Northwest Renovation Magazine

A Home Improvement Magazine

Every neighborhood has one; some have many. They are usually taller than the adjacent houses, scantily windowed and sprouting from their most conspicuous feature, the garage. In areas where they are numerous, such as outer southeast and Rose City, these “skinny” or “infill” houses are the source of much contention. Neighbors complain that their scale and design do not match existing houses, and building critics are dissatisfied with their materials and craftsmanship. Many question the appropriateness of building on half lots or on property that is 25 x 100 feet or less. As Martha Stewart would say, these skinny houses “just don’t fit in.”

The Higgins
The Vargas
The Higgins Floorpaln
The Vargas Floorplan
Living Smart Homes can be built on lots that are:
• No larger than 36 ft x 100 ft
• Outside historic and conservation districts
• Without steep slopes or changes
in elevation

From a different perspective, developing underutilized lots is beneficial because it doesn’t require expensive new infrastructure, protects valuable farmland, provides additional economic opportunities for builders, and increases the availability of affordable housing stock. In 2003, after a series of public deliberations about changing the zoning code to restrict development on skinny lots, Portland’s City Council voted in favor of maintaining the option to construct these homes on single-family lots. In response to residents’ complaints, Council also added design requirements and the provision that only vacant lots may be used, as opposed to demolishing existing homes to erect new skinny houses.

To further address residents’ concerns over aesthetics, Commissioner Randy Leonard and Portland’s Bureau of Development Services (BDS) hosted a competition to generate ideas and a variety of plans to inspire builders and developers to consider neighborhood-friendly designs. Over 400 people from all over the world submitted detailed plans with many big ideas for these small lots. Of these entries, 49 received awards and were included in the publication “Portland Catalogue of Narrow House Designs.” Capitalizing on the public’s enthusiasm for their efforts, the BDS/Leonard team solicited two of the award-winning designers to refine their plans for community use. The result was the creation of permit-ready or Council-approved plans called “Living Smart Houses,” made available to the public in May 2006.

The two styles of Living Smart Houses are the “Higgins” and the “Vargas,” named after their designers, Bryan Higgins and Trent and Roxana Vargas Greenan, respectively. The Higgins, with two stacked front gabled roofs, three stories, and backyard-facing alcove balconies, has the appearance of a modernized farmhouse. Within its modest footprint, the Higgins comfortably includes three bedrooms and two baths in a generously-sized 1779 sq ft home. Keeping the same floor plan, Higgins owners can select exposed or covered roof trusses and green upgrades at an additional cost. These include Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood, formaldehyde-free insulation, and concrete containing 25% fly ash. The Vargas design takes cues from the Craftsman style. A series of second-story triangular knee braces emerge over the garage or office space on the first floor, depending on which plan is selected. The board and batten finish on the home’s upper portion nicely complements the lap siding below. One can also choose green options for the Vargas style, including the selection of durable fiberglass windows and FSC lumber.

To acquire plans for a Living Smart Home, first purchase a building permit, and then you will be issued plans. In an effort to encourage the use of these plans, BDS is discounting any associated plans review and inspection fees by 50%. Although other bureaus charge full price for related development fees, a builder of a Living Smart Home pays approximately $14,000, a significant savings over the expense of separate architectural drawings and a permit for a comparable new single-family home. According to Anne Hill, Senior Management Analyst at BDS, other than the Higgins prototype, “no Living Smart homes have been built in Portland since the program began a few months ago.” However, many developers and potential owners have expressed considerable interest in the efficient, affordable, and handsome homes, proving once again that good things can come in small packages.

To find out more about the Living Smart Houses or to view elevations and floor plans, visit

Alisa Kane is a freelance writer specializing in green building and sustainable development. Contact her at

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