Housing Complex

What’s the Skinny?

Did an Arlington developer intend to make a statement with a 12-foot-wide home? Kind of.

Ask people in Lyon Park about the skinny house, and they'll know exactly what you're talking about.

At just 12 feet wide, the house stands at the end of N. Barton Street in Arlington. Or, better said, it stands out at the end of N. Barton Street in Arlington, past a succession of unassuming wooden bungalows in light pastel colors.

The skinny house looks like a cross between a single town house with no adjoining properties and a modern, suburban Los Angeles home that demands potted cacti, chimes, and seats for afternoon margarita-sipping.

It's quite the "conversation piece," says resident Jay Stanley. "My sense is that people think it's quirky, amusing, cool, funny." Stanley's heard other people wondering what it would be like, as a family, to live there. But most just enjoy the house's wacky presence. Since it's for sale (asking price: $1.125 million), open houses are a big hit.

"I haven't heard anyone express disgust or dislike of it," says Stanley. "It's sort of bemused amazement—'bemusement' maybe's the word."

Scaled-back, small footprint—whatever vogue terms you choose, this house is the perfect design for the times, something that represents environmentalism and the ethos of living within your means—or at least within your boundaries. Too bad, then, that it's all an accident.

In 2003, builder Clarke Simpson purchased the lot on Barton Street and knocked down the small home there. He expected to build two bungalows in its place, but he needed a zoning variance. He wanted to stretch one of the homes five feet wider, from 12 feet to 17 feet.

Two houses down the street got built with the variance, so he didn't anticipate a problem.
Then he met the neighbors, who were tired of seeing two houses packed in where one used to be, says Lynn Alsmeyer-Johnson, preservationist, registered architect for 15 years, and member of Arlington County's Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board.

(Alsmeyer-Johnson said her neighbor Elizabeth Miller-Moran originally voiced concerns about the zoning request at a meeting for the Lyon Park Citizens Association. Miller-Moran did not respond to a request for an interview.)

The two sides encountered each other face-to-face at a July 2003 Board of Zoning Appeals meeting.

"I guess they thought that if they blocked the variance I would build nothing, and they would have an open piece of property," says Simpson.

Instead, he told them: "I would build a modern skinny house. They didn't believe me. They said, 'Are you threatening us?' I said, 'No, I'm telling you I'm going to build a modern skinny house if you don't give me the variance,'" says Simpson, who is general manager for Mickey Simpson, Ltd. architects and builders, a small homebuilding company started by his father.

Alsmeyer-Johnson remembers the meeting a bit differently: "He said, 'I'll show you. I'll build a 12-foot house with glass, and get someone from California to live in it,'" she says.

And that was the end of it. Or rather, the beginning.

"We did it," says Simpson, although he didn't particularly relish the experience.

The media "are propagating this idea that people want smaller houses. It's simply not true. I've never had anyone come to me and ask for a small house," he says.

Today, the house is 2,880 square feet with four floors, four bedrooms, and three-and-a-half bathrooms. Mickey Simpson's resident architect, Bob Braddock, purchased the land from Simpson and designed the house with several years of ideas he's had about how to construct a slim building with a livable, spacious interior.

But Braddock is not effusive about architectural boundaries crossed, either. The lot presented a challenge, he says, and he met it.

Most of the floors are laid out similarly. There's one room toward the back of the house, one room toward the front, and the stairway, a bathroom, and/or laundry unit between them. The basement has carpet, but most of the rooms have shiny, bright, polished wood flooring. Inside, the overall effect is light and airy.

There have been three offers to buy it. None met Simpson's expectations, and he wouldn't comment on the prices.

The first two open houses drew 100 people each, says real estate agent Ruth Boyer O'Dea. She estimates about one third of them were serious buyers definitely looking in the home's price range. Another third were buyers who noticed the sign. Another third were people from the neighborhood who just wanted to finally see the house from the inside.

One of the many early attendees was Alsmeyer-Johnson. She was not among the bemused.

"I think it's ridiculous. It looks like it's going to fall over," she says. She and others have tried to think of nicknames for the house, she says. One suggested the "pencil house."

Not surprisingly, Alsmeyer-Johnson doesn't approve of how the architect met the zoning challenges.

"There are other narrow houses around. This one went to the maximum height," she says.

Braddock doesn't dispute that, but he says, in general, he wasn't terribly concerned about the parameters. Think of the miles upon miles of rowhouses across the Potomac in D.C.

