets more lightly on the land. Engineering "best practices" say that you should fill in the dips and cut down the high spots along streets so that you have greater "sight distance." But wait… that's a stop sign at the intersection in the top picture. Once you get there, you can see further. You don't need to see all the way to the end of the road from the point where I took this picture. Fortunately, the civil engineer at the Waters was a good guy, and I was able to convert him to sitting more lightly.

   One of the benefits was the fact that by not cutting and filling so much, we were able to preserve the majestic oaks along this avenue leading in to town. The trees grew up along a fence that had been built a century ago, and by saving them, it appears that the avenue might have been there that long as well. With normal engineering practices, they would have all been cut.

chapel on Chapel Hill at the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   Here's another example at the Waters. When Nathan Norris and I first met the landowner, the land had already been planned by a conventional planner, but the landowner was having second thoughts about the plan. He pointed to a hill and said "where would you put all this dirt? The other planner said it won't work with his plan." I said "you mean the hill?" "Yes." "Leave the hill exactly where it is," I replied. "Line a street up with it, and build a chapel on the hill. We'll call it Chapel Hill." And so we did, as you can see.

existing grading plan of new neighborhood

existing grading plan

   I'm working right now with the Town Founder of one of the places where I'm Town Architect. He's about to build the next neighborhood in his town. The drawing above shows how the engineer has graded the first part of the new neighborhood. I'm not sure how accustomed you are to reading grading plans, but this land is mass-graded, so they'll have to cut every tree on the site and move many truckloads of dirt. Much of the land will be either cut or filled by 5-10 feet, and the really steep stuff on the right side will be filled by substantially more than that… think about fill taller than a two-story building in places!

proposed grading plan for new neighborhood

new grading plan

   Here's an alternative grading plan I did yesterday. My contours are all in red, so as you can see, most of the site is left untouched. The greatest amount of cut or fill on the alternative plan is four feet, but many areas that I've disturbed have less than a foot of cut or fill.

   Taking this approach will likely save the Town Founder (and therefore the lot purchasers) over $300,000, and this is just one phase of one neighborhood of one new town. And the Town Founder gets to sell wooded lots instead of raw dirt. And the streets will cause people to drive slower, making them safer, especially for the kids and the old folks who walk there. Which would you rather have?

   For almost all of human history, sitting lightly on the land was the only choice for most of us because moving dirt around was really hard work when you did it by shovel and wheelbarrow. Diesel-powered heavy equipment has given us the ability to push countless tons of dirt across the land, but should we do things just because we can?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Civil engineers could save millions in each new neighborhood and avoid the loss of countless trees by respecting existing topography... why won't they?

Aug 27, 2012 5:03am

Patrick Pinnell · Owner and Principal at Patrick L. Pinnell AIA / Architecture & Town Planning LLC

Very nice post, Steve, and I could not agree more. You can always feel it when land has been homogenized. I once helped the neighbors stop a new golf course the designer of which claimed to be "respecting the old New England landscape" despite proposing to move a million cubic yards of soil.

Aug 27, 2012 5:33am

Gil Lopez · Green Worker Cooperatives

I remember learning about grading in University. It was a two prong approach. How the engineers would do it and how a good landscape architect would do it. It's a shame more LAs aren't out there sending the engineers packing on this one.

Aug 27, 2012 6:03am

Denny Daikeler · Author and Speaker at Interior Design Workshops

I think the thing that bothers me the most is the value involved. Caring saves trees, creates better topography, more appropriate streets, dollar and beauty. What are we missing here. Hopefully there is goiNg to be that moment when everyone SEES the truth and moves to better choiceS. IT'S TIME.

Aug 27, 2012 2:34pm

Denny Daikeler · Author and Speaker at Interior Design Workshops


Aug 27, 2012 2:36pm

Larry Hanrahan

If developers are willing to reduce density to save trees (e.g., lose a couple of lots where a tree exists; cluster units where there are no trees); if volume builders can spend a few thousand extra per slab not to "pad" a site to preserve a tree next to the house; if regulators would allow a lower design speed on a road; and if attorneys wouldn't sue me when a wreck occurs on a "substandard" road, this civil engineer could wag the dog.
In the Waters photo above, the Avenue of the Oaks takes up a lot of real estate, and amounts to a "single loaded" street. Beautiful and desirable, and I'd love to do something like that. I've worked with very few developers who would sacrifice a number of lots to plan that. The ones that do, "get it". To suggest that a civil engineer is dictating the layout, though, is simplistic. In our situation, we are given a layout, or told to maximize the number of lots; with these constraints (physical, economic, development scheduling, regulatory), it's difficult to do anything creative with grading. If we all had the luxury of more time in the planning stage of a project, better designs that live lightly on the land would result.
Oh, if I truly had the ability to call the shots, as this article suggests...

Aug 28, 2012 6:45am

Rod Ballard · Franklin, Tennessee

Great article. Speaking of the Waters, looks like the Crescent "Point" is going to be platted for residential construction.

Sep 1, 2012 9:50pm

Roland Beinert · University of Idaho

Great post, Steve. I think respecting the topography also helps bring about a greater sense of place. 
And isn't a little bit of uncertainty for drivers is a good thing, anyway. It keeps them on their toes, and when your driving a several ton vehicle at high speeds, especially through a residential neighborhood, you should be paying attention. Isn't that the idea behind the dutch woonerf and the work of designers like Hans Monderman?

