Plenty of infill projects start with the goal of blending in with their surroundings, but only the best actually carry out that mandate. That's definitely the case with Viejo Carmel, a dynamite group of townhouses and stacked flats that nestles seamlessly into the quirky town of Carmel.

Just to make things interesting, the site was not only minuscule (a mere 100-by-200 feet), it also had a steep (12- to 14-foot) grade fall. Throw in the town's wishes--that each of the five cottage-scaled buildings look like it was separate from the rest and had been built over time--and you've got the ingredients for a struggle.

"As a developer you cringe when you hear that," says Bill Hirschman, president of Lexor Builders. "As a final project you say, 'What a fabulous idea. It doesn't look at all like a great big townhouse.'"

In the end, eccentric little Carmel ended up being this project's best friend. It was the town that insisted on a one-car-wide entrance to the subterranean garage. ("Every other city says, 'We need an entry the size of a hanger.' But Carmel asks, 'Can you make it smaller and more detailed?' " says Hirschman.) It was the town that insisted on paving stones for the sidewalk. Believe it or not, Carmel has a high-heel ordinance that requires folks to obtain a waiver in order to wear spikes (it's rarely enforced).

A super-low height limit on the property forced the architects, McLarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners, to be especially inventive. "Height was such a tight issue that we ended up using lots of devices inside the units to make them feel more luxurious," says Richard Emsiek. "We coffered up as much as we could and raised the bedroom platforms on the second floor to get more ceiling heights downstairs without raising the roof." Elaborate truss and trim work "wasn't there just to decorate the space," he adds. "It was there to make the space."

Emsiek's firm even went so far as to combine two different architectural styles common in Carmel. The two French-Tudor buildings offer up wood shake roofs, half-timbering, and copper detailing, while the three Spanish-Colonial examples boast exposed rafter tails and clay barrel roof tiles.

"Our intent was to really respect, not just respond to, all that was around this project," he says.

Categories: Attached/Townhouse community (grand); Infill community (grand); Entrant/Architect/Land Planner: McLarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners, Irvine, Calif.; Builder/Developer: Lexor Builders, Los Gatos, Calif.; Landscape Architect: HALA Landscape Architects, San Jose, Calif.; Interior Designer: First Impressions in Design, Fresno, Calif.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA, San Jose, CA, Indianapolis, IN.