"Most of those houses," he says, "are 12 feet or less."

All images by Darrow Montgomery. This article will appear in this week's print edition of the Washington City Paper.

  • RT

    Good for him! That's what that old hag gets for trying to be a super-NIMBY. I think it's pretty cool. Hopefully he'll get a decent amount for it.

  • Matt

    Are we supposed to sympathize with Mickey Simpson and his desire to overbuild massive houses on one tract of land?

    Now, that part of Barton Street has never had the most interesting houses, so at least the "skinny" does add some interest. But I don't think the lady is an "old hag" because she simply doesn't want two behemoth houses built around her.

    Look around Arlington and the new houses are gigantic. Many of the original houses, probably built in the 1920's have been torn down. Some of this is to be expected with a new generation entering Arlington. Each generation makes changes and expands upon their home purchase. But one could argue that Arlington is out of control.

    Let's be honest about Arlington County shall we? Much of Arlington is full of so-called "liberals" who make their big money working for some defense related industry or government contractor. Most are getting rich from the war machine they profess to dislike.

    These "liberals" shop at Whole Foods and buy organic products and then drive home in their gas guzzling SUV and drain a shit load of energy in their over-sized houses. The self-satisfied shit-bags who reside in North Arlington are an excellent example of what is wrong with America. They talk a good game about equality and change...but they don't live it. I guess when you have 5 bedrooms and 3.5 baths with 2 cars it is easy to get lost or find something else to do.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/ Will Atwood Mitchell

    Now, I live near the skinny house, and I have to say that while the skinny house is certainly skinny, I'm more impressed with the house on the corner (not visible in the the photographs above). The people in that house have some very tasteful lanterns hanging on their porch, and they grow *real corn* (as opposed to a theoretical strain of yuppie decorative corn) in their side yard.

    *Real corn*

  • JR

    RT: Spoken like someone who has never owned a backyard.

    Matt: First you admirably stick up for the unfairly lambasted "hag"--and then you brand everyone in North Arlington a "self-satisfied shitbag." Lemme clear things up for you, buddy: My wife and I live in a 2-bedroom house. Yeah, we have two cars (both old and neither an SUV), but we take the Metro to work. You seem to be confusing North Arlington with Great Falls--but I won't repeat your error of presuming I know every person who lives there and the details of his/her bedrooms, cars, and kw of electricity.

    The problem in Arlington is that the County wants more tax revenue, so they grant all these zoning variances to encourage more infill. This has led to a situation where there are very few small houses left, and the land they sit on is so valuable that they often get torn down.

    I think this skinny house is hideous. If I were on that street, I would much have preferred two bungalows instead. But the real question is why the County hasn't proscribed new houses whose appearance is in extreme contrast to those around them. I don't mean HOA-style fascism ("Beige only!")--but this thing is freakish.

    At some point, jurisdictions have to be able to say "No" to development. As in, "We have all the people living within these boundaries that our roads, subways, and neighborhoods can handle. Developers, find somewhere else to build."

  • Alexa W.

    Funny I saw this house featured over a year ago and also featured just last week on DCMetrocentric. Now we know where you get all your story ideas for this blog Ruth!


  • Bob Tops

    That women is the old-hag of the neighborhood who complains about everything. She is as much as an architect as Sienfield's George Catanza was an architect. She declares herself an architect but has not worked as one in decades if ever. She works at CVS as a cashier or some other retail place because she cannot keep any job. Probably because of her old-hag attitude.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/ Will Atwood Mitchell

    Alexa W.: Ruth is covering the story from an angle that wasn't addressed the latest DCMetrocentic post, and she's actually providing an answer to the question posed in the first DCMetrocentric post, "Why would someone do this?"

    Your link contains some neat photos of the interior, though. Definitely worth checking out, so thanks for posting it!

  • Ruth Samuelson

    I actually posted that DCMetrocentric link last week before I started writing the story. I was trying to figure out where the house was located.

  • farinc

    What an enjoyment it is to read everyone's comments about this thoroughly innovative and delightful design in my neighborhood. As an aside, I think what most people fail to remember is that the house's design and construction was within Arlington County code. So, notwithstanding the opinions being expressed, if you really are that disgusted with it, then my suggestion would be that you take it up with the Arlington County Government to have the building codes changed.

    As I recall, Builders are in business to build homes, make money, express their ideas and sell homes. Sometimes they guess right and sometimes not. IMHO, I will be surprised if he garners his asking price, or anything north of the million dollar mark, regardless of the economy. And I for one like the home even though I would find it difficult to live in, especially with a family. As a single man, it would be fun.

    There's no doubt from what I've read, that Mr. Simpson built this home in spite of his variance request being denied. So if in fact this is what he was left with after being denied a variance, who do we have to blame but ourselves? We should always know the end game before we make our stand. In the end, he had nothing but the existing code framework that was left him by the County, didn't he? As a business man myself, I applaud his moxxy. And regardless of what some may think, I believe the house's design will ultimately fit in with the new construction that will be undertaken at the now defunct shopping center.

    Change happens; it always will as long as we live. We can choose to embrace it, attempt to modify it or go elsewhere. It will always be difficult to please everyone. So thank God we have choices, even though they may not always be easy ones. It was probably not any easier for Simpson to make that choice than it would be for the disgruntled neighbor to move, should they decide to do that.

    As a closing comment, can you imagine our still living in catalog ordered Sears homes? conastoga wagons? tents? rustic log homes? tee-pees? houses with out-houses?

    Just a thought....hmmmm.

  • Matt

    Re: Farinc

    "As a closing comment, can you imagine our still living in catalog ordered Sears homes? conastoga wagons? tents? rustic log homes? tee-pees? houses with out-houses?"

    NO! But that doesn't mean that "change" has to drive the housing values through the roof.

    Having lived in California, I admire the design of the house as it is now. This is not a discussion, at least for me, about the quality of the architecture. In my opinion the designs within Arlington are bland and boring. That probably fits in fine with the monoculture that is taking root there.

    Apparently, Simpson did this to/in spite of the neighbor. Well, sometimes even assholes stumble into progress. We need to STOP building over-sized houses that drain energy. I don't see Mr. Simpson using any great new designs that enhance the use of alternative energy. I don't see any new ideas in Arlington, just more of the same updated for 2009.

    The over-sized houses with 5 bedrooms and 3.5 baths with two gas sucking SUVS or other monster cars are irresponsible. What has little old Arlington become except a statement about how selfish people really are. This includes the local government, developers and residents.

  • http://manwithblackhat.blogspot.com David L Alexander

    Matt is right about the majority of people who live in North Arlington, the response of JR notwithstanding. And it's going to stay that way as long as they maintain the one-party rule of an all-Democrat board of supervisors.

    I used to rent a basement studio down the street from the Skinny House (which does look ridiculous in that setting). I couldn't afford to buy in North Arlington, so when I finally bought a townhouse, it was in South Arlington.

    The house would be a great idea in Georgetown, where surrounding properties would make its shape seem less obvious. In fact, to the designer's credit, a row of such houses could work in a variety of settings. More people could live economically in a given place, which would better permit people of moderate income to enhance the tax base, not to mention afford it.

  • Kathy

    Farinc says can you imagine living in a Sears catalog home? Well actually many folks in Lyon Park actually do, even if some have been modified over the years... Those were great homes, and many have really stood the test of time!

  • Erika Braddock

    I find it wonderful that so many people seem to care about this unusual house. Good, bad, or indifferent, it seems to stir some controversy. Shouldn't architecture do that now and then?

    While some oppose the large size of the home, I have heard from people at the open houses that it simply isn't big enough for their needs.

    Other interested parties were concerned about the three flights of stairs but loved the large windows and ample natural light.

    For those who dislike what has become of the quaint old bungalows in Arlington, this home may be a sad sign of the future. For those who have actually lived in some of these older structures, this home represents the potential for a clean slate. Let's face it: they weren't all prom queens and they weren't all going to stand the test of time.

    For all concerned, it should be clear that this home was built with true excitement. What greater challenge do you get as an architect or any design professional: no client, an unusual site, and a liberal metropolitan area.

    I am proud that my husband spent a lot of time working out the details and envisioning something other than a bungalow or colonial structure. For those of you who dislike the home, that's fine, but please recognize that it was not designed out of spite by Bob Braddock. We happily bought the property and we developed the skinny house in order to try something new. This project is something that our family is quite proud of.

    Love it or hate it, there will be more new and redesigned homes to consider in the future!

    By the way, we grow organic vegetables too. Love 'em!!!

