Can a case study demystify real estate development? Read on, as we unpack the details of a cottage court in the making.
We help you make your dream house — or your dream neighborhood — real. One way we do that is by making premium architecture accessible so you can use it in a real estate project.
But there's another way we help you get the job done: by equipping you with know-how to help you earn a green light for your project. We think development know-how can be accessible, too, and we want to supply you with it so you can take the next step toward breaking ground.
Towards that end, we've started a series of posts about siting strategy. When I first launched Liberty House Plans, I thought the biggest obstacle for our customers would be financing. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Over and over, we're seeing customers and would-be customers get stuck on the question of what design would be permitted on their property and where on the land to put it. That "where" question is the focus of siting strategy.
Why "siting strategy" and not "site strategy?" You'll hear both terms used in the world of real estate development. "Site strategy" refers to the approach you take to the project's site as a whole. It's the collection of decisions you make about the site, such as access, landscaping, drainage, and placement of the buildings and other elements like hardscape. Siting is that latter consideration — it's where you'll place the buildings and other elements that you'll build on the land.
A few considerations feed siting decisions.
- What are the goals for your project? (Artistic, financial, or market goals, for instance.)
- What limitations are attached to the site? (Regulations, geography, geology, and neighborhood politics could be some of them.)
- What's your building program? (What type of homes shall you build?)
- How should those buildings relate to each other and to the site's context?
When you weigh those considerations and come out with a plan, siting is the part of the plan that says where the buildings will go. Your siting strategy is the set of mechanisms you'll use to make that arrangement happen in a way that conforms with the site's constraints.
Is that too abstract for comfort? Don't worry. A brief case study will make it clear.
The Flag Lot Cottage Court
This case study comes to us from a project that R. John Anderson is working on for a client in the Pacific Northwest (used with the client's permission). The client challenged John to solve a design puzzle for a 100' wide by 170' deep lot with an existing house on it:
Create a cottage court with a common courtyard amenity by dividing this parcel into two lots with four units on each lot. Avoid triggering the requirement for fire sprinklers. Keep the existing house. For the new buildings, use only existing stock plans from the Liberty House Plans catalogue. (No one-offs to be designed from scratch.)
Let's dissect this puzzle to make the mission clear.
"Create a cottage court..."
A cottage court is a group of small, detached homes arranged around a shared, central area that is visible from the street. This traditional arrangement of homes is seeing a resurgence as communities look for ways to address the shortage of available housing options for singles and small families. Cottage courts offer a balance between privacy and security, and let's face it: they're adorable.
"...with a common courtyard amenity..."
The space between homes is often neglected in real estate projects. It's treated as a gap that keeps the buildings apart. This client is asking John to turn that in-between space into a feature that adds value to the project.
"...by dividing this parcel into two lots..."
This is Siting Strategy #1 of the two that I'll describe in this post: Subdivision. Subdivision doesn't have to mean a large neighborhood parceled into uniform lots. It can consist of a minor plat, which is a cheaper, more efficient procedure and typically smaller than conventional subdivision. You can think of a minor plat as "subdivision lite."
"...with four units on each lot."
Why four units per lot? Here's where the magic begins.
Siting Strategy #1: Subdivision
The client is looking to maximize what they can build on the land as of right. That will make their project more financially viable by reducing the per-unit cost of their land.
At the same time, the client wants to avoid the brain damage that typically accrues when you apply for a variance or rezoning. The zoning attached to this property allows up to four units by right. So four is the maximum number of buildings that can exist on the lot without having to apply for a variance.
In addition, a project with four units or less can be financed with a conventional mortgage — the same type of loan that you use to finance a single house. So topping out at four makes the financing simpler, too.
The client could keep the lot "as is" and add three more dwellings. But the lot is 17,000 square feet, in a location where the minimum lot size is 7,000 square feet. If the single lot could be turned into two lots, it could hold twice as many homes — a much more productive outcome for the land.
Siting Strategy #2: Flag Lot
Lot size isn't the only factor, though, when subdividing property. We need to consider the minimum frontage, which municipalities also regulate. Frontage is the part of the property line that meets the street.
