Here’s the Skinny on Tall, Skinny Houses

The tall, narrow houses that have become common infill around Nashville are not a welcome sight in many established neighborhoods. New construction is part of the growing process of a city, but the “tall skinnies” don’t blend in with the surrounding housing stock of most Music City neighborhoods. Nashville’s Metro Government was getting enough negative feedback that the Metro Council passed a new ordinance 33-1 in September 2014 to limit the height of two “tall skinnies” when they are built on one lot. Councilman Anthony Davis said, “It’s very important for East Nashville neighborhoods. This is a win for them. They really wanted something to put some controls on the infill we have going on.” What effect will this have on future development? What does it mean for investors and concerned residents?

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Two examples of tall, skinny houses. Note the small “umbilical cord” between the houses on the left.

The reason Nashville has seen more tall skinny construction is a result of basic math and the effects of supply and demand. Investors, developers, and builders seek the most profitable end. They can build square footage for less than they can sell it, so they maximize the size of the house. Because the building footprint is limited by front, side, and rear setbacks, the easiest way to add square footage is by building up. Two dwellings sell for an even higher price than one, so two tall structures rise from the ground whenever the zoning allows.

Many Nashvillians despise the jarring impact the height has on a street with one-level homes. The result is that residents believe the developers don’t care about the fabric of the neighborhood and they are just there to squeeze out every cent of profit. Some residents even protest against this new development. Meanwhile, the developers are faced with high land costs that push them to build the largest houses that are financially sensible. Ultimately, we wouldn’t see as many of these products if they didn’t sell. But buyers are buying them. That is a result of higher demand for housing than the inventory of existing homes for sale can supply. The population growth of the city is driving the need for more new construction.

Two houses can be built on lots that have R (Residential) zoning. Any lots with the RS zoning designation (Residential Single Family) can only have one house.The new regulation that Metro Council supported applies to R zoned properties.

The ordinance limits the height of two detached units to 1.5 times the width. It also allows the “duplex” houses to be separated by a minimum of six feet, and connector walls are no longer required. A typical 50 foot wide city lot requires a five foot minimum side setback. Applied to each side, this leaves a forty foot wide building envelope. Deduct the new six foot space in between structures and it comes to 34 wide. Divide that into two houses, and they are each 17 feet wide. Under the new height limits (multiply the width by 1.5), that means each house must be under 25′ 6″ tall. That still leaves plenty of room for builders to construct a two story house with tall ceilings, but would make it tight to fit a third floor. However, third floors are not very common. They can still build two homes near the same square footage as before, only the height cannot be as extreme. On a street with one story homes, 25 feet still appears very tall. Those neighbors may not feel like the new ordinance affected much.

Current homeowners who bought a “tall skinny” that previously required a connector wall are now allowed to remove it. The previous code demanded that there be some attachment between the two dwellings, leading to the small shared walls that earned the nickname “umbilical cords.” Apparently, and thankfully for many Nashvillians, the time has come to cut the cords.