Sep 4, 2012 12:48pm

Mihir J Soneji · Divan Ballubhai School

Looks great. Currently, I am designing sub division. I am agree on intersection concept. However, your lots need to be graded to have sustainable drainage system MIHIR J SONEJI email: mihir.soneji@rmit.edu.au

Feb 20, 2014 10:12pm


Preservation's Big Unspoken Choice

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rear face of Destrehan Plantation house in Louisiana

garden side of Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana, where I'm working this week as an instructor at the Culture of Building Summer Program, sponsored by the Prince's Foundation for Building Community

   Preservation's current identity crisis is a result of the fact that we have not yet figured out what it is that we're preserving. This crisis began with some preservationists' infatuation with Brutalism. This is monumentally ironic, because it was the destruction of lovable historic buildings in the Brutalist era that gave birth to the modern-day preservation movement. Now, we're advocating for the preservation of precisely the sorts of things that disgusted us so badly that we banded together in the beginning!* Is our mission to preserve lovable buildings, or simply to preserve everything from the lovable to the detestable so long as they are iconic examples of their breeds? Put another way, are we as preservationists trying to be curators of style, from the resonant to the ridiculous, or are we instead more interested in making our cities and towns better places to live?

cottage on the grounds of Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana

   As for Brutalism in particular, that the style was aptly named. The brutality of its forms and its surfaces is unparalleled in the history of human construction. Don't we have too much brutality around us already? Why preserve more of it? I'd rather live in a place populated with civil buildings, not brutal buildings, wouldn't you?

   These questions, however, gloss over the deeper underlying question that nobody seems to be considering: Which is best, to preserve the artifacts created by a tradition, or to preserve the tradition itself? I just had breakfast with John Anderson, who put it this way: "If I want to preserve this dish, I've got to encase it in amber or something, and then it's not good eatin'. But if I preserve the culinary tradition that created this dish, then that tradition may produce a nearly endless supply of dishes like this."

   We know how to preserve artifacts, and have gotten pretty good at it. It can be time-consuming and expensive, to be sure, but it's not impossible. And if the tradition that produced that artifact is now dead, then we're unlikely to get any "more where that came from." So if we love that artifact, then our only choice is to preserve it.

cistern at Destrehan Plantation house in Louisiana

   But what about preserving a tradition? If it is a living tradition, then we have two choices: We can either preserve it in its current state, or we can preserve its life. To preserve a living thing in its current state, you have to kill it. If you would have wanted to preserve me as I was at seven years old, for example, you would have had to kill me and then embalm me because I have now transformed into someone quite different from the person I was at seven.

   You kill a living tradition by formalizing it into a style, writing up the rules of the style as of today, publishing a pattern book for that style, and then enforcing conformance to the pattern book. Forevermore, if you build in that style, you follow those rules. So a building built by those rules today and one built by those rules a century from now might look indistinguishable from each other.

   Preserving the life of the tradition is a very different thing. Living things evolve throughout their lives, from infancy to puberty to adulthood to old age. And it's not clear quite what sort of adult an infant might grow into. We are learning how to help traditions live again, I believe. I'll blog soon about how we're doing this in the Bahamas.

man sweeping the yard behind Destrehan Plantation’s detached kitchen

   Historic districts preserve traditions in their current state by killing them. As a matter of fact, historic districts should be thought of as "architectural formaldehyde". If the traditions that created the buildings in that district have died, then that's the best we can do today. But that's not the highest standard, which would be to foster a new living tradition that picks up where the dead traditions left off. New living traditions, therefore, should be the highest goal of the preservation movement, and it's high time for this aspiration to enter the preservation discourse.

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: The next part of this story will address the Venice Charter and the Secretary of the Interior's standards, but if you want to get a head-start on that discussion, check out Steve Semes' work, which is the most clear-headed discussion I'm aware of on these issues.

* I was only a toddler when the modern-day preservation movement began in the US; I am therefore speaking broadly of preservationists of all generations from then until now.

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Preservation's current identity crisis is defined by this choice: do we preserve buildings because they're lovable, like at the beginning of the preservation movement, or just because they're old? But the big unspoken choice is this: is it better to preserve artifacts or the traditions that created them?

Aug 24, 2012 8:44am

James Anderson Crouch

Mr. Anderson's culinary comparison is a false equivalency and I strongly disagree with your description of historic districts as "architectural formaldehyde." While some historic district commissions like the Vieux Carre Commission and those in Charleston may seem draconian, their main purpose has been to stem ill-considered development and wholesale demolition; if not for the VCC, the French Quarter would be a series of parking lots servicing Bourbon St, with a few "preserved" blocks of facades camouflaging uniform hotel blocks. There is great value in the tout ensemble, which is why the historic districts in New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah are so valued/loved.
Yes, we need to preserve/recover the traditions that built cities like New Orleans and Charleston (and Boston and Richmond). It's not an either/or proposition. I look forward to your essay on SOI Standards - I suspect we share many of the same views.

