October 25, 2018
Image © Sweenor Builders
The Defining Role of a Garage
I’ve been talking these last few weeks about how our little house – a single structure on its own lot – could make connections beyond itself, and maybe even help the whole neighborhood have a stronger sense of itself. But what about the garage/barn? How does that fit into the lofty goal of making a neighborhood?
It would be too obvious to go on a rant about the lazy American pattern of placing the garage right at front of the house, sometimes even in front of the house, and attaching it so there is no need -in coming and going -ever to be outside. Not everyone will be aware of or agree with its condemnation by many based on the socially deadening effect it has on neighborhoods, but enough people think it’s just plain ugly that they’re speaking up. Anti-“snout house” ordinances requiring the garage and its two gaping doors to be set back have been approved in more than one municipality.
So, no need to pile on. Plenty of us know that conventionally placed garages can be harmful to attempts to make a lively, walkable street. With the 24’ wide garage in front there is simply no room for the kind of subtle design that a good street needs. But how can a garage actually help create a good neighborhood?
As is often the case, we used to know, but we forgot. The historic pattern in most pre-war, small lot neighborhoods was to place the garage at the rear of the lot, accessed by a drive running down the side of the house. Usually the garage was held relatively tight to the side and rear lot lines leaving as much of the rear lot clear for use as possible. When this pattern was repeated from lot to lot, with each homeowner’s garage located similarly, you end up with a pattern of relatively private rear yards, each person’s outdoor space being defined and enclosed by their own garage and by the side of their abutter’s garage.
I noted last time how important semi-public porches were to creating neighborhood. Equally important to a socially functioning neighborhood is this relatively private outdoor space. In fact, sociologists have observed that until individuals in group settings have been provided a certain amount of private space over which they have control, they will avoid interaction when possible. Detached garages, well-placed relative to the lot lines, help form high-quality reasonably private gardens for residents to enjoy. Their need for their own privacy and security satisfied, neighbors feel more inclined to reach across lot lines and interact. Robert Frost famously noted that “good fences make good neighbors.” I would add that good garages, well-placed, make good neighborhoods.
So, that’s what our garage does – it snugs up to the north and east lot lines, as close as zoning allows. In doing so it helps screen our back yard from our neighbors to the north and our neighbors to the east. Likewise, it screens them from us, increasing their privacy. When supplemented with a strategic length of 6’ high, tight-board fencing and a gate for the kids to go back and forth, the siting of one garage achieves peace on earth – or at least on Plymouth Rd.