STOP; LOOK AROUND; CONSIDER YOUR SURROUNDINGS carefully. This is good advice in most situations in life, but in the business of in file, 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 hail 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."
SEE JAKE’S RUN
WHEN DEVELOPER NICK STEARNS BOUGHT HIS CIRCA 1910 home in a historic Portland, Ore., neighborhood it came with a lucrative bonus right in the backyard. The home’s 7,000-square-foot rear yard was a separate tax lot. The site is just blocks from the shops and restaurants of the area’s now trendy 23rd Avenue, and Stearns seized the opportunity to develop a residential infill project to appeal to professional couples eager to live in this convenient, established neighborhood.
Named for Stearns’ Chesapeake Bay retriever, who used to romp in the yard, Jake’s Run is wedged into a steeply sloping site. Three, four-story townhouse units and a simple shingled carriage house, containing a pair of smaller, two-story units, flank an English Mews-like center brick court. "In Portland we say that form follows parking," explains Schulz of Fletcher Farr Ayote. The site is zoned for one parking spot per unit, and that’s what drove the plan. Three two-car garages for the townhome units are tucked beneath the carriage house, and the residents of the carriage house park in front on the street.
For design inspiration, the architect and developer compiled dozens of photos of the surrounding architecture. They also knocked on doors and visited neighbors, some of whom live in homes designed by Wade Pipes, a well-respected early Portland architect who practiced from the 1910S to the 1930s. They settled on what Schulz describes as a pure expression of English Arts and Crafts, characterized by stucco exteriors, steeply pitched roofs, square window bays, and very little overhangs. "Some mistake it for Tudor, but it doesn’t have the heavy timbers," he says.
Authentic materials provide the project with a look of permanence. Schulz wrapped the townhomes entirely in smooth, 1-inch-thick cement stucco plaster, the square bays are clad in clear-stained cedar siding with old-fashioned mitered corners, and the windows are solid fir with a clear finish. The carriage house is clad with cedar shingles on all sides, and conventional, off-the-shelf garage doors were dressed up with applied cedar and fir trim. "It added some weight, so we had to use extra heavy springs on the doors to help lift them up," Schulz notes.
Inside, hand-forged iron railings, art glass, period tiles and fixtures, quarter sawn oak floors, and custom-made, clear-stained fir jazz up the typical row house designs. Fir cabinets and slab slate countertops create a dramatic kitchen. "The finishes are a really refreshing break from the ubiquitous cherry and granite," says Schulz.
The attention to scale and detail generated positive reactions from the community, and the team was even commended by a city council member, who declared that Jake’s Run was an example for all infill builders. "I’ve done a lot of projects, but I’ve enjoyed this one more than anything in my career," says Schulz, who is proud of the enduring appeal of the design. "It was especially gratifying when passersby would stop to admire the quality of the restoration we were doing."
LIKE MOST NATIONAL BUILDERS, BROOKFIELD HOMES’ Washington division has a vast repertoire of standard plans, any of which it could have churned out and plopped on the infill parcel it acquired in Falls Church, Va., an upscale neighborhood just outside of Washington. But Brookfield didn’t.
The company acquired the site from its original owners, and the deal included the old family home, which, in its current state of disrepair, resembled the Bates Motel. "The house has a lot of history, so instead of tearing it down we sold it to someone who will restore it," says Chip Devine, vice president of operations and construction.
The wonderfully situated, 12-acre parcel is a rare find in this area, and Brookfield realized that it deserved careful attention and a unique product. Although there were no covenants or restrictions on what it could build, the designs for the new 28-unit Highland View project relate more closely to historic homes than the surrounding post-war ranchers.
"We didn’t want to duplicate those designs because we didn’t think that it was great architecture," Devine says. "Instead we chose a more classic Washington style." He explored grand old neighborhoods such as Chevy Chase, Md., and Cleveland Park in Washington for inspiration. "We drove around with our digital camera and took pictures of the details," he says. "Then we took the slide show to the architects."