Aug 24, 2012 12:43pm

Ann Daigle · Works at CityBuilding Exchange

Obviously we need both. We must save the lovable to prove that the building traditions themselves are worthy. The artifacts of traditions are just as dear because they were made with love (or they would have never become traditions). To throw a beautiful building away is tantamount to thumbing one's nose at the person who made it; to ignore a beautiful and humanely constructed district is to snub thousands of ancestors who toiled to give society a complete model - a "pattern book"- of most-loved traditions. We should save building traditions for the same reason we save districts. What Steve is asking is whether we should save buildings that are unlovable. If the old building is not loved, and if worse it deters from more lovable buildings around it like a bad apple in a basket, (this test of two) there is reason to replace it.

Aug 25, 2012 3:56am

Tony Garcia

I think the best argument for preservation is that it provides a living example of tradition. To evolve traditional architecture - to adapt it to our current context - we need to use what exists as a starting point. If we have no starting point, then what results is disconnected and only a hint of what it should be. You nailed it here: "which would be to foster a new living tradition that picks up where the dead traditions left off. New living traditions, therefore, should be the highest goal of the preservation movement, and it's high time for this aspiration to enter the preservation discourse."

Aug 25, 2012 7:09am


Really interesting post! But how exactly do you start a new living tradition (and keep it alive and evolving)? I would argue that preservation emerged precisely *because* we subconsciously realized that we no longer knew how to create, nourish, and evolve new living traditions for the built environment. Thus the desperate rush to save the products of dead traditions in the hope that maybe they'd spur us to establish new traditions. But, as you noted, it hasn't really worked...
As for the preservation movement's foray into preserving the boondoggles of the postwar era, well, I think that's partly a symptom of bureaucratization and institutionalization. If your professional livelihood depends on saving buildings, well then you have to find a continuous stream of them to save every year! And once you run out of the prewar stuff, you have no choice but to move on to the postwar junk.
Immediately after the demo of Penn Station, preservation was very much an informal bottom-up movement led by a very focused desire to save what was almost universally regarded as beautiful or historically significant. Fast forward several decades and preservation has bloated into a highly-formal institution - complete with inane paperwork and questionable procedures - preoccupied with the curatorization of the built environment: Treating neighborhoods like time-stamped museum exhibits in which you have to save a little bit of something from every era so you can create a static catalog of history. It's also forbidden to play off/evolve/develop/enhance the motifs of previous eras if you want to do some infill in a historic area because that's supposedly an affront to the "honesty" of the museum exhibit and to "the spirit of our time." (Whatever happened to the more important "spirit of our place?" But I digress. 
;-) While there might be some merit in the curatorial approach in limited scenarios, to me preservation no longer has the focused-but-restrained 'save Beauty' approach of the immediate post-Penn Station era.
It should also be mentioned that much of the push to preserve postwar buildings is being led by academics, artists, and other intellectuals who might be totally detached from the deficiencies of a Brutalist bunker because they don't have to deal with it on a daily basis:
If all you have to do is appreciate these ghastly Brutalist buildings as starkly-elegant sculptural objects in photos and movies, then you may have a hard time understanding why the public hates them!
While there was some involvement of architects, academics, and artists in the earliest preservation movements, it seems to me that over the decades the upper layers of the movement have been influenced by the abstract dogmas of academia (another symptom of institutionalization). Thus today you see two layers of preservation at work: You get the bottom-up people in a small town that want to save the 1880s bank on their Main Street, and you also get the academic figures that want to save the physical ideological stunts that support their 1960s worldviews (as the above link reveals). Note how they often argue that the public has to be "conditioned" and "educated" to save something that's widely considered to be ugly. Did this "conditioning" have to be done to save Grand Central? Or countless other richly-textured, richly-patterned prewar buildings? Nope, people responded emotionally to those buildings/places and palpably *loved* them (which gets to your points on lovability); they didn't have to be "educated" to appreciate some stark slab that would repel them emotionally. The 'lovability' factor might even be neurological:
Finally, I have to question this bit:
"You kill a living tradition by formalizing it into a style, writing up the rules of the style as of today, publishing a pattern book for that style, and then enforcing conformance to the pattern book."
There have been pattern books and pattern collections for centuries, and they didn't seem to hamper the evolution of building traditions at all. There also continue to be pattern collections for other professions (like computer science) online, and that hasn't killed any traditions in those professions (rather, they sustain them). I would argue it's the way contemporary architects and urbanists are *using* pattern books that's at fault, rather than the pattern books themselves. (Of course, those architects of the 'starchitecture' variety are not even interested in maintaining traditions or patterns (apropos to your recent post on the space program vs. architectural fashion), so you can't maintain and develop a tradition if your worldview is predicated on the notion that existing traditions have to be constantly spurned and destroyed; i.e. perpetual revolution.)
I think from roughly WWI-WWII we lost true 'design' (the enhancement/refinement of tradition) in many of the professions responsible for our built environment because we converted those professions into hyperspecialized technocratic bureaucracies. People learned to copy solutions out of abstract technical manuals. The civic arts and urban design professions, for example, were transformed into a new 'urban planning' profession obsessed with abstract statistical models. Reductive traffic engineering rose to supplant integral City Beautiful street design. Whether it was the AASHTO Green Book, the IBC, or Architectural Graphic Standards, the postwar message to the (former) designer was clear: don't design, just copy the template out of the book and you can't go wrong. Then you'll breeze through the convoluted, technocratic permitting process. I think we're still stuck in the same approach when we use pattern books: just copy the template out of the book, make tweaks only if you have to conform to a need that varies from the situation in the book, and build it. Thus you get... the McMansion!
Contrast this with the way we used to use pattern books like Samuel Sloan's Model Architect. While there was lots of technical information in these books too, they read more like graphic novels than technical manuals. So because of the way they were presented and illustrated, you could tell that the authors intended the books to serve as loose idea generators rather than strict copy-and-paste manuals. And that's exactly what we used to do: Although some copying and pasting occurred (increasingly driven by the Industrial Revolution's demand for vast worker housing tracts), a lot of the time the books were only used as basic inspiration generators to create new buildings that were vastly different from the buildings in the pattern books. In fact, some books (or large portions of them) didn't even feature complete ready-to-build buildings: they illustrated sets of nested patterns which you were expected to modify, combine, and develop to create your own unique buildings:
This, IMO, is one thing that kept building traditions alive and evolving. There were no one-size-fits-all solutions (which are unfortunately present even in a lot of contemporary NU pattern books), rather there were a lot of fractal, incomplete building patterns which you worked with to create an infinite variety of new patterns. I'm not sure we're even capable of *seeing* this way anymore thanks to the 20th century's lingering "copy the template from the manual" approach.
Sorry for rambling. 

