Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sustainability and Simple Living in Old Town

In the late 1990's, a countercultural movement to live more simply sprang up in response to a consumer culture in which bigger and newer had become the two main driving forces. People were trading up their cars for SUVs, twenty-somethings were lining up days in advance to buy the latest version of a beloved electronic gadget, and despite the fact that families have been shrinking in size, family homes have continued to grow from an average of 1,740 square feet in 1980, to 2,392 square feet in 2010. In response, magazines like Real Simple were published, to help people find ways of living more simply and purging excess from their lives. Books on how to declutter one's life are so prolific as to clutter up entire shelves in bookstores. And in the architectural world, the tiny house movement was born.

In 1987, a book was published entitled Tiny, Tiny Houses: Or How to Get Away from It All, by Lester Walker. It was the very beginning of a burgeoning movement not only to downsize, but to do it creatively and with aplomb. Rather than living in small shacks or trailers, Walker showed that people could live very simply and comfortably in houses that were overflowing with character and artistic design, but that were very small - often 400 square feet or less. Paired with a desire to live a life that is environmentally conscious, the small house movement coincided with a growing desire among Americans to live more sustainably. And with the economic downturn of the dot-com bust and the fallout of the financial markets in 2008, even more people have realized the value of shedding their consumer skins and orienting their lives around community, simplicity and being out in nature.

In Fort Collins, the tiny house movement didn't start in the 1980s or 90s. Though it's alive and well today, our community first valued and built many small houses in the late 1800s. Not only were they affordable for low income workers, such as the German and Russian immigrants that moved to the area to help harvest the beet crops, but the average family simply didn't require the amount of space that we seem to need today. In fact, despite the many houses that have had additions added on, or houses that were scraped and replaced with larger buildings, there are still over 1,200 houses in Old Town that are under 1,000 square feet in size and another 1,300 houses that are between 1,000 and 1,499 square feet. And people are moving to Old Town specifically because of these small houses.

There are many reasons why people choose to live in small homes. Some single people simply don't want to live in more house than they need. Others choose to downsize from a larger house once their kids are grown and out of the home. And still others want to raise their children in an environment that instills in them an ingrained sense of the value of simplicity and community. Smaller houses are more affordable for those starting out, and some find them to be a better use of funds once they've retired.

Old Town is a wonderful place to enjoy a small house while still having close access to communal space such as City Park and Martinez Park as well as Old Town Square and Oak Street Plaza. Many people who are comfortable living within a small building are the same folks who appreciate having a large amount of communal space. When your house is small, it's more likely that you're going to spend time outside, hanging out with neighbors, walking the streets, and enjoying downtown.

Historic small houses are also a good way to live more sustainably. By preserving a historic building rather than starting from scratch the owner can conserve natural resources and reduce the amount of volatile compounds released into the environment through many modern day building materials. Living in a small house also requires less electricity to light, cool and clean and less heat to keep it warm in winter. Fewer materials are needed to furnish the place. And more of the lawn space is left available for gardening, yet another sustainable pursuit. 

One of our very own Old Town bungalows was featured in American Bungalow magazine in the fall of 2011. The Sustainable Bungalow, was written by Robert Bailey and describes his West Mountain house as a model of sustainability and regional design. Fort Collins bungalows were designed to maximize passive solar heating in winter and minimize solar heating in summer. Deep front porches provide additional cooling in the summer months. And these homes were built to last. These solid little houses can, with proper care and maintenance, last another 100 years or more. 

Old Town's small houses are in many ways irreplaceable. Many are close to 100 years old and were built with 1920's craftsmanship and architectural styling. But even if a builder were to use old fashioned materials and old fashioned styles, in many parts of Fort Collins, houses this small simply aren't allowed. Homes owners associations (HOAs) often include stipulations not only about maximum house size, but regarding minimum house size as well. (Some examples from local HOA covenants are included below.) Even within Old Town, it's more likely that a small house has been expanded than that a large house has been reduced in size. So the inventory of small housing stock is constantly being reduced. Small houses in Fort Collins are still plentiful, but the transformation in many neighborhoods has already begun in which small houses are being doubled and even tripled in size. Some are being scraped and replaced with new houses that are, in some cases, as much as 7 times as large. 

Under the new ordinance that city council voted upon back in March 2013, these small houses can still grow in order to better fit expanding families. House size limits are based on lot size, not original building size, and most of these small houses are on quite sizable lots, making them prime targets for speculators who want to buy low, scrape and built a brand new ginormous house, and then sell high. Given that there is a sizable population that love these houses just the way they are, it makes sense to do what we can to preserve as much of this shrinking housing stock as possible. 


Information on average house sizes was taken from government census data compiled in this pdf document: http://www.census.gov/const/C25Ann/sftotalmedavgsqft.pdf

The average size of a family in 1980 was 3.29 (http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/02/us/size-of-us-family-continues-to-drop-census-bureau-says.html). The average size in 2010 was 3.14 (http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-14.pdf).

Real Simple Magazine began in March 2000, which was found on their about page: http://www.realsimple.com/work-life/technology/about-real-simple-00000000007419/index.html

Photos of small houses in Old Town, Fort Collins thanks to Paul Ostrof.

Blogs and Websites with a focus on tiny houses:

The Tiny Life - Tiny Houses, Tiny Living
The Tiny House Blog - Living Simply in Small Spaces
Tumbleweed - Tiny House Company
Tiny House Family - Family Life in 320 Square Feet
YouTube videos on the Tiny House Movement
Wayfaring Girl on a Mission - The Small House Movement

HOA Minimum Dwelling Sizes (a random sampling):

Huntington Hills
"In addition, each Residence shall have at least eleven hundred (1,100) Square feet of living area above grade for all ranch style homes and twelve hundred (1,200) square feet of living area above grade for all bi-level and two-story homes, and a two (2) car attached garage."

Golden Meadows
"The ground floor area of the main structure, exclusive of one-story open porches and garages, shall be not less than 675 square feet for a one-story dwelling, not less than 500 square feet for a dwelling of more than one story." - Article III, Section 3.04

"The ground floor areas of any dwelling, exclusive of one story open porches and garages, shall not be less than 900 square feet." - 5. Dwelling Quality and Size

Lake Sherwood
"The ground floor area of the main structure, exclusive of one-story open porches and garages, shall be not less than 1,200 square feet on Lots 1 through 20 and 37 through 43, and not less than 1,000 square feet on the remaining lots, except that minor variations in area may be made with the approval of the Architectural Control Committee. - 3. Dwelling Quality and Size


  1. Thanks for sharing this! As a tiny house dweller myself, we are unfortunately "banished" to the corners of the county (actually, well beyond that) because of the aforementioned limitations and stipulations on size requirements. It's too bad we cannot see a band of people get together, preserve what we have, and develop an intentional, small house community. I would much rather see us within the limits and putting money back into the city (using MAX, biking, shopping local, et al.) than having to drive 20 minutes (or more) into town because we chose a lifestyle which is "different" than others. We would certainly love to preserve what we have and cherish the "smallness" of our community!

  2. With all the new building that's going on these days, I keep hoping I'll see a tiny house neighborhood pop up, but I suppose it's not in the builders' best interests. They want either want the density of apartments or the square footage of large houses so that they get a good return on their investment.

    I wonder if a co-housing community could get permits and financing for creating a tiny house neighborhood. But then I suppose it's a matter of finding people that are interested in such a thing... which is probably easier said than done.