Making the case for the cottage community

Michele Lerner

FALLS CHURCH, Virginia (The Washington Post) – Empty-nesters Bonnie and Andrew Sakallaris decided to downsize when they realised they were spending all their time in about one-third of their 3,500-square-foot house in Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Instead of swapping their five-bedroom home for a condo or moving to an active adult community, the couple did something different: They chose a newly built single-family house in a pocket neighbourhood – a community of just 10 residences where at least one homeowner must be 55 years or older.

“We saw a rendering of the Railroad Cottages in Falls Church and immediately liked the concept of a small group of houses that could create a sense of community in a walkable urban environment,” Bonnie Sakallaris said.

In general, the homes clustered in a pocket or cottage neighbourhood have a shared common space, said Theresa Sullivan Twiford, a real estate agent with Pearson Smith Realty in Falls Church who began working on the Railroad Cottages project about six years ago.

The Railroad Cottages community, Twiford said, is the first new cottage neighbourhood in Northern Virginia. Local governments and developers are studying whether to replicate it to address the “missing-middle” housing problem – the lack of homes in the market for middle-income people.

The Railroad Cottages are named for the street they’re on – Railroad Avenue.

Andrew Sakallaris, 68, and his wife Bonnie, 67, walk along the boardwalk of their Railroad Cottages community in Falls Church, Virginia
ABOVE & BELOW: Andrew Sakallaris adjusts the shutters in the first-floor master bedroom at his home; and Bonnie Sakallaris works on a puzzle in her open-concept kitchen. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

All 10 Railroad Cottages, which surround a courtyard and are connected by a boardwalk, have been taken. The 1,490-square-foot houses each have two bedrooms, three bathrooms and a parking space in a carport adjacent to the community.

The homeowners share a similarly sized common house with a kitchen and entertainment space and a guest bedroom and bathroom upstairs.

“People like the idea of owning a smaller, smarter, more energy-efficient home, which is a good fit for an age-restricted community where the buyers want a low-maintenance lifestyle,” said Jack Wilbern, architect of the Railroad Cottages and a partner with Butz-Wilbern Ltd. “They also like the idea of knowing their neighbours, so we designed the homes to make it easier to have serendipitous contact with the neighbours and yet have privacy when you want it.”

The Railroad Cottages each have a front porch and the kitchen in the front of the house so neighbours can see one another when they walk by, Wilbern said.

“If you live that closely together, you also need to make sure you’ve tempered those community opportunities with privacy,” he said. “We laid out the houses so that each has a patio or a deck on the back that’s visible through your windows but private from the adjacent house. The homes are closer together in the front but they’re as far as 20 feet apart in the back.”

Railroad Cottages resident Chris Saxton said she chose the community because of its friendliness.

“Everyone says hello and gets along here,” she said. “We’re excited to start using the common house to meet for coffee or watch movies together.”

Saxon also said she feels safe in the community, partly because she knows her neighbours and partly because of the design around a central courtyard.

“The carport has lots of lights and the boardwalk is lit up, so it feels safe to come in at night,” Saxton said. “Each house has an emergency box so that if we need the police or fire company, we can call automatically and the outside of the house also lights up.”

The common house includes a battery backup system so residents could shelter in place together during a major storm or power outage. While the nearly 1,500-square-foot homes are not tiny, most of the buyers needed to downsize.

“When we tried to figure out what would be best to age in place, we looked at condos but we didn’t find the elevators and long hallways appealing,” Andrew Sakallaris said. “We like the fact that we have the convenience of a smaller home and one-level living but we also don’t have any shared walls with our neighbours. We have raised garden beds around the patio, too.”

Homeowners can maintain their own gardens if they wish. The monthly condo fee of USD469 covers water, sewer, trash, exterior maintenance and insurance for the homes, landscaping, snow removal, maintenance and periodic refurbishing of the common house.

“Our house has an open floor plan and high ceilings, so it doesn’t feel small,” Bonnie Sakallaris said.

Each house has an open kitchen and living and dining area on the first floor, along with a master bedroom, a walk-in closet, a full bathroom, and a washer and dryer.

“We designed the homes with diagonal lines so they’re not just boxes,” Wilbern said. “We put in lots of windows and laid out the homes for privacy so that everyone gets a lot of natural light but they’re not looking into their neighbours’ homes.”

Installing the same hardwood flooring throughout each home also makes them feel larger than they are, Wilbern added.

The homes have been designed to eliminate steps from the carport to the first floor and have universal design and aging-in-place elements, such as wider doorways to accommodate a wheelchair.

The second floor of each home has another bedroom, bathroom and walk-in closet for guests or a home office.

“We designed the homes to look like some of the homes in Falls Church from the 1920s and 1930s, so they have a lot of architectural details, but they’re simple details,” Wilbern said. “All the houses are made of low-maintenance HardiPlank with lap, shingle and board-and-batten siding.”

The homes have geothermal heating and air-conditioning systems and have been EarthCraft gold-certified for energy efficiency, which has the added benefit of eliminating the sound of heat pumps operating in the small community, Wilbern said.

The carport has solar panels that supply all needed power for the common areas and the common house, Twiford said.