There was a time not all that long ago when ordinary people built simple small scale mixed use buildings on Main Street in every little town in North America. This was completely normal. Of course the family that owns the corner grocery store lives upstairs. Dah. But we almost never see such structures built new today. Society changed dramatically somewhere along the way. Now these things are illegal and if you attempt to construct such a building in your neighborhood people will come out with pitchforks and firebrands. I’ve stopped asking why. It’s pointless. Now I’m in work-around mode.
I spent a significant amount of time in recent years traveling the country absorbing the wisdom of the Incremental Development Alliance taking in the collective wisdom of people like John Anderson, Jim Kumon, and Monte Anderson. I highly recommend their presentations if you ever have the opportunity to attend one in your area. They’re a pragmatic group that focuses on getting regular people to build small scale urbanism one modest building at a time on a relatively tight budget. The Form Follows Finance Fourplex is an excellent example of what they recommend. The bulk of the information they impart has little to do with architecture. Plain vanilla rectangular structures do all the heavy lifting. Instead they primarily walk people through byzantine zoning regulations, building codes, ADA compliance, financing mechanisms, and the economics of getting a building to cash flow at room temperature.
At the end of the day I did what I always do. I took the information I was given and used it in a way that made sense for me. Begging endless unresponsive bureaucracies for permission to build a little duplex or fourplex isn’t my thing – particularly if I’m required to soak myself in debt to satisfy other people’s pointless rules. I’d rather chew on broken glass. I simply don’t have the patience or temperament for any of it. But I was able to synthesize this knowledge to find an appropriate hack that does work.
For seventeen years I had a home in Hawaii. One of the most common arrangements on the island is a single family home with the main living space on the second floor to capture views and prevailing ocean breezes. The ground floor was often a garage, a couple of spare bedrooms, laundry, or other less prominent space. One of the quirks of the mild year round Hawaiian climate is that a wall of insect screening has the same basic qualities as a solid insulated wall in a place like Minnesota. Rooms very often flow to the outdoors without necessarily connecting directly within the house – so you might walk from your bedroom on to a patio or deck and then walk back in to the kitchen or living room from outside.
One of my neighbors retired to the island and decided to build a small multifamily property that would allow him to live mortgage free and collect a little rental income to supplement his pension. He knew instinctively that asking for permission to build such a thing was pointless. The authorities that regulate land use and enforce the building codes would never stand for it. So he built a normal nothing special single family home that just happened to function really well as a sub rosa triplex.
I’ve created a basic floor plan from memory. I’m sure many details are wrong, but the general geometry is accurate. He lived in the top floor with one bedroom, a bath, a kitchen/living/dining space and a deck with ocean views. Downstairs were two bedroom suites – each with its own private bath. The tub and toilet were in one chamber and the sink was in a separate vanity/dressing area. He then took on two room mates who lived independently downstairs. The addition of refrigerators, microwaves, toaster ovens, and various plug in appliances created kitchenettes that did the job well enough without breaking any laws. It’s illegal to have a stove in your spare bedroom, but the government has yet to outlaw rice cookers and coffee makers. Each bedroom opened on to a patio and lush garden with a shared propane barbecue and outdoor seating. The entire house had about 1,200 square feet of fully enclosed space so this wasn’t an expensive place to build. And this is the most affordable rental space on the island.
Down the street another guy built a similar single family home that just happened to have a couple of indoor/outdoor rooms that served as de facto rental apartments. There’s nothing weird about these spaces in the Hawaiian context. Nothing on paper triggered questions or difficulties with plan checkers or building inspectors. If you did happen to live in Minnesota there’s no reason why the open air patios and decks couldn’t be fully enclosed sun rooms and airlock vestibules that achieved the same goals.
In this particular neighborhood and many others across the island this kind of unofficial housing is ubiquitous. More homes engage in some version of this sort of thing than not – primarily because it solves all sorts of problems that none of the official processes and procedures can. No laws are broken and both landlords and tenants come to reasonable agreements between themselves. It works.
My point here is that you “could” exhaust yourself trying to replicate the building typologies of a previous era in the hope of bringing back the lost art of fine grained incremental mom and pop urbanism. But why? Society will fight you tooth and nail. Relax. Just do the thing that works instead. Faster. Cheaper. Easier. You’ll ultimately arrive at a destination that might not look like Mayberry, but does the same job within the current system. Focus on the soft stuff of mutually beneficial human relationships instead.