Knute Berger on Bungalows & Backyard Cottages

With our urban density ever increasing, does Seattle still have room for the humble bungalow?

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With our urban density ever increasing, does Seattle still have room for the humble bungalow?

Every fall for the last dozen years, Historic Seattle has hosted a “Bungalow Fair” celebrating what is perhaps Seattle’s defining architectural hallmark of the early 20th century. There are exhibits, tours and a chance to talk with contemporary craftspeople. Despite a proliferation of high-rises, condos, townhouses, penthouses, skinny houses, skinny towers, apartment blocks, box houses, megahouses, and what have you, Seattle still loves the lowly bungalow.

Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason explore the phenomenon in their book The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest (2007), which has spawned a superb exhibition on the subject at the Museum of History & Industry (it runs through January 18 before touring the region). Just after the turn of the century, Seattle’s biggest boom years for growth, the bungalow was the right idea at the right time for the right place. Seattle had plenty of land, a surge of working- and middle-class newcomers looking for their first homes, and an abundance of natural, local materials to build them with.

Kreisman and Mason explain some of the appeal. They write: “The bungalow reflected wholesome American values at a core level—home, family, economic sustainability, support for locally produced products and commitment to one’s community.” These values are still in the minds of architects and planners today: How can Seattle be affordable, sustainable, compact, and nurture community in the face of growth, change, economic challenges and globalization?

For some, however, the sturdy bungalow is morphing into a symbol that is the opposite of what launched it. As Seattle looks to increase housing densities and create more affordable housing, some argue that single-family homes, including bungalows, are no longer sustainable: They use too much land, house too few people; they don’t enable developers to create high-density housing to support mass transit. For many, these humble houses represent unattainable domestic luxury: The once-cheap starter bungalow has become a $500,000 impossible dream.

Some Seattle greens argue that our single-family neighborhoods are, in effect, a form of sprawl that needs to be eradicated with more density. Roger Valdez, a one-time aide to former Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck who now blogs for the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, argues that low-density neighborhoods like Laurelhurst are “sprawl within the city limits” and are “unchecked due to the failure of a vision for land use.” He dismisses Seattle’s single-family-home preservationist streak as “strange.”

I don’t think it’s strange at all: Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods have long been the essence of our diversity, strength and livability, a way to find a compromise between suburban sprawl and ultra-urban densities that crowd out nature. Even proponents of high-density urban development, such as Vancouver, British Columbia, planner Gordon Price, say that Seattle’s neighborhoods are among the city’s most enviable assets.

Our bungalow values live—and they are adapting. One trend has been suburban “cottage clusters” that have sprouted in places like Kirkland and Shoreline, that feature Craftsman-style bungalows built around a shared commons. They’re a response to creating greater density and community without sacrificing the single-family-home dream or transforming neighborhoods with too many giant multi-family complexes.

Another adaptation is the move in Seattle to allow detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs), more popularly known as backyard cottages, in single-family neighborhoods. Th