A Pocket Neighborhood With a Sizable Impact

The Railroad Cottages, a sustainable pocket neighborhood in Virginia, proves that big change can occur on a small scale

By Julia Edinger

In a small, self-governed jurisdiction outside of Arlington, Virginia, the homes in The Railroad Cottages deliver big change. The pocket neighborhood displays innovation and sustainability in the city of Falls Church. The energy-efficient features and innovative building strategies of this development made it one of three finalists for the Urban Land Institute 2019 Award for Housing Excellence.

A Creative Design Plan Dawns on Falls Church

Although the foundations for the community were poured in May 2018, The Railroad Cottages have been in the works for much longer. The inspiration for creating a pocket neighborhood was formed in response to the work of Architect Ross Chapin, the builder of over 100 such neighborhoods.

The community was created with the goal of connectedness. While communities for senior residents often take the shape of multistory condominiums, the cottage design allows for an alternative. The design combines chic interiors with a private yard space, producing a low-maintenance, high-quality home.

Three years ago, the land for this project was purchased together by Developer Robert Young, Architect Jack Wilbern, and Theresa Sullivan Twiford who is a Partner with Railroad, LLC., and the originator of the project. Evergreen Homes was hired to build the homes on a cost-plus basis, and the community was fully built in April of 2019.

The community responded positively to the development, and there was external support, as well. Executive Director Stewart Schwartz voiced his support for The Railroad Cottages project in a testimony to Falls Church City Council.

“The project is well-designed and will enhance the community and property values,” Schwartz stated. “People are looking to live in interesting, walkable neighborhoods with easy access to transit, recreation, and services.”

The walkable location provides an abundance of options. Thanks to its close proximity to the Washington and Old Dominion biking and walking trail, residents of The Railroad Cottages can enjoy 45 miles of this trail, stretching from Arlington to Leesburg.

The Railroad Cottages are a block from the main street in Falls Church, offering walkable access to shopping, dining, and entertainment options. The city’s location near two metro stations simplifies travel, but for those who prefer to remain within the city, there are many entertaining activities to explore nearby.

The Railroad Cottages development is unique because of the size of the community. Pocket neighborhoods are becoming increasingly popular as a form of infill development. High-density housing projects like pocket neighborhoods have the potential to mitigate some of the housing shortages in places with high costs of land or few lots available. In places like the D.C. beltway where construction options are limited, pocket neighborhoods could be the solution.

“By allowing double the by-right density, Falls Church City has created an avenue for quality new construction on a smaller scale,” said Twiford. “This could, and should, be repeated elsewhere in the D.C. metro area to allow for more middle-scale new construction.”

Because the property is a transitional area between commercial space and single-family homes, the location was ideal for The Railroad Cottages. Unfortunately, that meant having little road access and flat, saturated land. Through innovative design, and open communication with the city, the team was able to make improvements to the road and implement a stormwater runoff management system for the property.

Each cottage amplifies its small space through creative design. Natural light is maximized through open floor plans, high ceilings lend to a spacious atmosphere, and the small private space outside of each home acts as a small yard or patio. Despite being a small development with relatively small homes, each cottage pairs with the richly landscaped common areas for an expansive feel.

Highlighting Efficiency Efforts

Not only can pocket neighborhoods have an impact on affordability, but they can shape the sustainability of the built environment, as well.

The homebuilder of The Railroad Cottages, Evergreene Homes, can boast its consistent top-quality HERS scores. A home within this community will use less energy than a standard new home, and even less than an ENERGY STAR® certified home.

The homes are also EarthCraft Gold certified. Established by the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association in 1999, this program certifies homes based on the environmental impacts of the houses’ construction, design, and material sourcing. In addition to homeowner savings on utility bills, the homes meet ENERGY STAR® requirements, pass diagnostic tests, and even include an affordable component to correct the notion that green building must be expensive.

Each home is 1,490 square feet with two bedrooms and bathrooms, and each with its own geothermal heating and cooling system. Permeable pavers and native landscaping take the place of traditional asphalt for concrete surfaces. The shared Common House also offers backup power in case of power outages.

“There is solar to power all of the community lighting, a car charging station, and the Common House,” stated Twiford. “The Common House also has power backup for power outages.”

A Blueprint for Change in a Pocket-Sized Package

While this community is age-qualified for those looking to downsize, there is immense opportunity for similar energy-efficient pocket neighborhoods in the area, and in other similar urban environments. Falls Church City was the only jurisdiction in the area with a cottage ordinance, allowing for this development to break into the market. It is likely that Arlington and Fairfax are monitoring the development in hopes of following suit as they develop a plan to create similar projects.

“Knowing this is the first of its kind in the area, we knew The Railroad Cottages had to be done really well, so as not to spoil the concept for others going forward,” Twiford added.

This pocket neighborhood seems to be inspiring a new era of development. Pocket neighborhoods allow homebuilding projects to be small and sustainable. The Railroad Cottages serves as a blueprint for homebuilders of what housing can become with a creative design, a dedicated team, and a vision.  

Julia Edinger is the Assistant Editor for Green Home Builder Magazine. She can be reached at julia@penpubinc.com.

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