Aug 26, 2012 1:22pm


I forgot to add that I'm not sure I share Steve's optimism that "we are learning how to help traditions live again, I believe." Take LEED, for example: rather than fostering the kind of integral thinking that was common before the "Thermostat Age," it only seems to have induced an arbitrary checklist mentality. LEED's just another rote, abstract technical manual, in other words, rather than a true "best practice" transmitted through tradition. Thus we get isolated office parks with bike racks (which no one will ever use), "green" parking garages built with reused materials, solar panels and green roofs atop big box stores, and so on. 
Because these fiascoes rely on a bunch of disparate, checklisted, manual-extracted "green" criteria, they're not really green in any integral way. Rather than fostering a true tradition of sustainability, the professions responsible for the built environment merely continue slathering on layers of rote codes. Some of this is probably due to the smoke-blowing PR nature of contemporary business, but much of it is probably due to the lingering 20th century notion that you have to follow quantification-based templates to get something "good."

Aug 26, 2012 1:54pm

Steven Semes

Steve, Thanks for the mention. I look forward to reading your next post on this topic. I like to think that the ideal historic district would be like a natural preserve where we protect an ecosystem--say a wetland, a rainforest, or a garden--by keeping it alive so that it can continue to change and grow in ways that do not destory it. That's why I think the word "conservation" is better--it's about keeping something alive. And the "something" is not just a collection of buildings, its the "capacity to build" that brought about that environment. True conservation preserves not buildings but building cultures. You are all over this with your "living tradition" writings and books. This is the new wave in preservation thinking, so keep going in this direction and we'll get where we want to be.

Aug 30, 2012 4:20pm


Fried-Egg Cities?

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Philadelphia’s downtown in the distance, with expressway in foreground

Philadelphia, edge to center

   There's a fundamental misconception about the way cities should be built that, when enacted, deprives urbanism of much of its richness. If you zoom way out on a city, like this image of Philadelphia, it can look like a fried egg, with a big "egg yolk" of tall buildings at the urban core thinning out to an "egg white" of urbanism that is only a story or two tall at the edges. At this distant view, it looks like a fairly smooth transition, and in fact, this is largely the way cities have been zoned for the past several decades: large swaths of high density surrounded by larger medium density zones giving way to even larger lower density zones. Great urbanism, on the other hand, is much more fine-grained than that, so that wherever you are in a traditional city, there's urbanism just around the corner or down the street that's decidedly different from what you're seeing at any given moment.

Philadelphia townhouses along a street

a great Philadelphia street, but
even as good as it is, miles and
miles would get boring

   Coding entire neighborhoods to a single context like we've done in recent decades is a bad idea on several counts. For starters, it's a prescription for boredom, whether that context is equal to Main Street or a suburban residential street. If that context rolls on for neighborhood after neighborhood like it does in the subdivisions of sprawl, then this means that you're unlikely to walk anywhere that doesn't look like where you live.

   Why is this a problem? Because if where you live is primarily residential context (in other words, if you're not living in an apartment over Main Street,) then it means that you're unlikely to be able to walk to all your daily needs. This forces you back into the old sprawl burden of having to drive everywhere… even if the streets and buildings are generally well-designed. In other words, too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing.

The Increment of Planning

   So if the neighborhood isn't the right increment of planning, then what is? The block? No, the block is also too large. Some blocks might all be coded to the same context, particularly if it's the general neighborhood context, But most blocks in sustainable places are likely to contain more than one context zone. It turns out that the fundamental increment of sustainable planning is actually the lot.

   Some planners go nuts when you say that, because they're accustomed to seeing a nice, neat Euclidean zoning map of an entire city whereas zoning with individual lots as the basic increment gets so fine-grained that you can't even see all the breaks when looking at an entire city map… they're just too small unless it's a mammoth map. This doesn't mean that each lot is randomly zoned (planners call that "spot zoning".) Rather, it means that when you change contexts, you do so most often at property lines rather than at streets or at the edges of neighborhoods.

