Are you concerned about what the addition of middle housing is going to do to your neighborhood? Are you concerned about it changing the character of the houses, or make your street too busy? Maybe you are all for middle housing but just don’t want it near you. Or maybe you have no idea what middle housing is.
In this article we will explore what middle housing is and what it can look like, along with the impacts it can have on a neighborhood.
So, what is middle housing anyways? The WA Department of Commerce defines middle housing as “house-scale buildings with multiple units in residential neighborhoods.” That means, any housing structure that is any kind of -plex housing like a duplex or triplex, townhouses, courtyard apartments, cottage homes. “Middle” refers to middle-density housing, as opposed to large apartment complexes which are considered high-density housing, and single-family homes which is considered low-density.
What does middle housing look like?
You may still be thinking, “Well, I certainly don’t want a fourplex in my neighborhood! It’s going to stick out like a sore thumb.” Which is an understandable opinion, especially if you’ve only ever seen -plexes that look like your typical apartment complex. But they don’t have to look like that.
With the changing needs of our population, large single-family homes are becoming more and more unnecessary and unaffordable for most people (see our last blog on the statistics). But also we don’t want to tear down beautiful historic homes, or homes that are generally in good condition. So, what about renovating the inside of these preexisting 2000+ square foot homes and splitting them into multiple single- or two-bedroom units, thereby creating a -plex house? It still keeps the same exterior integrity, matching the rest of the neighborhood and you won’t even be able to tell that there are multiple units inside. A scenario like this is also the best case in terms of carbon footprint, because you are utilizing and revitalizing the entire shell and bones of a house.
These inconspicuous -plex housing can be easily built in new construction as well. When you looked at the above photo, did you know that it was six-plex just looking at the exterior?
In some areas, lots are already laid out in a way that makes housing options like cottage homes even easier to hide. Take a look at the below cottage community built in Silverdale, Washington. Add some foliage along the perimeter, and you would never know it was hidden on the lot.
Part of what will make middle housing successful is utilizing the correct types for each area. The idea is not to plop a giant multi-plex that looks like an apartment complex in the middle of a quaint neighborhood. That doesn’t make sense for anyone. But it does make sense to put a larger multi-plex on the edge of the neighborhood abut the commercially zoned areas and on busy corners. The point is to put density nearest to the city resources.
Perhaps you’re concerned about more vehicles on the roads in your neighborhood, either parking on the streets or causing traffic?
Summarized by Sightline Institute, as it stands right now, the law “cap[s] mandates at no more than one parking stall per lot on lots 6,000 square feet or smaller, and at no more than two stalls per lot on lots larger than that.” And any middle housing that is within a half-mile of a major transit stop will not be subjected to any parking mandates.
But what does this mean for you? Firstly, the point of creating such high-density housing near commercial areas and transit, is to also reduce the need for individual vehicles. When a community is walk-able and transit is readily available, less people will have cars. We are also seeing more households reducing to only one car instead of two. Take Seattle for example, whose population is ever increasing but their overall car population has remained stable for the past several years.
Now, for the lots that will mandate parking, if we are looking at what most likely is going to end up in your neighborhood, a duplex, triplex, fourplex or six-plex, that means they will be required to have two, three, four or six parking spaces respectively. For a duplex and even triplex, that’s not going to be more parking than a typical single-family home already has in many cases. And looking at the site plan above from Opticos Design, the parking spots can be easily hidden from street view. Fourplexes and six-plexes will be in a similar boat, where parking could potentially be hidden, or it may end up right off the street. And while that won’t be as nice to look at, think about how many houses have garages and driveways already at the front of the house. It won’t be out of place to have that much flatwork. Moreover, because of the required parking spaces, there isn’t likely going to be more vehicles parked on the street, as the households moving into the middle housing are typically smaller and therefore won’t have multiple cars.
Overall, the number of extra vehicles on the road is going to quite minimal taking all of the above into account. So there isn’t anything to worry about when it comes to cars.
If you are still thinking, “Well, who would even WANT to live in these?” Just remember that not every type of housing is for every person, but there is a market for every type of housing you could think of, whether it’s something you, personally, would want to live in or not. And with housing being as expensive and unaffordable to purchase these days as it is, there are many people who just want something they can afford and put equity into that meets their minimum needs. Which middle housing can do, while increasing many people’s quality of life. Middle housing a crucial step towards ensuring younger and older generations alike have reliable housing.