  • BC

    Just a question here: Was the builder's original plan to build two one-story houses on this lot, one 12 feet wide and one 17 feet wide (if he could get the variance for it)? What would a 12 foot wide bungalow look like? And how much space would there be between and around the two houses? The neighbors should be thanking their stars that they will have one family and some open space here, instead of two families with no room to breathe.

  • CityPaperIsAwesome

    it's called the "spite" house. never heard it called the "pencil."

    if you don't want houses like that in your neighborhood, then move to another neighborhood.

  • John Fontain

    This mickey simpson house is what is "lovingly" referred to as the local-area Spite House. He and his architect built it out of spite for the neighborhood and the county when the county wouldn't agree to a variance from the eight/ten foot setbacks for his extremely undersized lot (which he himself subdivided that way). Obviously, they are going to deny the spite issue, but if the WCP knew about their history of dumping waste on the site when they first got their variance denied, they'd know they their history of actions is less than honorable. Actions speak louder than words.

    The house is about the size of one and a half swimming pool lap lanes. Despite what a couple of previous posters have suggested, almost everyone of my neighbors in Lyon Park thinks the house is horrible, not only in design but because of the spiteful reason it was built.

    I went to an open house and certainly wasn't impressed and would be shocked, SHOCKED, if someone paid anywhere close to the $1.1 million asking price. Seriously, only a fool would pay more than a few hundred thousand for it.

    You enter the first floor on the right side of the house, where a long deck abuts the house. The 1st floor has a kitchen in the back and a living room in the front. These two rooms are divided by a staircase and a bathroom in the center of the house. For $1.1 million THERE IS NO DINING ROOM!! (Major design flaw #1)

    The living room has a bunch of floor to ceiling windows on the "deck side" of the house, which in my opinion is a serious design flaw because the neighboring house (about 16 feet away) can view your every move in the living quarters unless you completely cover all of those windows (which defeats the purpose of having windows and then blocks all light from coming in). (Major design flaw #2)

    There are two bedrooms on the next level up, with a bathroom in the middle. The third floor has what I'm guessing is a master bedroom in the back and master bath in the front. Again, there is a huge design flaw with the master bath because it has a freestanding tub at the front wall of the house with floor to ceiling windows at each of the two front corners. You'd have to completely cover those windows if you didn't want the neighbors watching you take a bath. (Major design flaw #3)

    And a final major design flaw is the laundry machines. On one floor they have a side by side washer and dryer. I guess because the house isn't wide enough to have regular swinging doors in the hallway where these machines are located, they used sliding doors instead. The problem is that the sliding doors block one of the two machines at all times. To access the washer, you slide the doors in front of the dryer. Then to access the dryer, you have to slide the doors in front of the washer. Imagine having to do that each time you move a load from the washer to the dryer - it would drive a person insane! (Major design flaw #4)

    All this and a commerical property immediately behind you and a bus stop shelter right in your front yard. For the reasonable price of only $1.1 million! What a joke!

    I really feel bad for the folks who bought the Mickey Simpson house immediately to the left of the spite house. Despite being a customer of Mickey Simpson, they were perhaps spited the most by this horribly-designed structure.

  • John Fontain

    "Mickey Simpson’s resident architect, Bob Braddock, purchased the land from Simpson and designed the house..."

    "There have been three offers to buy it. None met Simpson’s expectations, and he wouldn’t comment on the prices."

    Hmm. That's curious. The Braddock's supposedly own it, yet Simpson is the one who decides whether an offer will be accepted??? I'd love to hear the answer to that one.

  • Santiago Estrada

    Perhaps the author should answer that one for us.

    Believe me, you'll never get a straight story from a newspaper or a blog. It would not be considered unusual if this story had at least 3 factual inaccuracies and 2 misquotations. You all are reading an interpretation, by a third party, of stuff that happened in the past, garnered from people who have hindsight, emotion, selfish motives, and their own personal narratives. Do you really think this story represents the clearest statement of facts?

    Then again, who cares? It's just a little house.

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  • CityPaperIsAwesome

    what's with all the toilet paper in that last picture? did they serve Hard Times chili at the open house?

  • spookiness

    I passed this site almost daily, from the start of the construction of this house, and the new bungalow next door, through to completion. I've noticed Simpson houses throughout Arlington, and although the massing is sometimes a bit off, they're not bad, and MUCH better than what a lot of other builders have done. The detailing and trim is pretty decent on the bungalows. Initially, I thought they might have been kit houses or pre-fabs, because the details appeared to be worked out well in advance.