Context Zone Breaks

   Here are four good rules of thumb for breaks between different context zones:

   1. Change from one context zone to another in the middle of the block, not at a street. You usually want the front of a building to be looking across the street to a building of similar context. So the end of a Main Street, for example, should not be at a cross street, but one (or maybe two) lots beyond that cross street. 

Key West corner store and cottage next door

one of my favorite examples of a break in context in
the middle of a block: this Key West street has a Main
Street shop on the corner to the right and cottages
like the one on the left down the rest of the

street, like in countless traditional towns everywhere

   2. Make context breaks most frequently "with the grain" of the block. In other words, the break occurs between back lot lines, or at the alley or rear lane in the middle of the block.

   3. Breaks can also be "across the grain" of the block, like this picture. Here, the break occurs at the side lot lines.

   Here's the town of Pienza, Italy, which I've used several times to illustrate various ideas on this blog. The old city, which is the compact part, is only 11 acres. The two images which follow overlay the context zones of the Transect, or T-Zones, as they are known to Transect experts.

satellite photo of Pienza, Italy

Pienza, Italy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Pienza, Italy with transect zones overlay

T-Zones overlaid on Pienza satellite photo

Pienza, Italy Transect zones

Pienza T-Zones: burgundy is Civic, darkest lavender is Urban Core (T6,) lightest lavender is Sub-Urban (T3,) green is Rural (T2.)

Two Important Points on Time

   1. Pienza was built over a period of roughly two thousand years.
   2. The Transect wasn't even invented as a planning device until centuries after most of Pienza was built.

Basic Needs

   Pienza's Transect, and that of countless other places built sustainably over the millennia derived not from some grand plan of city planners. Indeed, most such towns had no planners at all. They were merely built by the townspeople using good rules of thumb. So how did their Transects come about? They were common-sense responses to some very basic needs:

Pienza neighborhood grocery

neighborhood markets like this one
in Pienza can (and should) be small
if they're serving fresher food to
mostly walking customers (here's a

neighborhood grocery near
my office)

   1. People need to be able to walk to work, if they're not working at home. This means that home and work need to be near each other.

   2. People need to be able to walk to their daily necessities, like groceries and such. But if you scatter shops all over the neighborhood, that makes it more of a chore to shop. So it makes sense to have most of the shops relatively close together, like along a High Street or a Main Street.
   3. People need to be able to walk to their civic buildings, so they can participate in the life of the town.
   4. Towns shouldn't spread too far because streets and other infrastructure are expensive, so the Sub-Urban parts of town, because the are least compact, should be fairly small so as to not waste infrastructure. As a matter of fact, most of Pienza's Sub-Urban parts were built in the last century or so, after the advent of automobiles and cheaper streets. You can see that the Sub-Urban parts in the old city are really small.

   5. Compact towns and neighborhoods are more secure not only because you have a smaller perimeter, but also because more compact urbanism can put more eyes on the street.
   6. Towns (and even cities) need to be surrounded by the countryside that feeds them because if you can't eat there, you can't live there.

The Transect and the Original Green

Pienza garden overlooking Val d’Orcia

Pienza's historic Sub-Urban areas are a small
fraction of the town

   Sounds familiar? If you've been to this site before, I'm sure it does. These simple needs that led to countless sustainable places built over the centuries are the needs for Nourishable Places, Accessible Places, Serviceable Places, and Securable Places. In other words, the conditions that created the Transect around the world are the same conditions that the Original Green works to organize, just in a different way. You might say that the Transect and the Original Green are really just two different views of the same thing: how to build sustainable places, which are places that you can keep going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future. Here's where people get confused:

Pienza town center

Pienza's Urban Core at night

   There are certain characteristics of built environments (described above) that have been sustained in a healthy way for centuries that we can observe again and again in place after place around the world. Without these characteristics, humans have yet to build places that are truly sustainably... in most cases, places without these characteristics are hideously unsustainable, with sprawl as Exhibit #1. So it is fair, IMO, to consider these characteristics "essential."

   A century ago, the ecological transect was invented as a management tool for the built environment. Less than twenty years ago, it became clear that this tool could be extended into the built environment in a way that explains those essential characteristics of sustainable places, and that also can form a guide to building new places that are also sustainable. This is known as the rural-urban Transect. The Original Green is even newer than that: Although its roots go back to the day after Thanksgiving, 1980, it was not formally assembled as an idea until less than a decade ago.

Ancient Things That Work and New Tools

   The problem comes when the distinction isn't made between old and proven ideas and new tools for implementing those ideas, either by those who promote the new tools like the Transect or the Original Green, or by those who respond to what they say. Both the Transect and the Original Green are idea that are clearly new and open to refinement… matter of fact, they are regularly being refined. But the essential characteristics of built environments that they attempt to make sense of have a successful track record stretching back a few thousand years, and assailing those characteristics, especially when there has never been a successful alternative but many hideous failures, doesn't seem to be a profitable way of spending time.

   ~Steve Mouzon

   Other Sprawl Recovery posts on the Original Green Blog:

   Sprawl Repair - A 12-Step Program

   Walk Appeal

      Walk Appeal Measurables

      Walk Appeal Immeasurables

      Walk Appeal Impact

   The Sky Method

   The Transect


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Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Misunderstandings about the Transect trip up a lot of people who otherwise might find it a really useful tool. This post tackles a number of issues, including:
• Increments of Zoning: why the fundamental increment of Transect zoning should be the lot, not the block or the neighborhood.
• Context Breaks: rules of thumb.
• Transects over time: Pienza as a two-thousand-year example.
• Basic Needs: how Transects originated.
• Two-Headed Monster: how people get tripped up by confusing the tool with the characteristics it attempts to organize.