As housing-for-everyone advocates, TC Legend Homes and Powerhouse Designs strives to educate the public on these important issues while providing healthy, net-zero, carbon neutral budget homes in a effort to not only help the housing crisis, but provide top-performing homes.
To further discuss middle housing and the path forward for our community, or to get started on your very own project, contact us today!
TC Legend Homes Co-Owner, Norm DesRosiers, was born and raised in Alaska. As part of the Federal Homestead Act Program, Norm’s parents were given four acres, in upper southeast Alaska, just outside of Glacier Bay. They built a cabin on this 4 acres. In order to keep this land, the family had to live there for 36 consecutive months. Norm’s father still lives in this same cabin.
It was more than ‘off-grid’ living since there was no real attention given to the utilities. With no running water, or power of any kind, his family used all wood for heating and cooking over a wood stove.
Norm grew up in the village until he was nine years old, but they were back and forth to Juneau, for school. Time was running out to complete the 36 consecutive months living on the land so Norm and his siblings were yarded out to the property where they would spend 2 solid years in order to keep the land according to the requirements for the Homestead Act. Still in his formative years, with his brain moving at the same speed as changes in the body, Norm and his older brother became imprinted on an outdoor and primitive existence. This way of living led both brothers to continue a similar way of living, in adulthood. While Norm chose the Lower 48, his brother still lives in Alaska, but both have homes in the wilderness, with some more advanced systems.
As Norm grew into an adult, he knew he wanted to live a primitive lifestyle, but wanted to use technology to achieve some of the more modern comforts that we all enjoy…..like running water! Norm met his wife, Sarah, in 2003. The two had a whirlwind romance and were married in 2004.
While Norm was raised in rural Alaska, Sarah grew up in Washington State, in the suburbs and went to a college preparatory school. Although the two had very different upbringings, they both shared a craving for adventure and a desire to live and raise their children in nature and with a sustainable lifestyle.
So together they created their first house in Washington, when Norm was 25 years old, up on Sumas mountain, in Whatcom County. The house was fully off grid and powered with solar and wind!
It was small scale. The entire system was 2kW with batteries and enough amp hours to last 24 hours. They had a 10k gallon rainwater collection system, ran on propane heat, and even had one of the original radiant floor heating systems – “far rudimentary to what TC Legend Homes does now” reports Norm.
Their house was featured in a few runs of the original publications for off-grid living, such as the Backwood Solar and HomePower magazines.
But both Norm and Sarah found that their off grid beginner house with the preliminary uses of this technology was still a lot of work! They burned up and went through ELEVEN back-up generators.
After burning up the first 10 generators, not quite as green as they were hoping to be, at one point their daughter Navah (7 yo. at the time), said to her parents “this house is kind of like a teaching house – you learn all the things you’re not supposed to do.”
Norm shared that “The house we live in now suits Sarah better than the full off grid house did.” However, Norm noted that they lived off-grid when kids were small. “The utilities take a lot of maintenance, and it takes time every single day.” Sometimes when Norm was at work, Sarah would have to carry a nursing baby to the generator out in the snow, and keep a fire going for heat. It got to be just too much!
So they sold the house and rented it as they went back to the drawing board to start their new house: The Happy Medium. This time, they would try to find the best of both worlds (between outback / off grid and on grid living), with a lot of the same intentions.
The first decision was to be closer to town. Sarah had a 45 minute commute to her kid’s school with two different start times – so she’d have to stay in town all day. It was far too much driving and became exhausting.
They found a 5 acre lot and over the years created the entire landscape around a riding lawnmower so they wouldn’t have to use a weed eater. They since have cared for the land and made it into a nice, park-like setting.
The house itself has a 3 bd / 2 and a half bath upstairs and 1 bd / 1 bath ADU downstairs in the basement (which their daughter, in her college years lives, in now). There is an open floor plan for the kitchen, dining and living areas as well as an office and loft area for studying or lounging. In the center of the floor plan is a sunken living room. Norm retorts that “it was a cool idea until it becomes something that’s supposed to function, now it’s a 10k feature to the house that makes it non-ADA compliant!”