This lot has one hundred feet of frontage, so the client could split it in half to get two lots, each with frontage of fifty feet. But the house would sit on the dividing line, so that option won't work.
Fortunately, this town allows you to create a flag lot if the "pole" of the flag has at least twenty feet of frontage along the street. With that in mind, John's design splits the property into a main lot in front and a flag lot behind.
The project could position the pole on the eastern side of the property. If this were an inner-block lot, that would be the way to go. The flagpole would serve as a driveway to allow the residents' vehicles to reach a parking area on the back lot.
Instead, John's site design places the pole on the lot's western boundary and positions the parking in the pole. Putting the parking in the flag pole on the west side enables drivers to pull into their parking space from the alley. It also leaves room on the east side of the existing house for another cottage to face the street.
This strategy will require the client to remove the original home's carport and shed, but the tradeoff would be worthwhile: eight parking spots in a space that currently holds only two. The cost of removing the carport would be balanced by the savings from not building a driveway and the gain from making more productive use of the land.
Siting Strategy #3: Easement
An additional strategy is required to make the other two work. That strategy is known as an easement. An easement is an agreement between owners of two different lots. The agreement grants one owner access and use of the other owner's property for specific purposes, and it defines who is responsible for maintaining the part of the property that is specified in the easement. It's a durable agreement that's recorded on the deed so that it will remain in force in perpetuity. That durability is important because the value of property depends on how you can use it.
In this case, the parking area is the focus of concern. All of the parking for both lots will be positioned in the "pole" of the flag lot. If the residents of the front lot don't have guaranteed use of the parking spaces that are meant to serve them, then the potential value of that lot would be diminished. Not putting the agreement in writing would also increase the risk of misunderstanding and disagreement, and no one needs that.
What about the architecture?
John had a few considerations to guide his recommendations here.
- "Avoid triggering the requirement for fire sprinklers."
- "Create a cottage court."
- "Use only stock plans from Liberty House Plans."
Sprinkler requirements add cost, anywhere they're required. It's not just the cost of installing them in the buildings. If the system is connected to the municipal water supply, the municipality could require the property owner to install a separate tap and supply line to the buildings. Large, multifamily buildings might be able to spread that cost over many units, but that's not the case here. So a sprinkler requirement would be a cause for concern, despite the benefit that sprinklers could provide.
The requirement for fire sprinklers is made under local codes, so John examined the local code to determine the requirement's threshold. The requirement for sprinklers would be triggered by building more than two units in a single structure, so the client would need buildings of two units or less.
That's easy enough, since the client wants John to design a cottage court. To create the court, you need multiple buildings to enclose the space. No need to consolidate the units into a threeplex or fourplex here.
Why did the client ask for stock plans, and from Liberty House Plans, specifically?
Customers who use stock plans can save up to ninety percent of the cost associated with architectural design, versus asking an architect to begin a design from scratch. The plans that we publish are stock plans, and John's client knows that we're selective about what we publish. We focus on neighborhood-friendly designs from award-winning architects who create builder-friendly construction sets. A well-detailed construction set requires less translation between the drawing and the reality on the job site. That means lower risk of miscommunication, rework, and cost overruns for the builder — and ultimately for the client. And the designs we publish are lovable. It matters!
For this project, John is recommending a collection of straightforward house plans, including the Petal, the Flora, the Flora Side Yard Cottage, and the Greenwood Cottage. All of those designs include front porches, which are key to preserving a sense of privacy for cottage court residents by creating a transition between the shared space of the courtyard and the private space of the home.
And that little cottage in the upper left corner? It's an Accessory Commercial Unit — not included in the dwelling unit count because it will have no kitchen. But it's rentable, it will buffer the existing house from the alley traffic, and it will help hide the parking — and the cottage court! — from the street.
The Bottom Line
Every homebuilding project — even a single house — is, at some level, a real estate development project. Whether you're a home seeker, a realtor, or a real estate developer in the making, it pays to understand the work that goes into making a project happen. Knowledge is power, and it also helps us build more beautiful homes.
If you're thinking about a real estate project — big or small — let us know. We'll be happy to put you in touch with know-how, house plans, and people who can help.
Jennifer Krouse, CEO
House plans suitable for cottage courts: