Snout Houses Aren't The Problem
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
Urbanists of all types love to hate on snout houses, but the solutions proposed by most zoning codes (and discussions of the problem among planners) often miss the problem altogether.
A snout house is a home in which the garage butts out from the rest of the building like a snout facing the street. Suburban classics like these were once a simple, if architecturally distasteful, way to make the most of a narrow lot when you had to meet setback requirements, minimum parking requirements, and absolutely had to have a garage. Most are more likely to be found neighborhoods planned and laid out 30-40 years ago, but some places in the US still build them because they're easy and cheap.
However, go to any rich/bougie town in the US, and you will probably find these have been forbidden by zoning long ago because they're ugly, don't encourage pedestrian activity, aren't sufficiently rich in neighborhood character, or whatever other reasons people make up to exclude new development. Planners tend to disdain them almost unanimously. New urbanists, landed NIMBYs, and the half-wit dilettantes who dominate most public hearings tend to hate them as well.
Bozeman, Montana, the ski-bum city turned rich person's play-land, is as good a place as any to examine whether any of this animosity makes any sense. That city has both a healthy stock of ridiculously expensive old suburban houses, and a "modern" zoning code that seems to be a mixture of Euclidean and form-based rules. To protect against snout houses, their current code requires that for all new single family homes, garages that face the street must be at least four feet behind the facade of the structure, and that garage doors shouldn't be so wide that they take up more than 50% of the front facade. Here's the section:
That sounds good, right? Shouldn't that make things look less like 1970s suburbia and more like the the quaint neighborhoods we all find so cute and charming? Let's compare our original snout house with a recent build that appears to meet the criteria above:
The modern house on the right should be an improvement. The delightful little porch juts out just enough in front of the rest of the building. That smartly-colored garage door with old-timey castle hinges probably only makes up 40% of the face instead of an unthinkable 51%. But when it comes down to it...are these two houses really that different? Is it likely that the modern zoning code made a significant difference in how new structures contribute to the feel of this neighborhood?
Some people, especially those for whom zoning is a sacred framework, might say yes. But for what actually matters, these two houses are essentially the same. And the reason they are the same is because while the zoning focuses on the garage's form, it is the garage's use that really makes the difference. Snout houses aren't ugly because they have part of the structure protruding out towards the street, but because they have a car storage bay protruding without any sense of embarrassment. People love having vehicle storage at the front of their houses, they just don't want designs to be so obvious and loud about it. Like so much of contemporary zoning, it's more about what people like to say they value rather than what they actually care about.
A very basic photoshop shows how quickly things transform when we stop fretting about the form and look at the use instead:
Both of these structures are the exact same footprint---the only thing that has changed is the use of the garage (and the driveway in front of it). The snout is still there, but now it's just living space. Which of these two would most people find more appealing? Which would be more likely to "contribute" to walkability or neighborhood character? On the right we have a lovely little home, on the left we have the terminal of an airport runway.
Now let's take our re-imagined cabin and put it against Bozeman's our modern zoning house from before, which is probably a good example of what the market in that area will build on its own. Which of these seems like a more pleasant place to live? Would we be willing to change the zoning to encourage one over the other? Ultimately it's just a question of what we actually value.
A lot of modern planning seems to fret over the inconsequential things (like how to orient garages) while ignoring the things that actually matter (like whether we should be privileging car storage at all by putting it on the front of a house). What does a garage's orientation have to do with how much people walk? How much difference does a garage's placement make for aesthetics, if there's going to be a front yard of impermeable surface leading up to it anyway? Even the most "modern" zoning codes all across the United States still seem to consider cars first, with everything else a distant second. Until we shift the primary focus of our regulations away from facilitating the easy use of motor vehicles, any discussion of/planning for pedestrian needs or walkable neighborhoods just really isn't going to matter.
yorro is a planner working in municipal housing.