Could “Compact” Replace “Small Lot” Homes in LA County? Ask Ric Abramson

Written by
Ric Abramson, architect, principal of WorkPlays Studio

On today’s DnA we talked about Baugruppen, the Berlin-based cohousing projects that are filling a need for affordable home ownership coupled with living in a semi-collective way.

It’s an inspiring model that begs the question: is it realizable in LA?

One of those who has investigated the possibility is Ric Abramson, principal of architecture firm Workplays Studio. He and three friends looked into the viability of growing old together in a shared group of dwellings — a model he refers to as an “intentional” community.

Although they wound up not moving forward, he took the lessons learned and is now applying them to work he’s doing with LA County’s Department of Regional Planning on developing guidelines for compact — or very small — homes.

“Compact homes” are a variant on the “Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance,” a City of LA zoning provision intended to enable more affordable homes on small lot subdivisions. The ordinance has lead to a spate of town home construction in fast-gentrifying areas that has afforded opportunities for architectural experimentation at the same time as causing ire in some neighborhoods over perceived overdevelopment. (The most visible example recently is the Barbara Bestor-designed Blackbirds in Echo Park.)

So just how compact are “compact homes” and will their prices match their small size? What did Ric Abramson learn from the effort at creating a Baugruppe-type project? And why does airbnb factor into the discussion? Read on for answers.

DnA: So tell us about the process of trying to develop your Baugruppe or “intentional housing” project?

RA: The journey itself was not easy because in any innovation there are multiple individuals involved that perhaps have to think a little bit different than they are used to thinking. In this case you have civic jurisdictions and municipalities who are going to be regulating these type of projects. You have lenders and finance peers who are going to be perhaps loaning money based on models not familiar to them.

So in our experience much of our work initially had to be about education and how this process involved actually less risk and greater reward — and how this collective grouping actually would result in a much better project for the neighborhoods in this city.

DnA: And did you find it was difficult to raise the loans?

RA: Certainly the banks raised an eyebrow when we first approached. How they actually fund development is that typically they prefer to handle everything as a single loan and manage it through a single contractor.

Their question was: what happens if you have multiple individuals who are unified collectively and potentially different contracting?

And so we had to work with them to ensure that even though it was an individual basis, the process and the production was still collective and that there would be one contractor and there would be one administrator.

It would almost be a grouping of mini-loans or micro-loans that would come together and to be administered as a traditional single loan.

I think through the process several of them really started thinking differently about how financing and loans relate to making neighborhoods, and perhaps opening some doors so that they could reach individuals who maybe they wouldn’t normally be reaching.

In that sense I think it was a very good process and I think there’s a tremendous amount of momentum gathering through a new initiative that has been launched by L.A. County that going to provide an opportunity for many individuals — especially of those in the more lower income areas — to come together collectively and realize the dream of owning their own home.

DnA: What are those initiatives? I know that you personally are involved with shaping them.

RA: My office is working in conjunction with Pat Smith, who is a very established planner and landscape architect in the urban design community. And together we’re we’re collaborating with the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning staff to look at new design guidelines that would work with the new ordinance to foster compact housing in the county.

The idea would be to look at how we subdivide land and how we create more opportunities for individual homeownership but at a smaller scale that’s been realized in other communities.

DnA: How does that compare with the small lot subdivision ordinance which sounded like a great idea at the start but has proven to be somewhat controversial?

RA: The Los Angeles City small lot ordinance was conceived as the row house or townhouse type of approach to multifamily neighborhood.

It was thought of as a way of increasing homeownership opportunities and being a little bit more compact in the way that housing footprints were integrated into multifamily neighborhoods.

I think it’s been successful in certain contexts and had some challenges in others, particularly related to scale and services that support these projects.

The County initiative is a little bit different. It’s looking at actual compact homes as opposed to a more vertical townhouse or row house model.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.39.15 AM
Three-unit Compact House development prototype by Ric Abramson, Architect. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: And a compact home is a very small home?

RA: Yes,  certainly there’s a trend for downsizing nationally. We see it in the media — there’s talk of tiny houses and a lot of prefabricated solutions that are more efficient. So the trend is definitely been to move toward smaller, more efficient living and the compact home idea is not that far from where much of early L.A. started, with Sears catalog homes that were in the 900 to 1200 square foot range. I think that in a way is a cycle we’re just returning to almost one hundred years later.

DnA: But would they be on such large lots as as they were in the past?

RA: No, and I think the big difference is that we understand now in urbanized cities that the suburban model of the single home on a larger lot is really not viable, not sustainable long term, not a good thing.

So the Compact House Initiative is really to look at what is appropriate. What is the right size, what is the right situation for individual homeownership in a more dense urban context? This means that in place of one single family home on a typical lot you now may find three or possibly even four on a larger size lot.

But that doesn’t mean one has to sacrifice quality of life; these homes can still have private space and green space, and individual parking. I think if it’s done properly and sensitively it really shouldn’t have tremendous impact. But the reward is potentially quite great.

DnA: But this would still be the Southern California model of single family home ownership. We’re not talking here about a collective model?

RA: That’s right.

DnA: In the last fifty to sixty years we’ve seen the house become more and more commodified; you know, houses treated as ATMs, people house-flipping. Do you think perhaps a change in attitude towards our homes is coming?

RA: Well, that’s a difficult question because at the same time as I think there’s an attitude or a desire to think about who you want to grow old with and to create sort of little pocket neighborhoods, that is happening concurrently with the shared economy and the whole Airbnb trend.

Amongst my friends I know there’s a lot of conversation about, gee, why don’t we all just get together and find some land and build something and grow old together, and I think that’s a conversation that is a relatively new, but I think it’s very exciting in many ways to think that one may have some modest opportunity to actually set into a growing old strategy or, I guess, an aging in place strategy.

DnA: But you’re saying that that is running counter to the so-called sharing economy which is changing the value of land and bringing in a more mobile community into a neighborhood that might be more static. Is that the tension?

RA: Precisely, I think there’s a very interesting tension that’s unfolding before our eyes, and it’s not just in the single family context or the multiple clustered context. We’re even seeing it in the apartment building and condominium and other multifamily situations. There’s a need perhaps fueled by the changing economy. There’s a need for some people to generate outside income in order to stay in place, in their neighborhood. We’re even seeing individuals in my neighborhood who are parking on the street and renting out their parking space in their building.

DnA: So the notion of then coming together with friends to determine how one’s going to grow old in a way that’s also affordable in the neighborhood you’ve spent many years in. . . you’re saying it’s actually becoming quite difficult because there are these competing forces?

RA: That’s right. I think ultimately the difficulty lies in the cost, simply. I think the will is there. But there’s competition among developers who are looking to increase the value of a particular properties. And so the cost of land in Los Angeles in particular has been growing exponentially and so it’s only through these kind of collective purchasing models that I think certain individuals can even be in the market.

For as long as I can remember — certainly since the advent of zoning — we have distinguished between single family living — the single family home — and multifamily living which has traditionally been apartments and condominiums. And now we actually have a third opportunity that’s neither single family nor multifamily and it’s what I guess is best called “multiple single.”

I think it’s truly a viable third model for living in an urbanized area that has never before been really available to us.

DnA: What does this mean in human terms?

RA: I think it in many respects it renews the American Dream of homeownership while also addressing modern day considerations of the planet itself and sustainable growth and ways that we can be more environmentally responsive. I think this type of living — this multiple-single model — allows us to create a beautiful daylit, naturally ventilated homes while still living closer together and connecting to goods and services within the neighborhood.

So I think on a human level it has so much potential, and I’m very optimistic for this type of living to be at least an option in Los Angeles.