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Designing ideas to live in

Photo courtesy Stephanie Giannakis

“Trionfo. It means ‘triumphant’ in Italian.” These were the final words of the interview, shouted while walking away down a perpendicular corridor of Founder’s Hall. This was a response after asking, in regretful hindsight, the pronunciation of his name. Doubtless, his surname adequately reflects the success he has found in his field of study.

Ken Trionfo, Professor of Architecture at Northampton Community College, recently spent his sabbatical writing a design manual entitled The Neighborhood as a Social Place. This guide details the entire process of erecting pocket neighborhoods: from concept, to construction, to actualization. It also details the long history of pocket neighborhoods. Most of the pictures were taken by Trionfo himself. “This is a new way of building neighborhoods that allows people to come together and have close connections with each other,” Trionfo said.

Pocket Neighborhoods are a new way of designing, developing, and building a community that has become popular in Seattle, Washington in the last 12-15 years. “The short definition is a neighborhood within a neighborhood,” explains Trionfo. “The expanded definition is a group of anywhere from 4 to 12 houses that face in towards each other on a common neighborhood green.” They are also adaptable to rural, suburban, and urban environments, making them extremely versatile.

The social spaces of the houses focus on the common lawn as the social glue of the mini-community. It would suit starter families, single people, and baby boomers looking to downsize. The intimacy of the layout also allows for added security; neighbors can keep an eye on the children, or even each other.

“I firmly believe, deep in my core, that this is the neighborhood of our time. For the first time in our history we have retirees, baby boomers, and college grads wanting to live in the same place- and that’s an urban environment. They want to live in tighter-knit places where they can walk to restaurants, shops, all kinds of things and not have to drive everywhere. They want social connections—public spaces music, concerts—it’s a real phenomenon that’s happening now.”

Each neighborhood features a common building which can include a kitchenette, tool shed, outdoor patio, and a general recreational space. This could be the setting for birthday parties, entertaining guests, or spaghetti dinners. It can be as social and interactive as the neighbors wish it to be; Trionfo holds no delusions and realizes not every neighbor would want to participate. But generally, social people will gravitate towards this community, not the hermit.

Trionfo stresses that pocket neighborhoods are for people that crave social connection, and that connection is the defining aspect of this community scheme. Similar housing layouts exist, but due to minor differences in design they lack a sense of social cohesion and strong neighborly bonds which belongs to the pocket neighborhood. The neighborhood green and community space gives everyone a physical connection.

Pocket neighborhoods are gaining momentum, moving eastward. Trionfo has been invited by the Lehigh Valley Community Action Development Commission, an organization dedicated to redeveloping communities, to give a presentation to financiers in South Bethlehem who could contribute money to actualize such a community. The LVCADC can connect Trionfo with financers who can find creative ways to utilize federal and state money for construction— it’s just a matter of everything lining up.

Trionfo has also given presentations to developers in Florida, attempting to spread the word about this new method of creating community.

Pocket neighborhoods can also be democratic for developers, and could be considered a boon for local contractors. A large project can be very expensive, and additional challenges appear in finding proper zoning and financing, but it is conceivable for a medium-sized or local builder to erect a pocket neighborhood. It’s just a matter of following the steps laid down in Trionfo’s manual.

The smaller footprint makes it more economically feasible than the typical house. Building large houses excludes the many people who can’t afford to pay for them, and the housing market is flooded with these extravagant homes. The cottage house of the pocket neighborhood ranges from 900 to 1500 square feet, and can be 2 stories to a story and a half. The smaller size lowers the cost and makes it more affordable for the developer. Pocket neighborhoods also offer more units than the typical zoning would allow, which in turn brings in more money from the increased number of buyers.

“It’s a win-win for everybody; sell fast, easy to build. And you’re building a real community, you’re not just slapping up a dozen houses and leaving town…This is for socially conscious developers that really want to build a community, this is perfect.”

Trionfo’s interest in pocket neighborhoods has caught the attention of Ross Chapin, the founding father of the design scheme. Chapin wrote the original book on the subject, Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-scale Community in a Large-scale World which inspired The Neighborhood as a Social Place. Chapin recently visited NCC campus and was excited about Trionfo’s project, giving critique and positive feedback to students who had helped in the venture.

Above all, Trionfo considers himself a contextualist when designing.

“If I’m building in a particular community or neighborhood I want to pay attention to that: the history, the architecture, what do the houses look like, what are the materials. I don’t just want to go in and ignore all of that and do something because of my personality. I want to be sensitive to the surroundings,” explains Trionfo. He is especially sensitive in areas which contain a rich history, but this is not to imply he is simply rebuilding ancient structures stone by stone. The product should appear as if it was built in present day, but still reflect the time which lead up to it.

One of the largest lessons Trionfo is trying to impart onto his students is how to be a part of a team.

“Architecture is a team effort. You’re always working with contractors, engineers, other architects, owners, banks. There’s a team of people who get a building out of the ground, it’s not just one architect.”

He started his community design studio at NCC in 2003.  Every spring semester he takes the second year architecture students out into a community to design a small segment of the area. The first location was in South Bethlehem, where they met with the mayor and other community figures to help the development. They have also worked in Nazareth, Hellertown, and Easton. This upcoming spring will find them again in Nazareth.

Last year’s construction project involved second-year architecture students, not only designing, but then building their ideas. Trionfo was delighted to see his students explain what personal meaning the project held with them.

“I wish I could have taped it… A lot of them said it’s just amazing to be able to finish it and put that last screw in and step away and look at it and then say built that.”

Trionfo is continuing his construction studio in the fall and neighborhood design studio in the spring. Besides that, he want to keep spreading word about pocket neighborhoods.

Trionfo has always been enamored with the idea of an intimate neighborhood, he then stumbled upon Chapin’s book. After 6 months of working with him, he had the idea of writing the manual, which he printed himself, but this may just be a prototype.

In the long term, Trionfo has plans for a full length book on pocket neighborhoods, and possibly publication. After giving presentations, he has narrowed down the most pertinent information and has an idea of which ideas require expansion, and where to lessen on others.

“If I can get this in the hands of people who can actually get them built, that would excite me more than anything. I’m not out to sell millions of copies, I could care less.”

Trionfo is looking for a developer, but if all fails he figures he could always simply build a pocket neighborhood on his own. He was in the building business for 18 years before getting a masters in architecture, so construction is not a foreign topic to him. Finding developer would be preferable, but the lack of one will not halt his plans, of which he has a bounding sense of confidence. “I can promise you, if I can get the first one built in the Lehigh Valley it’s going to spread.”

All photos courtesy Stephanie Giannakis.