Aug 22, 2012 10:37am

Jeffrey Jakucyk · University of Cincinnati

The idea that development (context breaks) should be relatively symmetrical about the street is a very important one, and one that gets very little attention. You can see the problems when this doesn't happen in the 2nd and 3rd generation suburbs and exurbs. In these places the main arterial streets are the boundaries of development, not the organizing spine, as they were in urban areas and the early suburbs.  
So instead of a main street, commercial strip, or what most non-planners consider a coherent block, you end up with disparate uses on either side of the street, and in the case of residential development it's usually backing up to the arterial with a high fence or wall. This sort of fragmentation only further hurts the public realm and makes it an even more unpleasant place to be in.  
It seems to be the final outcome of the dendritic, hierarchical street layout and pod development. It's interesting though that it's not something inherent to all suburbs, and only seems to have come about in earnest in the 1970s and 80s. I'd say it's also a lot more prevalent in the west and south where grotesquely huge arterial streets are built from scratch rather than through the widening of an existing road that had some lower intensity development adjacent to it already. It would be interesting to study these sorts of changes to the suburban pattern of development over time.

Aug 22, 2012 11:19am

Form-Based SmartCode

Helpful application pointers on Transect use by Steve Mouzon. Beautifully illustrated with photographs, as usual.

Sep 13, 2012 12:23pm


Economy of Scale vs. Economy of Means

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Pienza, Italy town gate

Pienza, Italy eastern gate - all images in this post are from Pienza

Guest Post by Frank Starkey

Note from Steve: Frank is the Town Founder of Longleaf, a new town in Pasco County, Florida. Frank and I were on the Seaside Pienza Institute trip to Pienza last fall, and over dinner one night, Frank laid out the compelling argument below. Since then, he has been kind enough to write it up for this post.

   Through the process of developing Longleaf we were regularly taken to the financial whipping post when factors beyond our control didn’t go as expected. I believe the reason the project was so vulnerable lay in an economic principal we pursued, the Economy of Scale (EoS).

street lamp on narrow street in Pienza, Italy with passage through building beyond to orange-lit street on the other side

   Modern development practice is predicated on mass-production models, which are based largely on EoS. The cost to manufacture a widget goes down when you make a large number of them because your costs are spread out among more “units.” Cheaper by the dozen; cheaper still by the million. And if your costs go down, profits can be assumed to go up, all things being equal. It’s a self-evident and unassailable economic principle, right?  But there are limits to its application, particularly in the speculative and complex world of real estate development.

   At Longleaf this principle told us that developing 200 lots at a time would mean lower per-unit costs for building those lots, and that building a 3-story mixed-use building would cost less per square foot than a 2-story one (much less a single-story, which was considered anti-urban in those earlier days of New Urbanism.) However, pursuing these lower per-unit costs we took on much higher total cost, which had to be financed. That meant we had to sell those “units” at a pretty fast clip or the debt service would not only eat up the economies we had eked out, but it could also eat up ALL our profits, and eventually us! Economy of Scale was a deal with the devil known as debt.

Pienza, Italy eave

   Being indentured to so much debt created a cascade of pressures that compromised better place-making: suppressing prices and appreciation, bending on architectural standards, overlooking key details in executing the public realm. It also consumed resources and attention we could have put to better use making a more beautiful and vital place, like fostering the civic realm or building more retail. (This isn’t to suggest Longleaf is a failure: quite the contrary, and its success as a place is a testament to the power of good urban design, in spite of things we could have done differently or better.)

shop on the Pienza, Italy town wall

   Houses aren’t widgets; development is not manufacturing; a town is not a factory. Human settlements are more like ecosystems, subject to the complexities of human nature at every scale: individuals, families, social groups, economic production and consumption, civic life, fashion, politics and governance – these are all endlessly varied and dynamic. What’s more, the physical context of “real estate” is, by definition, unique to each location. The internal and external forces that shape our built environments are in every way contrary to the purity of the assembly line. Mass-production development would be well suited to creating beehives, perhaps, but it is a poor tool for creating human habitats.

   OK, so if scale (and its attendant repetitiveness) is the problem, how does one argue with “economy,” particularly these days? I struggled a long time to figure out how we might build economically, without falling into the trap of the Economy of Scale. Following clues from how Robert and Daryl Davis developed Seaside, and looking at how traditional towns and cities came to be, I discovered that the underlying economic principle of authentic urbanism is the Economy of Means (EoM). In the days before massive capitalization and long-term debt, cities were built one building at a time. Likewise, in the days before mass-production, buildings were essentially built by hand. So, at a fundamental level, traditional cities were built by hand, or rather, LOTS of hands. And when you make something by hand, you naturally employ the Economy of Means.

street cafe in Pienza, Italy

   Everyone who has made something by hand understands and employs EoM intuitively. To the craftsperson it doesn’t make sense to purchase extra material, only to throw it away. It makes sense to build something that uses material and performs its function with the greatest efficiency.  It doesn’t make sense to construct something flimsy, only to have it break in short order; you want it to last.  And, since it’s going to last and serve as a reflection of its maker, it makes sense to make something beautifully, incorporating timeless principles of proportion, elegance, and appropriate embellishment. Finally, when you work by hand, you want to share knowledge with others doing the same thing, to make it easier on yourself.