There was a lot of intention behind every single detail of their Happy Medium home. From blessing the land before even beginning dirt work, to making sure Systems met the efficiency and comfortability along with all of the original ideas for their dream home (that was sketched back in 2003). Then, incorporating all those off grid ideas into it while being grid tied. For its time (back in 2013), it was some of the most advanced technology. Here are the features of the Happy Medium and its construction:
Radiant Heat & Earthing – Radiant heat & intentional grounding in the massive concrete foundation (which took 4 months!) Norm ran copper wire in tight loops all along with the radiant heat tubing within the entire concrete slab for the basement AND second floors – for Earthing purposes! You can ground a slab on grade – but grounded through a tight loop of 12 gauge bare copper wire right into a ground rod – for any of the loose electrical energy or charges floating around (ie. From appliances, EMFs, etc.)
(Authors note: ‘Earthing’ aka ‘Grounding’ is the experience of having bare feet on Earth which syncs your body’s field to the Earth’s natural DC current. Scientifically shown to support the bodies health and circadian rhythms).
Some other “slightly more holistic and hippie” (Norm’s words) intentions Norm & Sarah included in creating their home were dumping different flower essences into all the interior paints. The kids were included in coming up with intentions for each space in their home. They used different essences for different paints. For example, the kitchen and living room paint included intentions of connectivity and love while bedrooms had intentions of peace, comfort, and rest. The whole family also went through the house and wrote blessings on the studs!
Water – A 30k gallon water reservoir tank was built into the foundation of the house. Literally, underneath the house! Norm’s a big fan of hiding the utilities. Additionally, there is a greywater irrigation system feeding their garden all summer long! Their running water, all from the same rain water source, is separated into three 10k gallon reservoirs, filtered with a sediment, activated charcoal and UV filter.
The septic system is the standard old school septic system, that if designed properly works indefinitely. It’s designed to create a gravity flow system where there are no pumps or additional holding tanks.
Framing / Insulation – Used advanced framing – staggered 2’ x 4’ on a 8 inch plate – so there was no thermal transfer through the walls in the studs. The walls were insulated to R-26. The ceiling / roof system has raised heels to accommodate extra insulation in the attic spaces. (Norm noted that not until he started building with TC Legend did he fully conceptualize the air tightness and rigid insulation in the walls).
Heat – Originally heating was with the propane boiler. Since then, they have retrofitted the house with an electric heat pump. So now their Heat Pump does 99 percent of the heating for the house even though it is undersized for a house that big! They have since eliminated all the gas in the house except for the cook top.
Since it’s fully ingrained in his mind that it’s a necessary part of homesteading and living in the wilderness, they have a wood furnace in their living area. Norm admits that he’s still slightly obsessed with wood stove heat and capturing as many BTUs out of his wood stove (**See our recent blog on “How to Make a Secondary Combustion Manifold” to make a fire place more efficient HERE **).
So the wood stove makes up the difference that the heat pump can’t. The gas boiler will actually kick in in the worst cold snaps if they don’t have a fire going, and would make up any of the difference.
Solar Power – The house has a 14.88 kW photovoltaic system. Sarah now drives a Model Y Tesla and soon there will be two electrical vehicles and chargers!
Norm commented that “the solar only does about half of overall electrical needs. It isn’t half as efficient as a TC Legend home! No matter how advanced the framing or air sealing is, the performance cannot compete with the homes we build now!”
Garden / Homestead – Currently they do direct burial compost which is burying all the house compost and it’s been working amazingly. The soil is great! All of the perennial tree vines and plants are super healthy, but Norm says that they can’t stand all the weeding.
“The garden has potential to be amazing,” says Norm, “so it doesn’t have master gardener feel to it, but part of permaculture is just throwing plants and seeds out in the yard, and find out which are successful.”
This is their 8th year since planting the orchard and they’ve harvested 300 lb of apples and pears. They didn’t even get to the grapes yet, “but the little black bear in the neighborhood sure as hell did” laughed Norm. Apparently he came home one day and saw a bear climbing in the rafter after eating all the grapes down low… which led to them having to cut the grape vine off the house!
Currently all the farm animals are gone now, but they’ve had chickens, goats (loved them), bunnies, ducks, and mason bees (for pollination). Norm mentioned in regards to all the ‘farm-stuff’ that “there are only so many hours in the day and it became a challenge to keep up with the demands!”
Permaculture – The pond is elevated from the garden and orchard for natural irrigation. No pumps are needed! The water seeps out throughout the dry season and just naturally irrigates all of the garden. It is a seasonally fed pond, populated with goldfish.
