Cedar Rapids, Marion take aim at 'snout' houses

Cities plan to update design standards for developments

A row of
A row of "snout houses" line 49th Street in Marion on Friday, Aug. 5, 2011. The city of Cedar Rapids is discussing possible new design standards, including a proposal that garages not be built closer to the street than a home's living area. (Liz Martin/SourceMedia Group News)

CEDAR RAPIDS — They’ve come to be called "snout" houses, a label that sounds more barnyard than city street and, in any event, certainly doesn’t sound pretty.

Such a name suggests that something needs to change, and just such an effort is now afoot in Cedar Rapids, Marion and elsewhere to try to turn the tide against what has been a proliferation of a certain kind of house in the cities’ new subdivisions.

Specifically, the snout house is one in which two-stall and sometimes three-stall garages extend well in front of the houses in tightly packed neighborhoods, creating subdivisions that seem more like rows of garages than homes.

City planners in Marion and Cedar Rapids are proposing new housing design standards that would cajole if not require homebuilders to build homes that seem less garage and more house.

The proposals started with the idea that garages should not extend closer to the street than the living area of the house.

"This met with extreme resistance, of course," reports Tom Treharne, director of planning and development for the city of Marion. I

The city of Marion, he says, is continuing a discussion with the Cedar Rapids Area Home Builders Association, but at the same time, he says the city is looking to implement a new design standard that will lead to some change.

"What has occurred over time is that a lot of the development starts looking the same," Treharne says. "And it’s led to some neighborhoods that all you see is garages. We’re kind of worried in the long-term that this cookie-cutter type of development might come back and bite us."

Treharne says the city of Marion has worked with the owners of lots in one proposed development to design homes that are not garage-centric. Elsewhere, he says one developer has built some homes in which the garage is entered from the side, not the front. Another has come up with a concept in which the front of the house becomes the back of the house.

Mike Ludwig, planning administrator for the city of Des Moines who worked a decade ago for the city of Marion, says the City Council in Des Moines doesn’t prohibit snout houses, but it negotiates with developers to consider other designs.

One approach, he says, is to allow builders to build the house closer than the typical 30 feet from the street in exchange for a design that sets the garage 5 feet back from the front of the house.

"Let’s emphasize the living portion so the front is not just the garage door," Ludwig says.

Planners and builders agree that the snout house with attached forward garage has become a prevalent home design over the years in large part because it makes for a shorter driveway and so cuts down on costs. At the same time, customers love to be able to drive into the garage and walk the groceries directly into the kitchen, they say.

Even so, Ludwig says urban designers nationwide are looking for design options that do not feature "auto-dominant" architecture. There’s even a push, he says, for "neo-traditional" designs that put garages in back of houses with single-wide driveways alongside the house.

In Iowa City, Karen Howard, associate planner for the city, reports that Iowa City took on "garage-dominated streetscapes" in 2005, with the focus on street-facing garages on lots narrower than 60 feet in width.

Back then, she says an effort to prohibit garages that protrude beyond the living space on these narrower lots was set aside in favor of a standard in which the front surface area of the garage can’t exceed 60 percent of the total width of the house. In addition, builders can build homes on even narrower lots — which allows a "density bonus" of more homes on a parcel of land — if they agree to put the garage off an alley in the back, Howard says.

Well-known builders in the Cedar Rapids metro area, Kyle Skogman and Jim Sattler, say they understand the concern about snout houses and garage-door-dominated developments. However, both say rigid rules for developers aren’t the answer.

Skogman, president of Skogman Homes, says the garage-forward design has made sense in cities that have favored more-dense and less-sprawl development because the design helps keep the price of homes down. He says cities could insist on developments with wider lots or deeper lots, but that would mean fewer homes on a parcel of ground, which drives up costs.

Sattler, president of Jim Sattler Inc. Custom Homes, calls the push to move garages back from the street "a bit of an overreaction," and he says City Hall planners and policymakers need to take a bigger-picture look and focus on the entire streetscape.

His idea is to vary what is built in a development so some houses in the development might have garages closer to the street while others are farther back, "so you don’t have a lineup of garages."

Cedar City Council member Tom Podzimek calls it "challenging" to get government involved in trying to coax or dictate design standards. At some level, a property owner has the right to develop a piece of property as the owner sees fit, he says. "But you don’t want to put things in that are going to take the neighbors down," he adds.

Podzimek, a carpenter who runs a small construction company, says he favors "providing carrots rather than sticks" to developers," and he says he believes home designs evolve over time.

"All the different things we talk about from street trees and everything else," he says. "Designs are going to evolve as individuals also evolve. Is it really so bad to take a little walk from a (detached) garage into the house? It gives me a calming effect." 

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