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Hamptons Life

Reexamining The Small House For The East End

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Anne Surchin, AIA   Dec 19, 2011 10:50 AM
Jan 2, 2012 12:36 PM

Nobody has to live in a barrel like Diogenes, but on the East End, as well as in other parts of the country, the small house is once again garnering attention as the antidote to conspicuous consumption and the resultant waste of energy and natural resources.

Numerous articles have appeared on the tiny house and the small house movements, along with books like “Nano House: Innovations for Small Dwellings” by Phyllis Richardson.

The rationale for the small house dovetails with buzz words all too familiar to most: sustainability, energy efficiency, conservation, good design, function and necessity.

The mindset of many in the forefront of this movement has as much to do with zealotry and a point to prove as it has to do with altruistic motivations. However, there is much to be said about simplifying one’s life without going to the point of absurdity.

A look back at the evolution and growth of the American home provides quite a reality check. For example, the typical Pilgrim houses of the 1620s were roughly 165 square feet, with post and beam frames, skinny walls with mud on sticks attached to studs for insulation and thatched roofs. The Pilgrim house was a one-room affair on the first floor with a second level sleeping loft and storage above.

Ironically, 380 years later, the tiny house movement has adapted this layout for many houses 200 square feet and under.

Not only has living area per family member increased threefold since the 1950s, but the actual size of the single-family home has also doubled. Additionally, data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development indicates that the size of the average household has diminished from 3.67 members in 1940 to 2.62 in 2002.

On the East End, early houses—based on Puritan designs and the regional vernacular—gave form to small houses by being responsive to climatic conditions and by using small windows, locally found materials, and shingle cladding to keep out the elements. Even mid-century modern vacation homes kept the scale to a minimum, with inexpensive materials and a pared-down aesthetic.

The first McMonsters started to appear in the 1980s for a variety of reasons. A large home signified a display of wealth and success, particularly in the Hamptons. The design of some of these homes, specifically for retired couples, had more to do with incentivizing adult children to come and visit with grandbabies rather than an actual need on the part of the couple for such a large building. Lastly, more is more not less, so, the trophy house—clearly a status symbol, from the Gilded Age onward—has always sold well.

The design precedent for the small house has existed on the East End for more than 350 years and remains an integral part of our heritage. However, there are legal and regulatory issues working against the small house paradigm, which may signal its demise altogether if the five East End townships don’t wake up and modify their zoning ordinances.

The irony is that current zoning with large minimum floor areas doesn’t really allow for tiny houses that could make a difference between what is affordable and unaffordable in terms of construction dollars and upkeep.

East Hampton does not allow houses to be built that are less than 600 square feet. Southampton’s limit is 800 square feet for one-story houses and 1,200 square feet on two-story properties 1 acre or less. Any larger zoning districts require 1,000 square feet on the first floor and 1,400 square feet total with a second floor.

In Southold Township, 850 square feet is the minimum-dwelling-unit size whether the house is located in a 1-acre or 10-acre residential zoning district. The minimum dwelling size on Shelter Island in District C is 780 square, with 600 square feet on the first floor.

The remaining districts require 1,200 square feet, of which a minimum of 850 square feet must be on the first floor, excluding porches, breezeways, basements and attached garages. There, 600 square feet in the restricted business district, with a special permit, rounds out the minimum-size dwelling on the island.

Riverhead has a minimum size requirement of 1,200 square feet in the smallest zoning districts and 1,500 in the larger districts, with no space allotments required in one- or two-story dwellings.

Some townships have strange rules regarding renovations of these small homes. In Southold, for example, if your pre-existing non-conforming house is less than 850 square feet (say 800 square feet), then you can’t obtain a Certificate of Occupancy when upgrading unless you apply for a variance to keep the home at the same size. Not because the house needs to be inspected for health and life safety issues but as a revenue generation ploy from the application fee.

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