Courtesy Thomas James Homes

When it comes to urban development, infill projects tend to be inherently complex and challenging, requiring a higher level of attention to design when compared to other sites with fewer constraints.

Yet there continues to be increasing interest in urban infill at multiple scales due to a strong, consistent customer desire to live an urban lifestyle where the city is the amenity. Even with the increase in work from home over the last few years, there still remains a limit to how far from the urban core buyers are willing to venture, consequently fueling demand for closer-in housing.

This in turn has resulted in a scarcity of land in urban locations which has naturally driven up costs. Due to this, urban infill developments must be thoughtfully and efficiently designed so they are both profitable to build and attainably priced.

Designing the Right Project for the Site

Responding to these realities, city councils have become increasingly sympathetic to urban infill development, leaning towards granting rezoning and variances, with many impacted jurisdictions going so far as removing single-family-only zoning. These recent changes have opened up opportunities for new infill developments with the density to pencil that were once not possible.

By now, most have heard that Minneapolis removed single-family zoning from their zoning designations, and California state laws allow for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on all residential lots.

Recently, the Austin City Council passed phase one of their HOME initiative, which allows three houses on a single-family lot, opening exciting opportunities for infill at a single-lot scale that would dramatically increase density without transforming the look, feel, or character of existing neighborhoods.

We have already seen what can be done in other jurisdictions that have implemented similar new zoning codes. For instance, The Cottages, a project DAHLIN designed for Thomas James Homes in Seattle, transformed a lot that previously contained one single-family detached home into a charming pocket community comprised of a trio of farmhouse residences, adding housing inventory to a community facing a housing shortage.

Developing these urban infill sites to diversify the overall mix of housing types and densities can help meet the needs of households who do not want to live in a traditional, single-family detached home community or a large multifamily apartment complex.

Urban infill can include a range of creative product types that fill the gap between these two extremes, including cottages, townhomes, stacked townhomes, and stacked unit flats, to name a few. The three major considerations when approaching these projects are:

1. Maximize density. Expect the need for density to increase in concert with continuously increasing land values, as what worked for a similar site two years ago likely won’t be dense enough to pencil today.
2. Get creative. Creating the most livable community possible requires a thoughtful approach—simple, cookie-cutter, off-the-shelf land and builder plans will not work for infill projects in most cases.
3. Consider context. Think about the impact a project will have on the surrounding community and design and develop projects that are sensitive to that.

Courtesy StoryBuilt

Combining Density with Livability

It is often difficult to reconcile a livable design with the density required to make a project profitable. There are, however, design solutions and development approaches that can help to make homes with a smaller footprint attractive and livable for buyers. These include:

Build Small, Smart
Well-designed smaller homes aim to maximize density and minimize prices. Compact home plans can be surprisingly livable and highly desirable to specific demographics, especially when the process is informed by solid data that responds to what these demographics value most in a home.

Design Creative Parking Options
Rethink the traditional rules of parking. A two-car garage is not always required, as research shows that buyers are willing to trade parking in favor of other design features and for the attainability of an urban lifestyle.

Frank. West, a StoryBuilt project in Austin, Texas, was designed at a time when the zoning code required two parking spots per unit. However, a higher density was necessary to increase the overall affordability of the community.

In response, a solution was developed through a joint development agreement between two StoryBuilt properties that allowed one parking spot per unit to be situated within the community, while the unit’s second spot was located within the parking garage of an adjacent condo building.

Another parking solution DAHLIN implemented involved Thomas James Homes’ The Cottages project in Seattle, where paver-style, off-street parking for each unit was provided at the back of the project site.

Create Community
People thrive on interpersonal connections, and a community that can foster connection is a successful one, adding value and offsetting other trade-offs such as home size and parking.

A design by DAHLIN for North Bluff, a StoryBuilt community in Austin, pulled parking from many of the homes and consolidated it farther away along the common driveways, allowing for up to twice the density of other site plans that included parking with the homes.

The configuration also allowed for green walking paths along “garden units” that faced green space, instead of a street or a garage. Though residents' walk from their car to their home was increased, this trade off contributed to the project’s desired ease of connectivity and overall, a more enjoyable resident experience.

Keep Planning Collaborative
Due to the small size of available lots in infill projects, home selection for buyers can be limited. Collaboration between good designers and innovative developers can help arrange the right units for the best lots to maximize the project’s value.

It’s also important to maintain tight site plan coordination with civil engineers and landscape architects. Because every inch of site area counts in an infill site, it is critical that coordination is collaborative and ongoing—something that is not typically needed when the site size is less of a constraint. During design and construction, a tweak by any of these disciplines could lead to an expensive trickle-down effect.

Many sites also require rezoning to align the current needs of a city and the best use for the site with its existing entitlements. Taking a highly collaborative approach to the rezoning process can create broad support for the project from both the city’s elected officials and staff and the neighborhoods that will be impacted by the infill site’s rezoning.

While infill development is undeniably more complex and challenging to design and develop, it is also inherently more sustainable and is an important solution to the dire need for attainably priced housing closer to the urban core. The magnitude of benefits that infill projects can have justifies the effort to transform these sites into successful, thriving communities.

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