Appease the NIMBYs with appropriate designs, and they might not even know you're there.
By Carolyn Weber
Stop; look around; consider your surroundings carefully. This is good advice in most situations in life, but in the business of infill development it can mean the difference between a sweet margin on a hot project and a boot in the backside by a horde of naysaying homeowners. It's all in how you approach it.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, infill projects have become a profitable niche for small- and medium-size builders. "Sites can be tough to find and approvals difficult, but there is a strong demand and little competition," says Michael Lander of the Lander Group, a builder/developer carving out his niche in the Minneapolis market. Although the NAHB doesn't separate infill statistics, they acknowledge the trend. "It's happening, it's upscale and expensive, and the definition changes all the time," says Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research at the NAHB.
But there is a great deal of resistance to infill. Too many builders have set a poor precedent of ignoring context and community concerns, cramming over-scaled, inappropriate units onto tiny lots, and creating a backlash against these types of projects. As a result, zoning in many jurisdictions has gone overboard. "If you don't start building compatible designs, you will get citizens going to city hall and saying you can't build anything more than a 1,500-square-foot bungalow," says architect Bill Sutton who designs infill projects in Northern Virginia.
Selling the neighbors on an idea is more than half the battle, and the normal process of subdivision development is gone. "That old-school, 'Buckaroo Bonzai' approach is not going to get you anywhere on these projects," says Sutton. "You can't just muscle your way in there, you have to find creative ways to address problems."
Lander prides himself on working well with neighbors. He starts meeting with them early, treats them like clients, and has even found that their input provides insightful ideas for design and planning. "They were there first, and they just want some respect," he notes, "so listening to them and addressing their concerns makes for a much less contentious atmosphere."
And, to be fair, sometimes the neighbors have a point: Although infill development can drive up land values in older areas, it can also alter the character that made the community attractive in the first place. For example, the average square footage of a new home is more than 2,200 square feet, compared with 1950, when it was 1,000 square feet. So squeezing high-end units with spacious gourmet kitchens, luxury master suites, home offices, and generous secondary bedrooms into existing neighborhoods is tricky.
Sometimes making it work requires some fast talking and true innovation. After meeting with a builder who was planning to throw up five McMansions on an infill lot and call it a day, Towson, Md. based architect Michael Medic convinced the client otherwise. He sold him on a land plan and architecture that would blend seamlessly into the fabric of the neighborhood. "We reworked the plan to include 10 lots with an alley and both groups of houses fronting on the street," Medic notes. "It created a good looking product and doubled the density for the builder."
Portland, Ore., architect Brett Schulz advises builders and architects to set aside preconceived notions of elevations and floor plans. "It's so obvious when they drop in a plan from some other project," he says. Builders don't have to duplicate the existing homes, just try to complement them. "Responding to what is already happening there is what makes infill projects successful."