Empty-nesters Bonnie and Andrew Sakallaris decided to downsize when they realized they were spending all their time in about one-third of their 3,500-square-foot house in Fairfax Station, Va.
Instead of swapping their five-bedroom home for a condo or moving to an active adult community, the couple did something different: They chose a newly built single-family house in a pocket neighborhood — a community of just 10 residences where at least one homeowner must be 55 years or older.
“We saw a rendering of the Railroad Cottages in Falls Church and immediately liked the concept of a small group of houses that could create a sense of community in a walkable urban environment,” Bonnie Sakallaris says.
In general, the homes clustered in a pocket or cottage neighborhood have a shared common space, says Theresa Sullivan Twiford, a real estate agent with Pearson Smith Realty in Falls Church who began working on the Railroad Cottages project about six years ago.
The Railroad Cottages community, Twiford says, is the first new cottage neighborhood in Northern Virginia. Local governments and developers are studying whether to replicate it to address the “missing-middle” housing problem — the lack of homes in the market for middle-income people.
While developers found creative ways to cut costs by building on less land, they acknowledge that more work needs to be done to make the houses — which range from $750,000 to $800,000 in Railroad Cottages — more affordable.
“Ideally, this idea could be implemented at a variety of price points and for different purposes such as workforce housing or for adults with intellectual or physical disabilities,” she says. “That can only happen if jurisdictions take the lead and tune out the noise from typical neighbor pushback.”
The Railroad Cottages are named for the street they’re on — Railroad Avenue.
All 10 Railroad Cottages, which surround a courtyard and are connected by a boardwalk, have sold. The 1,490-square-foot houses each have two bedrooms, three bathrooms and a parking space in a carport adjacent to the community.
The homeowners share a similarly sized common house with a kitchen and entertainment space and a guest bedroom and bathroom upstairs.
“People like the idea of owning a smaller, smarter, more energy-efficient home, which is a good fit for an age-restricted community where the buyers want a low-maintenance lifestyle,” says Jack Wilbern, architect of the Railroad Cottages and a partner with Butz-Wilbern Ltd. “They also like the idea of knowing their neighbors, so we designed the homes to make it easier to have serendipitous contact with the neighbors and yet have privacy when you want it.”
The Railroad Cottages each have a front porch and the kitchen in the front of the house so neighbors can see one another when they walk by, Wilbern says.
“If you live that closely together, you also need to make sure you’ve tempered those community opportunities with privacy,” he says. “We laid out the houses so that each has a patio or a deck on the back that’s visible through your windows but private from the adjacent house. The homes are closer together in the front but they’re as far as 20 feet apart in the back.”
Railroad Cottages resident Chris Saxton says she chose the community because of its friendliness.
“Everyone says hello and gets along here,” she says. “We’re excited to start using the common house to meet for coffee or watch movies together.”
Saxon also says she feels safe in the community, partly because she knows her neighbors and partly because of the design around a central courtyard.
“The carport has lots of lights and the boardwalk is lit up, so it feels safe to come in at night,” Saxton says. “Each house has an emergency box so that if we need the police or fire company, we can call automatically and the outside of the house also lights up.”
The common house includes a battery backup system so residents could shelter in place together during a major storm or power outage.
For the past six decades, subdivisions have been built around the concept of separating single-family homes from industry, says Ross Chapin, principal of Ross Chapin Architects in Langley, Wash., and author of “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World.”
“The idea is that everyone wants independence and privacy, yet to be connected by their cars to the wider world,” Chapin says. “We end up marooned on our own little island, surrounded by houses. That’s fine when there are little kids and dogs to connect us, but kids leave and dogs die and loneliness has become epidemic.”
The solution, Chapin says, is to design communities that deliberately encourage communication and interaction with neighbors.
“I grew up in a small town in Wyoming which felt like a pocket neighborhood,” Twiford says. “When I saw one of Ross Chapin’s pocket neighborhoods in Washington [state], I loved the idea of creating something like that in this area.”
Interaction among neighbors also is fostered by putting the cars to one side of the community and having all mail delivered to the common house, Twiford says.
Part of the pocket neighborhood concept is to design ways for people to meet face-to-face more often in their daily life, Chapin says.
“The common house eliminates the need for people to own a home for all contingencies,” Twiford says. “Instead of having a house with lots of extra bedrooms or a huge space for entertaining, the common house has an entertaining kitchen stocked with all the glasses and dishes people need. It has a guest bedroom and bathroom that can be reserved for overflow guests, too.”
The common house is open to all residents and the neighbors can decide among themselves when and how to use it.
“We see it as an organic place to gather, where residents can have potluck dinners, organize a book club, or just go to work or relax whenever they like,” Twiford says.
