A ‘pocket neighborhood’ for a changing market


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network


If the buyers opt to install solar panels on the roofs, their new homes could be “Net Zero” — producing as much energy as they consume — say the developers of the diminutive Riverwalk cluster of houses in West Concord, Massachusetts.

On 3.7 acres, Genesis Planners — a planning and development services firm that has begun developing its own residential projects — is creating a grouping of 13 small houses not far from where Henry David Thoreau once lived in a 10-by-15-foot cabin of his own making.

Nearly a century and a half after Thoreau’s passing, the average home in Concord and vicinity has grown large — an average of 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, says Dan Gainsboro, the president of Genesis. But Gainsboro believes there’s a growing market for small, energy-efficient dwellings, especially if they can deliver an intimate neighborhood feeling.

Riverwalk, now under construction, will feature two-bedroom cottages selling for $599,000 and three-bedroom cottages selling for $650,000. The two-bedroom units will contain roughly 1,300 square feet plus a habitable basement, and the three-bedroom units will be in the vicinity of 1,600 square feet. By national standards, those prices are not cheap at all, but in the desirable western suburbs of high-cost Boston, they’ll probably be appealing. “They are definitely moderately priced by Concord standards,” says Gainsboro.

Genesis is employing the “pocket neighborhood” concept of Ross Chapin, an award-winning architect in Langley, Washington. Closely-spaced small houses will face onto shared landscape. Half of the 3.7 acres in Riverwalk will consist of open space, community gardens, shared green space, a community pavilion, and river and nature trails. West Concord’s town center and a commuter rail station are within a 3/4-mile walk.

Chapin produced the initial site plan, meeting with the Town Planning board, other committees, and adjacent property owners to talk about the pocket-neighborhood concept and apply it locally, Gainsboro says. Later Donald Powers Architects of Providence, Rhode Island, was brought in to handle other aspects of the project, including house design, and take the project through permitting.

The cottages will have “ample light and views while also respecting each homeowner’s need for privacy within a community setting,” according to Powers. They are sited among mature trees on gently sloping land adjacent to the Assabet River. Front porches look onto a common park. The cottages are now being framed.

There will be 10 newly constructed cottages plus three other units in old buildings that are being historically rehabilitated. Powers says the houses, with traditional cottage styling, exceed the requirement of most “green” rating systems.

Suzanne Rivitz of Genesis says the houses are highly insulated and energy-efficient. Solar panels are being offered as an option. The customer would need to contract with a solar vendor, she noted. “That’s the only way to get a tax credit.” If the solar panels were provided by the builder as part of the purchase, the tax credit would not be available, Rivitz explains.

The intent was to apply the “not so big house” concept popularized by by architect and author Sarah Susanka. In Washington State, pocket neighborhoods of cottages have attracted empty-nesters and single professionals, especially single women who like the sense of community, according to Gainsboro. “Our experience is that they also appeal to some families,” particularly nontraditional families such as single-parent households, he adds.