Sauna – There is a sauna built from recycled cedar from a home in Anacortes that was getting demolished. Norm used Costco tinfoil for vapor barrier, and heats it with a standard wood stove. He used rocks from a local river that naturally has volcanic rock washing out from the Mount Baker area, and piled around the wood stove for thermal mass.
Swimming pool – Norm built a swimming pool over the pandemic. The in-ground concrete is fully insulated underneath and in the walls. It was one big experiment but Norm reports that the insulation has fully paid off! The 140,000 BTU heater keeps it at 82 degrees for seven months out of the year by only running for three hours a day!
On-Site Resourcing –The house design integrated onsite alder into the lightweight concrete floors for the upstairs. They also used onsite alder trees which were milled and processed for all the door case and base trim throughout the house. Additionally, the house is sided with the cedar from the site.
Shop / Garage – There’s a shop / garage where Norm enjoys some wood working in and doing other company related projects.
And lastly, Norm says he’s “got a really cool rope swing.” 😊
The main downside, Norm notes, is that there’s a fair amount of work with a long gravel driveway. It requires a lot of maintenance and pot holes suck! (He’s not a fan of paving either). There’s a lot of work clearing fallen trees – which ultimately become firewood. That chore monopolizes a good 30 percent of Norm’s free time, especially in the winter!
And as much as they loved the farm animals, and their many more concepts and possibilities for the land, Norm and Sarah look forward to doing those again, perhaps during early retirement.
Overall, both Norm and Sarah love their Happy Medium homestead and indulging in the benefits of the best of both on-grid and off-grid worlds! There was a lot of lesson learning, experimenting and intention that went into their home so that it remains functional and sustainable for years to come!
When talking about where we need to go next in the housing industry, it’s important to look at where we are currently and what our trajectory is. This will help us determine the needs of our current and future communities and what we can do to help them. To do this, let’s look at 12 housing statistics.
With our aging population, there is an increasing need for smaller and more affordable homes for the older population to live in that cannot afford to live in large single-family residences. This also means that the housing being built should consider universal design methods to make the homes accessible to folks using mobility aids and with various disabilities.
A staggering number to look at! Regardless of why people are choosing not to have children these days, it means the population does not need as big of homes to house a family of 3+ anymore. The needs and priorities of our population are rapidly changing, so our housing needs to reflect that.
#4 As much as 80% or more of many cities is zoned exclusively for Single Family.
And yet the laws are still lagging behind and only allowing single-family residences to be built. An overhaul of the legislature is greatly need in order to legalize multi-family/middle housing.
Studies even show that this generation of renters and home buyers aren’t looking for the traditional single-family home. They are wanting middle housing and housing in communities that are walkable–where they can walk to the grocery store, a park, a restaurant, the gym. But the zoning across most US cities doesn’t allow for this.
Housing Statistics for Bellingham & Whatcom County:
This may not seem like a lot, but when you think about the fact that our population is currently at just over 93k people and the vacancy rate is just under 2% (we are in need of more housing already), then the reality of the amount of housing we need to build in the next 20 years to not just keep up with the growth, but also make up for the lack of availability already.
If 54% of renters are cost burdened just renting, then that means the likelihood for more than half of our renters to be able to purchase a home is incredibly low. But homeownership is the best way to gain equity. So more than half of renters are stuck in the perpetual cost burdened cycle until something changes that makes housing more affordable or they are somehow able to make enough to purchase a home. But looking at the following facts, you’ll see that’s even harder than in sounds.
#9 “In the second quarter of 2019, the homeownership rates for white, Black, and Latino households were 73.1 percent, 40.6 percent, and 46.6 percent respectively – the largest differentials in fifty years.”
It’s important to note that of those that own homes in Whatcom County, it is mostly white individuals, leaving minorities stuck renting or houseless. Showing that while the issue of housing affordability is affects everyone, it disproportionally affects minorities.
According to 2020 Census data, 71% of Bellingham households are made up of only 1-2 people. Looking back at the median income for Bellingham (which is $60k/yr), we can see that the average rental is not affordable for a huge portion of our community and it shows why 56% of renters are cost burdened.
We saw that 24% of homeowners are cost burdened, and its more shocking that more aren’t cost burdened when looking at the average mortgage payment and knowing only 50% of the community makes $60k or more. Even in a household of two making the median income wouldn’t be able to afford the average mortgage payment.
