Density in small packages
For all the large new building projects happening throughout the Portland metropolitan area — office and apartment towers, hotels and hospitals — the best, most beautiful and functional architecture still tends to come in small packages. That's especially true if we consider the wave of accessory dwelling units (ADUs, for short) constructed in thousands of backyards and driveways over the past few years.
Since the City of Portland first began waving system development charges for these micro-residences in 2010, the graph charting project numbers has come to look like a plane taking off and rising skyward. Between 2000 and 2009, Portland issued an average of 27 permits a year. From 2016-2018, the average was 621.
At last fall's Portland Architecture Awards, three of the 20 prizes for completed building projects went to ADUs, and a fourth went to another tiny residential project. That means one in five awards went to the kind projects with the smallest budgets, the least square footage. ADUs also tend to be built by small firms and emerging architects, giving some of the award-winning designs by the likes of Scott Mooney, Webster Wilson and Open Studio Collective a special chance to show what they can do.
But these little gems are often hidden from view because they're principally built in backyards. Take the 800-square-foot ADU on quiet stretch of Southeast 53rd Avenue that was completed last year by local firm Placeship. Though invisible from the street, because of how it's tucked behind a larger Craftsman home, it features a striking overhanging pitched roof that interconnects with a second-floor balcony and screen to create a delightful little architectural sculpture. Yet this is by no means a pure stylistic exercise. ADUs have to be practical.
"Even though there are only so many design moves you can make with such a small building, it's very satisfying to consider how a limited set of gestures can create a thoughtful order for the routines of daily life," says Placeship co-founder Adrienne Leverette, who co-designed the ADU with partner Chris Jones. "Our patterns of living have changed a lot since then, and older houses often feel too big in some places, too small in others, and not particularly responsive to site or energy consumption issues. I think what's contemporary about ADU design is less about exterior form or material, and more about the ideas about living that are embedded in the buildings themselves."
ADUs are heavily restricted by the city, not just in terms of size and their relation to the houses they sit behind or beside. Today they often ape the design cues and rooflines of houses from a century or more ago. I'd argue that's downright silly as well as a recipe for inauthenticity. So too are some of the size strictures, which prevent two equally-sized ADUs on the same site. "I think the city is learning there needs to be a little bit of leeway," says Tim Fouch, a partner with Fieldwork Design and Architecture, which has designed numerous ADUs including the award-winning Kerns Micro House. But there's no doubt, he says, that these little structures have a role to play. "It's a way to bring density to a neighborhood in a sliding scale."
It's also a way to bring a lot more beauty per square foot than your average McMansion.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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