10 Design Tips for Urban Infill Architecture

As you can tell from our work, we’re big fans of urban infill development. As architects and builders, we have an opportunity to become stewards of communities and enhance the living experiences of city dwellers. That said, infill projects come with their own set of issues, from maximizing space in your site plan to establishing local partnerships. Challenging sites require creative design solutions. Take advantage of our substantial urban infill architecture and design experience and follow these 10 best practices to avoid delays, manage surprises, and gain support from the neighbors.

Top Tips for Designing Your Next Urban Infill Project

1. Know Your Zoning Limits

You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules. Understanding what you can and can’t do will improve your chances of getting the project approved in a reasonable amount of time. Requesting zoning variances can be a tough sell with the city and neighbors. If you’re settled on a design that’s outside current zoning guidelines, trying working under a PUD (Planned Unit Development) and work on getting neighborhood buy-in early. 

2. Work with the Neighbors

Without community acceptance, even the best architectural designs run the risk of not getting the green light. In the spirit of respect and collaboration, get the neighbors involved early and often so they have a platform to express their views and feel heard. There are several ways to go about this. Surveys, focus groups, and virtual charrettes are a few examples of how developers can keep the lines of communication open. 

The John Zay Guest House expansion is a great example of urban infill architecture that fits into the context of the existing neighborhood.
The John Zay Guest House expansion is designed to have the appearance of 2 single family homes, but is actually one building with 11 mini-suites for outpatients and their families to stay while receiving treatment at Penrose Hospital or Penrose Cancer Center. Since the guest house is located in an existing historic neighborhood, we worked closely with the neighborhood association to come up with a design that met the needs and concerns of everyone involved.

3. Fit into the Neighborhood Fabric

Residents have a sense of pride in and ownership of their neighborhood, and it’s natural for them to want to preserve and protect it. Do the work of soliciting feedback early on to get a feel for what they love most about where they live. Maybe it’s the architecture, a certain tree, a color palette, or quaint outdoor space. This information is gold and will help you create a context-sensitive design that fits within the existing fabric and neighborhood vibe.  It’s also important to look to the future, what does the community need? Can you fill that need? Is it a coffee shop, child care, or even a flexible workshop space for hobbies? 

4. Be Prepared for the Unknown

It’s important to go into an infill development project with an open mind (a sense of humor’s also a plus!). Expect the unexpected, especially when developing a brownfield site or adaptive reuse project. You never know what you’ll find once you start. 

5. Get Grading in Check

Drainage can make or break the design, so it’s important to get it right the first time. Connect with the local drainage agency early on to determine your drainage requirements. Take advantage of LID (Low Impact Development) practices like green roofs and bioswales. It’s also important to know the lot’s building height restrictions and whether or not they’re based on historical grading elevation or proposed grading height.

6. Make It Emergency Ready

Chances are, the proposed site plan doesn’t meet current emergency preparedness requirements. Keep in mind, you are increasing density, adding traffic, and more than likely a taller building. As an architect, life safety is the most important thing to consider. Our top priority is to work with local jurisdictions to consider emergency vehicle access and sprinkler systems. Doing this early will save headaches (and possibly lives!) later.

7. Include an Outdoor Space

Never underestimate the benefits of fresh air and sunshine (and a space for the grill!). Outdoor living is a highly sought after element of urban infill architecture. Create an outdoor space that’s appropriate for the design and budget. Think rooftop decks, carved-out patios, or cozy courtyards with privacy features. Consider including a communal space like a shared outdoor lounge or barbecue area. Giving residents a place to gather enhances the living experience and may help the project gain community support. 

Outdoor spaces are important to consider in urban infill architecture. This duplex has a roof top deck and a small covered deck off the kitchen for easy access to the grill.
In addition to a rooftop deck, this paired home also has a small covered deck off the kitchen for easy access to the grill.

8. Don’t Neglect Storage Needs

One design element that often gets overlooked is adequate storage space. People have interests and hobbies, and a good floor plan will address the need for a place to store things. A small closet off a patio, attic trusses over the garage with stairs, or an access door beneath a staircase provide space for camping gear, bikes, skis, and other recreational items. 

9. Welcome in the Light 

There’s a misconception that you’ll have to sacrifice natural daylight on an urban infill lot. Not true! But higher densities do require more intentional design. Consider corner windows, raised windows for privacy, windows in stairwells, and skylights in detached homes to lighten up spaces and increase appeal.

Corner windows help small spaces live larger, such as this 1,900 SF paired home.

10. Compromise on Interior Dreams

Sometimes it’s just not possible to give homebuyers everything on their wish list. A luxe kitchen island or free-standing soaking tub may not be feasible in order to maximize livable space in other areas of the floor plan. Be sure to clearly communicate the unique benefits you do provide, such as the distinct features of the neighborhood. For many urban infill buyers, the location and lifestyle benefits will outweigh a small compromise on the architecture.

Good Design Adds Value

Good design involves knowing the local restrictions, planning early, communicating consistently, and thinking of unconventional solutions. An experienced architectural firm can work in partnership with your team to create an asset to the neighborhood that enhances and adds value to the existing community. 

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