#12 The median home price in Whatcom County in February 2023 was $560,000; However, a couple making a collective $100,000/yr could only afford a house worth $385,000. (WHA What is Workforce Housing?)
In order for housing prices to reduce to a level that the typical Bellingham or Whatcom County resident can afford, we need to focus on building middle housing which is smaller and more affordable. It also allows us to build more units with more density, which will help address the vacancy rates and growing population. Middle housing is a great option for our aging population as well, as they can still live in the city where there are public facilities, and it is less expensive. Middle housing will also cater to our changing population dynamics as we see more and more childless and one-person households.
Thankfully Washington state recently passed HB 1110 which legalizes middle housing and HB 1337 which makes it eases the restrictions on ADU’s. The city of Bellingham is also working hard to implement these at city-level for our near future.
As housing-for-everyone advocates, TC Legend Homes and Powerhouse Designs strives to educate the public on these important issues while providing healthy, net-zero, carbon neutral budget homes in an effort to not only help the housing crisis, but provide top-performing homes.
To further discuss middle housing and the path forward for our community, or to get started on your very own project, contact us today!
This national award represents a significant achievement, recognizing the most impressive and advanced homes among leading DOE Zero Energy Ready Home builders. Our standard-setting leadership serves as an example of what every homebuyer in the nation should come to expect and demand from their home.
The Housing Innovation Awards helps us celebrate our success in providing our customers with the best in energy efficiency, indoor air quality, comfort, and construction quality. Awardees this year are being recognized for innovative use of off-the-shelf technologies and strategies to achieve advanced performance; innovative use of leading-edge technologies and strategies to achieve advanced performance; market transformation through education efforts; and innovative implementation of decarbonization strategies.
There’s a right & a wrong way to design windows on the southside of a house.
The Murphy windows are done the right way, are a bit high, tucked up towards the eaves to admit the low winter sunshine yet shade-out the unwanted high summer sun so it can’t enter the building & warm up the interior.
This means your windows are a bit high and look to the sky.
I battled Ted for years about these windows because I want houses to look at the ground, and, the sky. However after twelve months looking at the ever-changing sky of the Pacific Northwest I am a convert, and a disciple. It’s just fabulous walking into a cool house in hot high summer, knowing that absolutely no sunshine is entering.
In the summer I want to live in a cool, dark cave. In the howling winter I want to live in a bright, warm sanctuary.
The Murphy house brings this contradiction to life, and then adds space to time:
There is 750 square feet of space inside the Murphy house, and there is 600sf of deck-space outside. The two spaces flow easily into each other. How, why, what?
You walk out onto a very modern pale-colored interior-style floor. It feels clean, like a room that’s outside, rather than a deck. Indeed I used to vacuum that floor with the shop vac, and it came up trim with the clean-house feeling. Add good exterior furniture and a partial roof, lights and pots growing peppers in the sunshine & you have a place to go, even it’s just to water the peppers. Now I’m drifting in and out, and out and in. Stimulation outside, sanctuary inside. I move between the two feeding my appetites and resting.
As my life progressed from summer into winter I was left inside again, with those three sky-windows pointing up, but now I was looking at dark sky, stars, tungsten-lit clouds and tungsten-lit storms. The Murphy house was flooded with ambient night-light. Planet earth travelling around the sun is tilted, and the Pacific Northwest was at its distance-extreme from the sun; dark & cold, & I knew it.
Here’s the secret: if you put the windows above chest height you don’t need shades for privacy because there’s nothing to see except a head. So now there can always be a view out, so you can see it all.
I’m not sure it’s reasonable to write a whole post about 3 windows and a deck, but that’s really where it’s at.
The kitchen is worthy of mention because it formed an epic super-social axis around which I could meet new people; I would cook, and all these new dudes would sit at the bar. I think the concept of ‘defensible space’ bluntly describes how the kitchen/ counter combo lent me ease and accommodated new minds.
The very dark bathroom was the deepest and most welcome part of the summer-cave, a heavy earth-tile retreat, darkly contrasting with the bright, bright apartment (delete repeated word).
I never lived in the Murphy house with anyone, and there remain questions in my mind about privacy & the closeness of the bedrooms to the common areas. To my mind Ted’s Leong house addresses most of these concerns.
The western light poured through the double doors in the summer; orange and yellow and picked up the yellow fir floors. It was a golden place.