Tallboys, The Floor is Lava, and Other Consequences of Parking

This is the beginning of what will be an occasional series on the design impacts of parking on urban housing. Let's start with a look at what we'll call the "tallboy" - referencing those 16 ounce cans of cheap beer or malt liquor, for when 12oz just isn't enough. Here's one, under construction in NE Portland. 

   16oz of residential pleasure


16oz of residential pleasure

Distorted proportions represent distorted priorities

Distorted proportions represent distorted priorities

The stretched proportions of the tallboy houses are a parody of the archetype of the house. We generally share an ideal image of a house, and it's reflected in the homes we've built for ages. The image of "house" is has a loose canon of proportions, neither too high, nor too wide, and we can observe this in a walk around our neighborhoods. As a rule, the height is generally less than twice the width, or the width is never more than twice the height. 



The archetype, with its infinite variations, is the monopoly house. 

The universal signifier for "house"

The universal signifier for "house"

Beyond the cognitive distress of these funhouse mirror distortions of basic form, there are some real urban design impacts to consider. These impacts are eminently quantifiable too. Let's examine the traditional relationship of dwelling to public realm. Streets are more than just a network of routes from place to place; they are public spaces. Streets are the negative space between private spaces, where civic life, life between buildings happens. The sidewalk is where public meets private. In traditional neighborhood design, there is a sophisticated gradient mediating between public and private space. This gradient is defined by both horizontal and vertical separation. The distances involved do not need to be huge to be effective either, as we will see below. 


The 21st century spec townhouse eliminates this gradient however, isolating the dwelling behind what is basically a small parking lot. The pedestrian experience is degraded to a stroll past the ass end of a row of luxury SUVs in more than a few projects we've observed. 

Normal 2D.jpg

The traditional neighborhood design, with its graduated layers of privacy is based on the way the building relates to its site. The ground plane, shown here, is the plane that the building sits on. The way the building relates to this plane (or doesn't) has an enormous impact on the way it functions, and what it contributes to the public realm. Some buildings are fortified and hostile, while others are open and permeable. Urban design studies have confirmed people seek out places characterized by the latter and avoid the former. 

Tall 2D.jpg

When the building is raised up above a garage, the traditional ground plane zone is levitated, functionally eliminating any relationship between interior space and the yard and the street. This turns a house into a one story apartment building. Indoor outdoor living and the opportunity for gardening is usually replaced by a useless space covered in "beauty bark." 

This levitating condition results in a design motif we've come to think of as "the floor is lava." What we see here is a row of houses, that, if they were situated on a traditional ground plane, would actually be pretty great. 

Tallboys Ground Plane.jpg

But no, we can't touch the ground. It's lava!


Designs like this have brought a lot of undeserved heat on the "skinny house" typology. We don't think the skinny house is a priori a bad form. It often is, though, and that's a direct consequence of trying to shoehorn parking into the typology. As we can see here, skinny houses situated on the ground as God intended, are quite attractive. We suspect many people who pass these on the street never even guess they're 21st century interlopers. 

short bois.jpg
Lair Hill Stoops.jpg

They contribute synergistically to the neighborhood because of the way they relate to the ground plane and to the public realm. The public/private gradient and the stoop can function in a very dense, urban setting, and doesn't necessitate huge setbacks. Here's a row of early 20th century homes in Lair Hill. The front walls are no more than 10' from the lot line, and the porches are possibly as close as 3'. However, it's very clear what's public and what's private, and the pedestrian environment is a safe, inviting place. 


Contrast that with this recently completed project on the east edge of the Eliot neighborhood. When you prioritize parking, which is what most unsophisticated spec builders, and the lenders who fund them do, you get parkinghouses. These townhouses are in the R2 zone, and represent a pretty typical market response to that zoning. 

Lets be very clear here: absent any additional code stipulations on building form, upzoning single family areas will not result in more of the Prewar plexes and small apartments we and others have profiled and analyzed. What we will most likely see is more of what we're already getting in the R2.5 and R1 zones; very large, luxury townhouses stacked above parking. No stoops, no transition from public to private, just places for cars, and houses jacked up in towers, like a one or two unit apartment building. 


Portland has ample precedent for code interventions that block the worst of auto oriented design. Our planning community recognized decades ago that when parking dominates the design process, we get quantifiably bad outcomes. Strip malls and similar retail designs that set shops back from the street behind seas of parking have been outlawed in most of the city's inner commercial zones. As of 2018, new drive through uses have been outlawed city wide, extending a ban on new drive-throughs in the Central City Plan District to the whole of Portland.

Similarly, "snout houses" were banned by the city's residential code. It's really not hard to see why:

Snout Fever.jpg

The building industry's current standard response to the duplex zones justifies a similar intervention. Compare the way the following buildings relate to their context. The one on the right is called "Z House" because of its clever offset floor levels, and for its residents, it's probably a pretty nice space to occupy. However, it has a minimal relationship to the public realm and the neighborhood. One-offs like this are not really a big issue, but cumulatively, the impact is huge. Part of what makes cities wonderful is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts. This is because the individual buildings relate synergistically and support life between buildings. When life takes place entirely inside buildings or designated outdoor recreation spaces, you get suburbia. 

z house.jpg

We want to conclude this essay by noting that we're not advocating an absolutist position on parking by any means. The correct lesson to take away from this exploration of building forms is that in the Prewar era, building form took precedence and parking was an afterthought -  shoehorned into the residual space on a lot. In the Postwar era, however, parking began to drive the design process. Garages were situated on sites and residential space was shoehorned in around them. As we can see from the illustration below, older development has room for off street parking. The difference is that unlike the last image, where the housing is stacked on top of the garage, cars are accommodated on-site; they just aren't invited into the house itself. They are allowed on site, but the principle structure is a building for people