Pienza, Italy cathedral front in fading evening light

   When many individuals employ EoM, a rich variety of techniques develops. So does a progressive, “living” tradition, as folks share knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.  Innovation, Adaptation, Variety, Tradition and Progress grow naturally out of EoM building, whereas EoS manufacturing stifles all of these. Cities built on EoM function in richly complex ways and as a result are enormously adaptive and resilient. Those manufactured with EoS are dead on arrival.

   The best-loved buildings and places we urbanists admire embody EoM, and it’s no accident they have proved to be durable, both physically and in people’s affections. This is instructive for those of us involved in the project of buildings and places, for whom a revived understanding of EoM will be especially useful in the new economic realities.

   Leave EoS to the widget manufacturers.

   ~Frank Starkey

Legacy Comments


Very important ideas, but only half of the equation. When the cost of capital exceeds EOS savings, it's rational to shift to economy of means AND incremental improvement. Specifically, when the time-value-of-money doesn't pencil out, it makes sense to save the money and apply it to the next incremental improvement, such as an addition.

Aug 16, 2012 2:22pm

Pia Kealey · University of Notre Dame

A good post and a great distinction. On another level, I would add that with its monetary and production focus, EoS tends to rob its products of life-affirming qualities. So in the 'we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us' context, essential but immeasurable things can easily be lost.

Aug 17, 2012 1:38pm

Cliffton Chandler

I completely agree that an "Economy of Means" is both economically rational and psychologically appealing--since we intuitively grasp individuality through recognition of nuance. I do want to add that architectural "Economy of Scale" has one very important purpose. One that is difficult to keep in mind because it is so rarely in evidence in the current global culture--that purpose being; the manufacture and implementation of rapid deployment architectural solutions to the problem set created by catastrophic natural disasters. 
So while I recognize that the "benefits" of EoS architecture are a
...See More

Aug 19, 2012 1:01pm

Josh J. Stewart

Excellent article by Frank Starkey. Outstanding comment Cliffton. Thank you for making me aware of it. True story - there were a few times when Frank would babysit for me. My Mom said I would throw a fit over being given a female babysitter. A guy I was ok with. I'm sure I. hhad good reasons, whatever a six or seven year gold's reasons are. Anyway, even that young as Frank would have been a teenager, he showed an amazing talent for architecture. How? We'd go outside, and Frank would build these remarkably accurate, detailed, model houses and buildings - out of clay we dug up from the ground. I would love it when the sun came out and baked those model structures. Making them stronger. We don't have much of any clay in Florida. We found some on the island where my parents built their house. I'm serious. Frank built things almost 30 years ago, from nothing but clay, I've never forgotten. - Josh J. Stewart

Aug 19, 2012 4:30pm


The Transect

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Rural-Urban Transect Diagram

rural-urban Transect illustration by Center for Applied Transect Studies

   Many of my good friends and colleagues who are Transect aficionados sometimes get so deep into the details of this very useful idea that they lose the general public, so this post describes "the Transect for the rest of us." This is essential because the Transect, along with Walk Appeal and the Sky Method, is a game-changer of Sprawl Recovery and must therefore be able to be understood broadly, not just by the planning geeks. So here's how it works:

natural transect illustration by James Wassell

natural transect illustration (above) and American Transect (below) both by James Wassell


American Transect illustration

   The Transect was invented about a century ago as a management tool for the natural environment. The basic idea is pretty simple: zones of the natural transect, from ocean to beach to dune, etc., each have their own rules. Certain creatures live in one that don't live in others. A fish wouldn't last long on the beach, for example. Nor would a palmetto survive very long planted in the ocean. Different natural conditions exist in each zone as well. Sand in the ocean is always covered by water, sand on the beach is sometimes covered, and sand on the dunes is only covered by water in a hurricane, for example.

Recent Years

   Landscape architect Douglas Duany took his brother Andrés out into the surf of South Beach in the late 1990s. As they walked up out of the water onto the beach, then across the dunes, and then into town, Douglas asked "why can't the Transect be extended into the city and used to manage the built environment as well?" Andrés, an architect and town planner and one of the founders of the New Urbanism, embraced the idea, and the "rural-to-urban Transect" was born.

   A bit over a decade later, the Transect is in the process of transforming American cities. For most of a century, city planning was based on what is known as "Euclidean zoning" because it started in Euclid, Ohio. The essence of Euclidean zoning is that it separates things: you live in a subdivision where there's nothing but houses, go to work in an office park where there's nothing but offices if you're a white-collar worker or in an industrial district where there's nothing but factories and warehouses if you're a blue-collar worker, and you shop in strip centers and shopping malls. And you have to drive to get from one to another.

Changing the Rules

   Andrés realized that until we changed the rules of zoning, we'd keep getting sprawl almost all the time because sprawl is the natural product of Euclidean zoning. So he built the SmartCode on the operating system of the Transect to be an antidote to sprawl. And then he opened it up where anyone who wanted to participate could help develop the SmartCode. Two years ago, the US reached a tipping point where 40 million Americans were living in cities that had adopted New Urbanist form-based codes such as the SmartCode. Today, dozens of planners use the SmartCode or other Transect-based codes.