The result is a modern interpretation of traditional designs. "They are a combination of Craftsman and brick Cotswold-style cottages," says architect Bill Sutton of Sutton Yantis Associates in Vienna, Va. A stone foundation, deep front porch, properly scaled columns, deep eave overhangs with extra trim, bracket details, and ganged windows create a pleasant facade that seems right at home in the mature setting. "It’s all very subtle and authentic," notes Devine. Maintaining a high quality of exterior materials is something on which the builder would not compromise, so Brookfield creates all of the custom features in its own mill.
Four-sided architecture, with fenestration on all sides, was also a priority. "On a tight lot people have to look at the house next door, and the worst thing is to face a sea of aluminum," says Devine. At $250 to $300 each, all those windows do add to the cost, but they make up for it in the sales prices that average $780,000, with some topping out at $I million with options and upgrades.
Devine and Sutton went out of their way to create an addition to the community that elevates the aesthetic quality as well as the land values. And although the neighbors’ initial reaction to development was hostile, the experience has turned out to be a pleasant one for all involved. "You have to understand that no one wants change in their backyard," says Devine. "But we kept working with them, and eventually they saw the value." Highland View has caused home prices to rise and has sparked a new wave of remodeling projects.
THE SUMMIT GROTTO CONDOMINIUMS LOOK LIKE THEY have nothing in common with each other, and that’s exactly what builder/developer Michael Lander intended. The eclectic character of the new buildings enables them to fit seamlessly into one of St. Paul, Minn.’s original neighborhoods.
The back-to-back condos turn the corner of Grotto Street and Summit Avenue, which was developed in the 1880s and is home to the Governor’s mansion and the grand addresses of famous railroad robber barons. The rest of the street is a hodgepodge of large single-family homes and small apartment buildings.
Although the district is over a century old, the 1/2-acre site where the condos now sit wasn’t developed until a church was built there in the 1950s. By the late 1990s the congregation had outgrown the church, and the president of the Lander Group in Minneapolis purchased the property.
"When we approached the historic preservation commission for a demolition permit they not only granted it, they wanted to give us an award for ridding the neighborhood of this inappropriate building," says Lander of the incongruous mid-century design.
The commission keeps a careful eye on the Avenue, and the developer had to be extra conscious of the historical significance of the site. He endured the long approvals process and several design reviews. "They liked our concept because it fits in with the historic buildings, but it’s not a re-creation," Lander notes.
The Summit is four spacious attached flats that form a single "mansion" building that complements the scale and character of the street’s notable neighbors. The square and sturdy design is quasi-Prairie style with stucco, cultured stone, and rough sawn cedar and batten. Side balconies provide outdoor space and views, and the two subterranean parking spaces per unit are accessed via elevator or stairs.
The three two-story townhouses next door face Grotto Street and reflect the small buildings and brownstones on that block. "It’s a modern interpretation of a row house," says architect Scott Mower of Progressive Architecture in Minneapolis. "We used a few tricks to break up the massing and added some real contemporary twists." The red and cream facade features brick, stucco, and touches of fiber cement siding. "On the center unit we mimicked old-fashioned cornice details, but we made them out of metal," he adds.
Zoning required detached parking, so a six-car garage that is subdivided into groups of two is on the right side of the building. The arrangement allowed extra space for a rear courtyard and a finished basement for each townhome.
History inspired the exteriors, but the market drove the plans. "We were coming into a market with a tremendous affection for the neighborhood," says Lander. "But there were no housing types here that people are looking for today." The Summit units were aimed at empty-nesters and move-down buyers attracted to a single-level living environment and the three-story Grotto row houses were aimed at younger buyers.
All seven of the units are 2,100 square feet, and prices range from $284,000 to $520,000. Because it is such a unique product in a desirable location, sales were swift, especially for the Summit flats, which went for $430,000 to $520,000, because the configuration is so rare in the market. The pre-construction prices set records for the neighborhood, and price levels rose 18 percent by the completion of the project.