Project Old Mill Cottages, Mill Valley, Calif.

What it Is Four detached condos

builder/developerEnglander Building Co., Mill Valley

ArchitectFrancis Gough Architect, Mill Valley

Although it measured only 50 feet by 130 feet, the corner lot in the center of Mill Valley, a community of 13,000 located 15 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge, had been zoned for four residences. Developer Peter Englander felt the neighborhood—which he lives in—was ripe for small detached condos on small lots that would cost less and require less maintenance than the area’s Shingle-style homes. Englander purchased the site in 2008 for $750,000, which caused a community uproar. “Many felt the site would be too dense, and that it was too close to two schools, a church, and park,” says architect Francis Gough.

To allay concerns, the duo conformed to the zoning code, put more space between one of the units and a nearby preschool, built a fence, and designed all units in the local Shingle-style vernacular, with low-sloped, sweeping rooflines, extended eaves, and large brackets. The changes appeased those who initially did not support the project.

There are three 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom condos that are market rate; the fourth is a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom affordable unit, per city quota. The plan placed parking spaces at the rear, and gave each condo its own garden. Englander says,“We wanted to put our names on something we’d be proud of.”

Walkability and connectivity are taking on greater urgency as America’s health crisis worsens and land prices escalate. Enter a resurgence of infill. But building well isn’t just about filling in with single-family houses or condominiums. It’s about fitting in with what’s already there. It’s about a building’s height and scale. Then, it’s style, materials, landscaping, sustainability, and respect for historic preservation.

Infill doesn’t need to replicate the surroundings, but it should reflect some commonalities. “You can have a more modern building in an older urban setting if the building behaves in a responsible way with its mass and how it relates to the street,” says Galina Tachieva, partner with Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ) in Miami.

Increasingly, communities are helping by adopting form-based codes that require a sensitive development framework. The Miami 21 initiative on which DPZ consulted, for example, ensures that the city will learn from past mistakes when high-rises overshadowed homes and blocked water views.

Listening to the neighbors also is paramount. “Builders are smart to engage in a community dialogue before they finalize plans,” says Mark Stapp, a real estate professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. “Too many builders fly in like pigeons, impact surroundings, then leave.”

The following four projects are solid examples of infill done right.

Project Kensington, Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.

What it is Single-family detached house

ArchitectVisbeen Architects, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Chicago

BuilderInsignia Homes, Kentwood, Mich.

Project Woodley Wardman Condominiums, Washington, D.C.

What it is 39 condos, with 16 in four historic townhouses and 23 in a seven-story new tower to the rear

ArchitectBonstra | Haresign Architects, Washington

builderMurillo/Malnati Group, Washington

A historic site along bustling Connecticut Avenue near the National Zoo and a subway stop led to a novel solution of how to retain old elements and add new ones while keeping each distinct. To achieve the required density for 39 condominiums, the architect and builder carefully restored the façades of four townhouses dating from 1911 to 1922, gutted interiors to include 16 units, and erected a seven-story tower to the rear with 23 additional condos that are barely visible from the street.

A courtyard with a garage beneath offers a link among the existing and new structures. “It was important to area historic preservation groups that the new building not overpower the townhouses and fit with buildings to the north,” explains architect Bill Bonstra. “We did a lot of sightline studies from across the street.”

Because his firm’s architectural vision is “contextual modernist” and the historic guidelines encouraged visual uniqueness for old and new (rather than straight replication), Bonstra abstracted the four townhouse façades for the tower’s front. Four vertical rows of bay windows, modern dormers, staggered building tiers, and a light color brick with dark accents recall the townhouse patterns. Units now run horizontally across the gutted townhouses. “The layout resembles a jigsaw puzzle, which allowed more open, varied plans of multiple levels,” says developer Julio Murillo.

When Kenneth F. Brinkman hunts for potential infill sites, he looks for structures that don’t fully utilize their capacity or property. An old brick working-class row house—much smaller than was permitted under current zoning rules and in need of major repair—caught his attention. He concluded that a rescue would be expensive and time-consuming. A smarter strategy would be to construct a new house that was larger and better built.

Brinkman also knew to build according to zoning ordinances rather than ask for variances. Seeking a variance “would have upset the neighborhood, a mature market that has concern about what’s built,” he says. Brinkman’s design followed his usual mantra: Pay homage to area vintage houses, but appeal to buyers by modernizing details, bringing in more light, and adding outdoor space.

His DePaul residence incorporates a classic brick and limestone façade punctuated by a repetition of windows, but ones that are larger, surrounded by simpler frames, and paired with a wider front door than its historic predecessor. To make the most of the narrow footprint typical of row houses, Brinkman minimized interior walls to make rooms look wider. An outdoor space sits atop the garage but out of view.

“We study historic pattern books and area homes,” Brinkman says of his firm. “I want our designs to resemble the nicest house on a block from 100 years ago.”

Project DePaul Residence, Chicago

What it is Single-family detached home

Builder and ArchitectEnvirons Development, Chicago

Since Visbeen Architects began working on infill, the firm has learned that the best compliment is to hear neighbors say, “That house looks like it’s always been there.” One of the ways architect Wayne Visbeen’s new, single-family Kensington home conveys an aged patina is a scale that matches the surrounding 1920s houses.

After a Tudor-style house on the site was torn down and condemned, the property was purchased by a couple who wanted to build a green house. Visbeen’s design is a 3,500-square-foot Craftsman-inspired, Foursquare plan that he right-sized for the corner lot and neighborhood by making sure the façade aligned with the adjacent homes. Other design choices contribute to its classic pose: off-white painted stucco, taupe-stained cedar shakes, columns supporting an eyebrow arch, windows without shutters, and a rear detached garage—a tradition from decades ago. Visbeen believes the design also appealed to the surrounding community because it was one of Detroit’s first LEED Gold-certified houses.

Both architect and builder aim to be good neighbors by trying to avoid seeking variances, displaying renderings on a front lawn, and keeping the site and nearby roads clean during construction.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL, Detroit, MI.