While pocket neighborhoods sound idyllic and a bit old-fashioned, zoning rules in most jurisdictions make them difficult to develop because of the increased density.
“We had to apply for a special ordinance to build the Railroad Cottages because the area was zoned for larger single-family houses,” says Robert Young, developer of the Railroad Cottages and principal of the Young Group in Falls Church. “The City of Falls Church passed a cottage zoning ordinance that allowed us to build 10 smaller houses and the common house on land that would have been limited to four larger houses.”
The exception required that the homes be built with a footprint no larger than 1,000 square feet, no basements and a maximum interior size of 1,500 square feet, Twiford says.
While Chapin has been developing pocket neighborhoods in Washington since the 1990s, Young says these communities of smaller, clustered single-family homes started in the 1920s and 1930s in Southern California.
“Now that we’ve built the cottage community in Falls Church, we’re seeing surrounding jurisdictions like Fairfax County looking into this,” Young says.
While the Falls Church City Council and Planning Commission approved the development, homeowners immediately adjacent to the Railroad Cottages opposed the new community, according to Young.
Concerns were raised that the higher density development could exacerbate traffic, parking and school overcrowding problems. Restricting the age of buyers in Railroad Cottages eliminated the impact on the school system and meant a higher likelihood that at least some residents would not be commuting to work.
Some nearby homeowners also complained that the added density would change the character of the neighborhood.
The narrow 1.25-acre lot for Railroad Cottages was purchased from a family trust. The community is adjacent to the W&OD Trail, where some of the owners first saw the planned development while biking or walking on the trail. Residents can walk to shops and restaurants on Broad Street in Falls Church about a block away. The West Falls Church Metro station is less than one mile from the community.
While the nearly 1,500-square-foot homes are not tiny, most of the buyers needed to downsize.
“When we tried to figure out what would be best to age in place, we looked at condos but we didn’t find the elevators and long hallways appealing,” Andrew Sakallaris says. “We like the fact that we have the convenience of a smaller home and one-level living but we also don’t have any shared walls with our neighbors. We have raised garden beds around the patio, too.”
Homeowners can maintain their own gardens if they wish. The monthly condo fee of $469 covers water, sewer, trash, exterior maintenance of the homes, insurance for the homes, landscaping, snow removal, maintenance and periodic refurbishing of the common house.
“Our house has an open floor plan and high ceilings, so it doesn’t feel small,” Bonnie Sakallaris says.
Each house has an open kitchen and living and dining area on the first floor, along with a master bedroom, a walk-in closet, a full bathroom, and a washer and dryer.
“We designed the homes with diagonal lines so they’re not just boxes,” Wilbern says. “We put in lots of windows and laid out the homes for privacy so that everyone gets a lot of natural light but they’re not looking into their neighbors’ homes.”
Installing the same hardwood flooring throughout each home also makes them feel larger than they are, Wilbern adds.
The homes have been designed to eliminate steps from the carport to the first floor and have universal design and aging-in-place elements, such as wider doorways to accommodate a wheelchair.
The second floor of each home has another bedroom, bathroom and walk-in closet for guests or a home office.
“We designed the homes to look like some of the homes in Falls Church from the 1920s and 1930s, so they have a lot of architectural details, but they’re simple details,” Wilbern says. “All the houses are made of low-maintenance HardiPlank with lap, shingle and board-and-batten siding.”
The homes have geothermal heating and air-conditioning systems and have been EarthCraft gold-certified for energy efficiency, which has the added benefit of eliminating the sound of heat pumps operating in the small community, Wilbern says.
The carport has solar panels that supply all needed power for the common areas and the common house, Twiford says.
While the Railroad Cottages match the “missing-middle” concept in size, the price tag of up to $800,000 keeps them above the affordable range for most buyers. But that price is much lower than the approximately $1.5 million estimated cost of a larger home in that same location, Young says.
Land costs in Falls Church are high and storm-water management requirements added to construction costs, he says. The Railroad Cottages were designed to match the quality and detail of surrounding homes, Twiford says.
“We think that many jurisdictions are looking for ways to apply the cottage concept to more affordable housing and to more than just seniors,” Young says. “Prefabricated houses or just a simpler design might work to bring down the costs. And a well-designed 1,500-square-foot house can easily fit one or two kids and their parents with two or three bedrooms.”
For cottage neighborhoods to be scalable and repeatable, jurisdictions need to challenge themselves to loosen the requirements for these developments, Twiford says.
Chapin, who since the 1990s has been a proponent of clustering smaller homes to foster community, says a variety of housing options could work with a pocket neighborhood, including mobile homes, if the local jurisdiction would allow it.
“More than 60 percent of households are small, with a single person or a couple or a single parent with a child,” Chapin says. “Yet builders continue to build houses for families with multiple bedrooms and a two-car garage.”