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Professional Surveyor October 1997 Volume 17 Number 7

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Coving: The Future in Single Family Design

Adrienne Carriger

The only way to sell a new idea is to make it financially superior to a present method; after all, why would a developer take a risk on a new type of development without financial gain? A concern that planner/design consultant Richard Harrison had was that while living in an ever changing and improving world, land development design has not improved over the past several decades.

Take, for example, a Minnesota subdivision that uses techniques common in current developments: curved streets, lots that are non-radial, three-way intersections, and homes all at the same basic setback. This development was platted by George Cooley over 125 years ago. Little has changed over the years.

Prioritizing People, Not Lots

Harrison introduced a technique called "coving," in which subdivisions are created that appear more open and elegant than current standards. Normal platting structure dictates that streets and lots are laid out, then finally homes are inserted. A coved design places the homes first, then the streets.The lot lines are inserted last. This creates a community that prioritizes people first, not lot lines.

Since starting out as a land planner at the age of 15 in Michigan, Harrison has designed thousands of developments totaling an estimated 150,000 home sites. He learned that surveyors and engineers could not easily compute from planner's concepts, and that in many, if not most, cases, the design was changed by the time it was built. Because of this, he learned surveying and civil engineering so his designs would work from concept stage. Unsatisfied with the computer design software that was on the market of 1978, Richard founded a software company whose product, SiteComp, resulted in an estimated $20 million in software and hardware sales. He also distributes a free quarterly educational newsletter aiding developers and municipal officials in planning and development issues.

The Feel of an Estate-Size Lot

A coved development is one that creates larger lots while reducing linear footage of public streets. This allows an estate-feel lot without increasing development costs. Instead of homes being a consistent 100 to 120 feet apart, the distances vary and meander as much as 300 feet or more, creating open areas that serve as a visual illusion of an even larger area from within the home. It is the setback from the street that gives the "feel" of a large lot, not the lot width. Since all coved lots meander, and the street winds through with little relationship to a constant setback, the sense of scale is enhanced. No reduction of existing minimum required setback (width, side, rear or front) is needed.

What creates a "neighborhood" as opposed to a "subdivision" feel? Older urban communities, for instance, have a different feel than modern subdivisions. One difference obviously has to do with architecture. The older developments do not have a two- or three-car garage as the main architectural feature, as in today's developments. Another difference is that while driving along a street in the suburbs, many home rears are seen. A properly designed coved neighborhood does not showcase any home rears. It also de-emphasizes garages, without changing architecture.

Coved designs work well in developments of any lot size. Don Jenson, of Pilot Land Development Company in Ham Lake, Minnesota, states, "I certainly believe it (coving) has a strong place within the overall market; I'm excited to see that it blends the greater setbacks that show up in large lots with that of an urban varied streetscape. The challenge of trying to return to a more pleasing design that was achievable 80 years ago can now be repeated with coving elements."

Setbacks Serve as Easements

The area between the right-of-way and setback lines can be used as a utility and access easement. This easement can reduce the length of utility lines and the number of manholes. It also allows walkways to meander, instead of paralleling the street. Ken Gust, project engineer on a St. Michael, Minnesota development, comments, "We're doing a development of 102 single family homes and 60 town homes. Coving creates a street layout that creates an open environment for future residents as opposed to just meeting standard subdivision regulations. Specifically, on St. Michael I thought it would make better use of an irregularly shaped land parcel. It also eliminates many dead-end cul-de-sacs, which makes for easier street maintenance."

Terry Kramer, the city engineer of Baraboo, Wisconsin, says about a development under construction in the Baraboo area, "It took the regimentation out of the design where everyone's house was the exact same distance away from the next, with identical setbacks. This new design has curved lines, meandering throughout and will give a completely different feel of openness to the subdivision. When I go down to Madison and look down the street at 20 two-story identical homes, it reminds me of military barracks with no imagination. This design creates a more pleasing picture of a neighborhood. The buildings meander, not one is the same distance from the next, and it gives a bigger feel to the subdivision."

The streets are designed to reduce traffic speed and to increase safety by meandering through the development with no dedicated cul-de-sacs. Walks curve through the development, separating pedestrians and vehicles as much as possible. The street layout uses a method called "windings," which further reduces linear feet and intersections. Traffic patterns avoid four-way intersections, making it safer. Savings of up to 40 percent in linear feet of roadway have been demonstrated, but most developments save about 20 percent in linear feet of street when properly designed. As developers know, if street lengths are reduced, the length of utility lines is also reduced.

Comparing Coved to Conventional

The coved development has 27 percent greater lawn area per lot (face of home to curb) than the conventional layout, exclusive of the driveway area. Bill Gilk, developer on projects in Hutchinson and Winfield, Minnesota, adds that, "The overall design went from 89 single family homes to 170 combination twin and single-family homes without appearing crowded. I believe the design changed the development to one that will sell, as opposed to one that would languish. The property had a half mile of bad frontage; coving made the whole thing usable and visually attractive."

In the past year Harrison has designed over 20 substantial coved developments representing over 1,950 lots in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, North Dakota and Michigan. Harrison's aim is for coving to flourish, so he has not patented this technique.

Adrienne Carriger is the marketing advisor for Rick Harrison Site Design in St. Louis, Minnesota.