   Let's take a peek under the hood and see how it works. The Transect organizes the built environment into 6 zones from T-1 (which is most rural) to T-6 (which is most urban.) These are the details:

T-1 Natural

Arkansas River running through natural countryside near South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   The Natural zone includes all lands that have been permanently protected from development. This includes

national parks, state parks and most land trust lands. Here, in the wilderness, nature trumps mankind every time. This is actually a place that is just a bit dangerous to humans because something could bite you or even eat you, for example. The only buildings you’re likely to find here are forest rangers’ cottages or campground structures. This is the quietest place you can find (except in a thunderstorm or a buffalo stampede), and it’s the place where the stars shine the brightest.

T-2 Rural

cows standing alongside fence at sunrise at Janna's Food Farm in Rogersville, Alabama

   The Rural zone includes lands that are not currently slated for development, but that have not been permanently protected, either. Most of the Rural Zone in the eastern United States is farmland and countryside. This zone isn’t quite as dangerous, but stay out of the fence where the bulls live. Man begins to shape this zone, but he uses natural or rustic materials to do it, like the lonely lines of barbed wire strung along cedar posts at the edge of a field. You may hear a distant tractor plowing the fields by day. The blips of the fireflies over the fresh-mown fields are still the most numerous lights, but you may occasionally see a light in the window of a farmhouse as you go by, at least until bedtime.

T-3 Sub-Urban

houses in late afternoon light at South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   The Sub-Urban zone isn’t exactly the ‘burbs. It’s close, to be sure, but it doesn’t include some things like the big box retail that you might instead find in a highway business district. The Sub-Urban zone is most similar to the areas at the outskirts of town where the town grid begins to give way to nature. Here, lots are usually larger, streets begin to curve with the contour of the land, and fences, if you have them, look more like their country cousins around the homestead. Streetlights and sidewalks begin to occur in this Zone, but only on the busiest streets. Natural features such as streams still trump things built by humans, in part because of the cost of modifying things so large.

T-4 General Urban

houses on neighborhood street in Stonington, Connecticut

   The General Urban zone is the place that settlements finally start coalescing into strongly identifiable neighborhoods, each with their own center that you can walk to in five minutes or less. This is the place where the houses pull up close enough to the street that you can sit on your porch and talk to your neighbor leaning over your fence with the latest news. And this is the place that kids love after having been held hostage at the end of a cul-de-sac for the past half-century by anyone with a drivers’ license. Here, the neighborhood is compact enough that they can safely walk down tree-lined sidewalks to the ice cream store down on the corner, and return home before they finish the cone.

T-5 Urban Center

King Street intersection in Alexandria, Virginia

   The Urban Center zone is Main Street America. There was always a good selection of apartments over the street itself, and over the square. Young couples just getting started would often live in an apartment over Main Street, but they weren’t alone. The Main Street neighborhood was as diverse as any, including merchants living over their shops and old folks who didn’t want to have to saddle up to get to all the necessities. You could see lights on in the windows over the square every evening, and could hear parents calling their kids to come in and do their homework long after the old folks out in front of the general store had folded up their checkerboard and laptops, and gone home for the day.

T-6 Urban Core

Manhattan skyscrapers photographed from the top of the Empire State Building

   The Urban Core zone only occurs in cities. It is the brightest, noisiest, most exciting part of the city, with the city’s tallest buildings, busiest streets, and most variety. It’s the place where you should find one-of-a-kind functions like City Hall, but it’s also the place with all the galleries and the biggest selection of restaurants. The Urban Core is the place where mankind trumps nature; it’s where the only trees are lined up in planters beside the street, and where the river running through town is contained in grand stone embankments. The Urban Core is so intriguing that thousands or even millions stay there for months on end, leaving nature in the wilderness to grow in peace.

   ~Steve Mouzon

   Other Walk Appeal posts on the Original Green Blog:

   Sprawl Repair - A 12-Step Program

   Walk Appeal

      Walk Appeal Measurables

      Walk Appeal Immeasurables

      Walk Appeal Impact

   The Sky Method

   The Transect (this post)

      Fried-Egg Cities?


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Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Here's the third game-changer of Sprawl Recovery: the Transect. And it's told in a very plain-spoken way, with almost none of the technocratic stuff that only a code geek could love.

Aug 13, 2012 7:09am

Sandy Sorlien · Works at Fairmount Water Works

Steve, the Preserve and Reserve designations are used only in the Sector system for O-1 and O-2, not in the T-zones. (In early Transect diagrams, they were, but it changed around 2004 or 2005.) An example that helps explain this is the historic town of Harpers Ferry, a preserved National Park. In the Sector system (SmartCode Article 2), it would be set aside as O-1 Preserved Sector. However, its physical character is definitely not T-2 Rural. Once we separated those concepts in the SmartCode, it made things clearer for planning, and encouraged a regional strategy.
The Transect is explained in fairly non-geeky terms at CATS here:

Aug 13, 2012 8:40am

Phill Tabb · Works at Registered Architect

In my research of English villages in the mid-1980s, I came across the Thorburn transect, which was an urban-rural transect published in 1971.

Oct 11, 2012 7:27pm


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