What were THEY Smoking? “Split Level” isn’t a solution

Make text bigger | Make text smaller

I had a great conversation yesterday with another advocate for “Aging In Place” in the Seattle area, Mr. Edwin Hoffmann.  He contacted me with a concern of his, knowing that I’m a CAPS certified Architect (Certified Aging In Place Specialist, via the NAHB).  He’s a reverse mortgage specialist with Eagle Home Mortgage, and a fellow member of the Facebook group the Washington Aging In Place Council.  Edwin’s been attending events related to a town outside of Seattle (Puyallup, Wa.) and was concerned about their ideas on how to incorporate “cottage housing” into their city planning efforts.

Cottage Housing, as a development concept, is explained in their local community newspaper, related to their own intent for the development, stating:

“…authorizes a single cottage-housing development of between four and 18 homes in the city of 37,000 people – with the possibility of two more such developments later.  Cottage homes are no larger than 1,500 square feet, are limited mostly to single-family residential zones, and are generally clustered around an open space, such as a community garden. More houses can be built on a site than would normally be allowed under city land-use rules.”

Edwin pointed out a couple of key concerns of his own, which are valid ones, namely the house style and the location the city was looking at.  I do commend their ideas and efforts in Puyallup to incorporate alternative housing solutions, but according to Edwin’s explanations and concerns in describing their intent, it appears (in my professional opinion) they are missing the boat in a couple of crucial ways.  Those ways are related to 1) what they think this housing should look like, style-wise, and 2) where they think the development should be located.  It’s in these two areas that they are missing the point of cottage housing as a future design solution, specifically as it relates to who’s likely to be the buyer / occupant of a “cottage house” residence in the next 20-30 years.  (See also my post on who might be the buyer that you aren’t aware of – Creating Products for Boarders, or Boomers? (a story of the Scion XB) )

The Style –  SPLIT LEVELS?  Seriously?

“What are THEY SMOKING?” was my response when Edwin told me they felt this was the right house style for the concept development.  And for that matter, what were they smoking when the original design style came to be in the late 60’s early 70’s?  Oh, wait, we know that answer… it was the era of the “Doobie Brothers”, after all.  But NOW, with 10,000 people turning 65 years old EVERY DAY, I’m shocked that Puyallup seriously thinks that a house style which has a required stair climb everywhere you look, is the answer to their new housing concept.  Seriously?  You’ve got to be kidding me.  (I asked Edwin “Okay, who do I need to speak to?  Who down there needs to hear me present my Aging In Place Phenomenon presentation?”  He’ll get back to me on that answer.)

My own grandparents lived in a split-level home in Portland, Oregon.  I watched this home FAIL my grandmother while I was away at Architecture school at the University of Washington in Seattle.  As I came home a couple times per year, she went from traveling the world as a masters level bridge (cards) player, to someone 5 years later who was 7″ shorter, living in a hospital bed in the living room on the “main level” (if you could call it that) of the home, and not knowing my grandpa’s name.  Osteoporosis and Alzheimers had gotten the best of her while I was gone at U.W.  She went through the normal process from cane, to walker, to wheelchair.  They even installed the “Stair Chair” at one point, to help her navigate the climb with the motorized seat.  But by design, the laundry room was downstairs by the garage, and all the bathing and bedrooms were upstairs.  The split level was a “broken” style of home for someone who’s physical abilities were on the decline.  The 50’s ranch / rambler was closer to a solution fit as an overall housing era and style, but still the halls and doors are not wide enough for the new mobility and navigation requirements of our bulging population sector.  This group will drive the housing solutions of the next 20-30+ years, and the term “Master on the main (floor)” wasn’t popularized until 2003 in the architecture industry.  Therefore, we have 100 years worth of homes that don’t work for the housing needs ahead of us.

This city needs to be aware of the “Silver Tsunami” that is upon us, and that the likely buyer will need to be able to enter the home on grade without a change in elevation, and maneuver within and around the home on a single level, at least for the majority of the daily living spaces and activities.  Atlanta has a great national movement starting (which Karen Braitmayer shared with us when we interviewed her) called “The Visit-ability Movement“, wherein every home should have at least one way to enter “on grade” to the house, so that anyone with any level of physical ability to come to and enter your home.  The split level 70’s style home is NOT that answer for a house style in this development.

The Location –  On a HILL, OUTSIDE of town

Again, here Puyallup has missed the point from the sounds of what I know about the project thus far.  And if they follow through on this proposed location, they are missing the boat on creating a product that meets the housing needs of the currently changing demographic of our nation and our population at large.  True “cottage housing”, if it’s going to be a viable product to the largest growing sector of U.S. consumers (oh, and I should mention the most financially stable and with the most expendable income available as well), the “baby boomers”, should be located IN TOWN.  This location allows the needed access to the infrastructure strengths of the town for someone that is considering the possibility of their “last home” or the design of their “forever home”.  It should be sited and geographically oriented to be in the vicinity of those needs of the home buyer.  This buyer I’m speaking of (and the city does too, referencing the “empty-nester” as one of their likely buyers that is downsizing their house size after the kids move out)  will not be driving their car for too much longer, relatively speaking, if the alternatives are available.  They should not be asked to be “up on the hill”, forced to navigate winter roadways to reach the grocery store, the hospital, their doctor, or their local social activities.  They should be able to walk, take a bus, get a ride from a friend “on the way”, or at least be offered the opportunity to drive shorter distances and in simple and safe routes of travel for their age and changing abilities related to driving, and traveling in general. (For more on “full systems solutions” to Aging In Place, see our interview with Mr. Louis Tenenbaum)

I hope that I get the chance to speak to the city decision makers in Puyallup (via Edwin’s recommendations to them at upcoming council and planning meetings), and maybe even to convince them I should be hired by the city to help with this endeavor.  Their idea is an initially valiant and forward-thinking planning solution, but it appears to be diverging from the real needs and intention of “cottage housing” as it relates to the majority of the likely buyers of the product they are creating.  Those buyers in the next few decades that are thinking about smaller homes located around a common social outdoor area (cottage style housing) are the solution for where they are heading, are NOT likely to feel that the “Split Level on the hill” is the answer.  I hope that through education and exposure to this additional information, the city can find a resolution that is the right fit for the community, but also for the client/buyer that is looking for such a solution in their next home.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 thoughts on “What were THEY Smoking? “Split Level” isn’t a solution
  • Alesha Churba says:

    Aaron, you hit the nail on the head- the initial attempt to address the concept is a good step in the right direction but misses the target. Please keep sharing the right information!

  • Karl says:

    Please use the proper terminology when referring to Raised Ranch and similar homes. These are ‘Mid-level Entry” homes. In each of these homes each level of floor is consistent across the entire plan. Only the entry exists at the landing. Thereby to change floors it takes an entire run of stairs each time. In a true ‘Split Level’ home there is usually a change of height somewhere mid-plan on each floor (vs. a single sunken room). This often creates 3 or 4 levels or half flights of stairs that have rooms or garages at every landing. With many raised ranches on sloped lots they were often also split. This lead to real estate agents often confusing the two styles and grouping everything under the ‘classier’ term “Split Level”.
    – A fellow architect who grew up in a ‘raised ranch – mid-level entry’ home in the 60’s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *