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Monster Houses Devour Neighborhood Scale

In a currently popular coffee-table book titled The Not So Big House, Minneapolis-based architect Sarah Susanka argues for an age-old idea that seems quaint in our hyper economic boom times: quality is better than quantity. When it comes to addressing the current planning dilemma called monster houses � the phenomenon of tearing down older houses and rebuilding with Godzilla proportions in Bambi neighborhoods � Susanka may be to the 2000s what Andres Duany was to the 1990s: an architect that has design antidotes for infill urban design horrors.

Susanka's thesis is so fundamentally logical that it takes on the aura of innovation. She writes that well-rendered small spaces can create not only more useable houses, but ones that are better for the soul. Susanka's admonition might also be better for the neighborhood, if the tumult at building permit counters in affluent municipalities is any indication. Community outrage over monster houses has spilled into many of California's City Council chambers � especially in Silicon Valley � and is resulting in urgency ordinances and a range of other code revisions.

Of course, the American cultural obsession with size is not limited to houses. The view across most suburban shopping center parking lots is of monster SUVs, monster fast food drink cups, and probably a monster big box or two. But the monster phenomenon is particularly problematic when it comes home to the neighborhood � especially in expensive areas like Silicon Valley. The older, bucolic neighborhoods near the high-tech job hubs in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are desirable places to by homes, but the houses are just too small for today's tastes. So remodels abound. Now, these quiet, older neighborhoods are fighting back.

Last November, the City of San Mateo extended a ban on demolishing single-family homes. Palo Alto approached the problem with politically-correct aplomb, disguising its restrictions as an historic preservation ordinance. And Cupertino approved extensive review regulations for second-story additions. The trickiness of this planning issue is the underlying theme of propriety and neighborliness, which is difficult for most communities to regulate. Many older or longtime residents simply believe it is impolite to construct additions that are taller than the neighborhood norm, or that differ with the standard architecture. On the other hand, some smart growth proponents applaud the reinvestment in existing neighborhoods, compared with building new monster houses on monster lots at the exurban fringes.

And by the way, didn't we all � including "Edward Scissorhands" creator Tim Burton � loathe the drab sameness of suburbia, especially the post World War II ranch-style subdivisions? And what of property-rights advocates who deplore new attempts to regulate what homeowners can do with their properties. Add to these issues the ever controversial and sometimes elitist notion of design review � so-called expert panels ruling on roof pitch and siding material choices for the good of the community. Suffice it to say that the monster house trend places myriad philosophical issues into play. It's not that residential building has gone unregulated until now. Standard R-1 zoning in most communities requires 25-foot front and rear yard setbacks, and five-foot side yards.

Many communities also have site coverage and height restrictions. But for longtime residents in neighborhoods like San Jose's Willow Glen, such building envelope rules have not stopped a steady stream of special-use permit notices from showing up in everyone's mail boxes. Bulldozers and contractors have been a staple in Willow Glen for the last several years, and that has fired up San Jose's civic debate. San Jose attempt at resolving the monster house controversy has been both measured and comprehensive. The City has passed a tiered design review ordinance, linking the assessment of remodel additions to performance standards depending on a particular lot size. In that way, the scale of a remodel or addition is dependent on relevant site criteria, including the floor-to-area ratio, setbacks, and terrain. Building requests that would have a greater impact on neighborhood scale will require more laborious, extensive, and costly public hearing review. Whether neighborhoods such as Willow Glen will be satisfied with the regulatory approach remains to be seen.

Perhaps the City should also require that would-be remodelers read Susanka's book. "We all want to go home," she writes, "but we don't know how." Perhaps with some reflection by the homeowner who thinks he can't possibly live in less than 4,000 square feet, unneighborly consequences can be reigned in. Otherwise, the results can apparently be monstrous.

Stephen Svete, AICP, is a principal in the Ventura-based consulting firm of Rincon Consultants, Inc.

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