    When they first set the foundation (prefab cast concrete panels IIR), from the footprint of it I thought, "hmm, this could be interesting". If I have any complaints, frankly, it's rather boring. I was hoping for something much much edgier. This is just sort of built to what zoning would allow, and straight up. No balconies, cantilevers, or any kind of variation, just a long skinny box, like 3 trailers stacked on each other. Its definitely not the worst house, but its nothing special either.

    DC area is not very receptive to any kind of design other than traditional brick colonial or traditional wood styles. There are a few interesting contemporary houses hiding in Arlington, but this isn't one of them.

  • Jobu

    I'm disappointed with "Matt" and the little charlatan that defended him. Well, I was, until I re-read Matt's comment. I first thought it was a Fox News-fueled rant, but then realize it says exactly what I would have said... You're not "Liberal" if you drive a gas guzzler, and you're surely not selling granola if you can afford to live in any of the neighborhoods we're talking about here.

    We're privileged if we can choose a million+ "skinny house" or a million+ bungalow. It's telling that much of this country is under water financially yet Arlington can argue about what kind of homes should be priced at a million Dollars.

    I'd like to slap the luxury SUV out of all of you.

  • Mark

    As someone who for many years lived right around the corner (in Sheffield Court) from where this house sits, I have to admit being morbidly curious to drop by the old neighborhood and see it. And I'd love to tour it. And for a single person's pad, I imagine it could be a lot of fun to live in. Kudos to the designer for his creativity in making it "work" utility-wise.

    However, I'd like to point out something to the author of this article. I'm hard-pressed to see how this structure is even remotely environmentally efficient. Land use/sprawl-wise, perhaps, as it take up little ground footprint and simply goes straight up. But if you are talking about energy efficiency, nothing could be worse than a design that maximizes the ratio of exposed exterior wall surface area to living space volume. Imagine lopping off the top two stories and placing them side-by-side with the first two, cramming them together. That would be energy efficient. This is not. All of that exterior wall area is continually fighting to keep heat in (in winter) or outside (in summer). It's like fighting wars on many fronts instead of fewer.

    I guess there are multiple considerations when evaluating environmentalism in home design, and for density/commuting purposes, this one fits the bill. But it's only viable energy-wise if it's crammed together with others like it in an old-fashioned rowhouse configuration.

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  • Paul

    >> "(F)or a single person’s pad, I imagine it could be a lot of fun to live in."

    If your single there are still more interesting properties in this price range. Why does a single person need for bedrooms?

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  • Bob McBob

    Most of you are idiots, evidenced by the fact you don't know what a REAL bungalow is, but feel compelled to post ignorant comments nonetheless. None of the shit that this builder makes is a bungalow, it's a monstrous McMansion that apes a bungalow.

    Good on the asshole that built this house--those dickshit neighbors will think again when trying to interfere with progress. Fucking hypocrites, all. (And they all go to church on Sunday.)

  • Tee

    I saw this house. I love the inside. The price as of the date of this post is around $1.125 Million. I wouldn't pay more than $700,000 for it myself, given all of the other options available in Arlington. The bus stop is right in front of the house and that little pre-recorded message that broadcasts the *next stop* can be heard loud and clear from inside the house. In addition, the house has no garage, and the commercial land behind and next to the property scares me as far as *future* construction. Other than that, the house interior is clever and modern and I would definitely make an offer if it weren't for the "bus-stop-no-garage-commercial-lot-uncertainty" factor. Best of luck to the builder and the neighbors.

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  • Steve

    At least it is not a Typical "NDI builders" crap home.

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  • hahahaha

    i rent from clarke simpson and he might build a lot of houses but they are always on the market never selling. def wont sell that skinny shit for over a mil. and he never pays the water or electric bills of his tenents houses. wont let them put them in their names either. waters been shut off and electric has been shut off 3 times in one year. wont be renting from him again!!!

  • stopmickey.simpson

    Another sad tale of affordable housing turned into an unaffordable McMansion monstrosity. I would love to challenge Simpson to make smaller affordable homes in the area. Now there is a real challenge! I live across the street from two of his ticky-tacky boxes and it never ceases to amaze me how uninspiring they are.

  • Bob

    Simpson didn't design the skinny house. He doesn't own it. He isn't selling it. He wasn't the developer. The company, Mickey Simpson, was paid to build the house. I'm sorry you have such strong feelings about him, but he's not involved here.

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