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Sunday, October 17, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

Rooms With A Point Of View -- Clustered Whidbey Island Cottages Emphasize Community And Old-Fashioned Values

ON A TYPICAL evening at the Third Street Cottages, Peggy Moe is harvesting lettuce and peas in the communal garden, while her husband, Marty Fernandez, helps a neighbor fix her printer. The sound of someone strumming a guitar on a nearby front porch attracts their 3-year-old daughter, Sophie, who frequently makes the rounds to visit with whoever is out enjoying the sunset.

All live in an award-winning, innovative cluster of eight compact homes built on less than an acre in the town of Langley on Whidbey Island.

The melding of communal spaces and finely crafted homes might be a peek into the future - a high-density housing experiment designed to combat urban sprawl via simple living. Or it might be something simpler: a return to the old-fashioned sense of community of our great-grandparents, where people shared a cup of sugar over the backyard fence and swapped neighborhood news on porch stoops.

Fernandez and Moe, residents of Kirkland for the past decade, are part of a growing backlash against the "bigger is better" mentality borne of urban sprawl in the past 30 years. "People are tearing down quaint little bungalows in our community to build gigantic boxes much too large for the lots, and put up huge fences so that they never have to even see their neighbors," says Moe. "It's really eroding the community, and not a place we want to raise our child."

During the past 35 years, the size of new homes nationwide has ballooned. Many new tract developments now boast homes in the 2,500- to 5,000-square-foot range, up from 1,400 square feet in 1960. Meanwhile, the average family size has shrunk from 3.6 to 2.7 people, and 40 percent of U.S. households have only one person.

Architect Ross Chapin and developer Jim Soules designed the Third Street Cottages to offer an alternative to proliferating "McMansions."

"There are a growing number of consumers who are deeply unsatisfied with the housing market's notion that more space equals greater luxury," says Chapin. "Our cottages are about fine craftsmanship and quality, rather than sheer quantity. Instead of a bigger house, we're offering people a better home."

Although their new bungalow has less than 1,000 square feet, Fernandez and Moe don't feel squeezed, a credit to both the design of their home and the community. Nine-foot ceilings, three skylights and large windows give the cottage an open and airy feel. Every bit of space is usable - no separate dining room, media room or even hallways - which also contributes to the illusion of more square footage than is actually there.

"We actually have a huge space because we're outside as much as inside - on our porch, the courtyard, the communal garden - and in our neighbors' homes," says Fernandez. The cottages also share a timber-framed workshop with a roof terrace, which is used for everything from fixing bicycles and appliances to frequent neighborhood potlucks.

The eight homes have the same floor plan, but Fernandez and Moe have made theirs distinctly their own. The main level includes a kitchen, breakfast nook, master bedroom and bath, all opening onto the living room. On both sides of the living room stairs lead to two loft rooms, one used for Sophie's bedroom, the other as an office for Fernandez, a graphic designer.

There's an element of fun as you walk past the wooden porch swing and through the tomato-red Dutch door. As you step into the sunny, skylit living room with white-washed knotty-spruce walls, the architectural craftsmanship and the couple's special touches mesh into a space brimming with character. The steel staircase railings and the built-in steel and glass shelves, which house part of Fernandez's extensive toy collection, were designed by artist David Gignac, who lives next door to the cottages. Playful bright throw rugs accent the scored green hardboard floor, and vinyl tiles set in a checkerboard pattern animate the kitchen floor and counters as well as the bathroom floor.

All building materials were both environmentally sound and cost-effective. The wood-paneled walls are reclaimed Sitka spruce, rejected by a piano factory and on their way to a paper mill to become toilet paper. Chapin designed milling blades to create paneling similar to that in a seaside cottage, with knots and character-building imperfections intact.

"Everyone here shares a belief that sustainability is an important value," Moe says. "We have to start taking responsibility for the earth's dwindling resources by taking a look at how we live."

Perhaps the best examples of the individual character of the cottages - and owners - are the wooden placards, hand-painted by Chapin, that hang on the front-porch rails. Each resident created a name for their bungalow. Fernandez and Moe chose "Pears and Cherries" to honor the heirloom fruit trees in their yard that were preserved during construction.

Faith Smith calls her cottage "Hale Ici Molokini," Hawaiian for little house of many connections.

"I grew up in wartime Maui, in a small cottage like this one," Smith says. "This place reminds me of that very tight community where everyone kept an eye on each other."

Janice Porter chose "Anam Cara," Celtic for "friend of your soul," to salute her new home's role in her journey to discover what she wants to do with her life now that her last child has moved out of the house she owns in Portland.

"This place draws people who are of different ages, political opinions and backgrounds, but we're all in a place of transition or expansion and have something to share with each other," says Porter. "It's like our field of dreams - Ross seemed to know that if he built it, we all would come."

Part of what makes the cottages special is that the architecture and environment provide privacy, yet encourage people to become a community. "People talk to you if you're out on your porch but don't come in through your gate unless invited," says Porter. "We're very close, but respectful of privacy."

The development was made possible by the city of Langley's innovative Cottage Housing Ordinance, adopted in 1995 as a tool for increasing density while retaining the charming town's character. The ordinance permits higher densities - up to 12 single-family dwellings on an acre - for developments of homes of no more than 975 square feet situated around a common area.

The cottages, which won an AIA-Sunset Magazine Western Home Award, are sold under a condominium-type ownership. Group decisions, about everything from hiring someone to weed the garden to buying a communal barbecue grill, are made at monthly meeting and discussed via e-mail or over the backyard fence.

The next step is to bring the cottage vision from bucolic Whidbey Island to a more urban setting. Chapin and Soules are breaking ground on an eight-unit cottage development in Shoreline that should be completed next summer. "We see the cottage dwellers as real pioneers," says Soules. "City planners nationwide have been talking about this concept, `visioning it,' for a decade. Now, we finally have a working model - and it's just the beginning."

Jennifer Haupt is a free-lance writer living in Bellevue. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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