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Infill Architecture

    Increasing demand for urban land is creating residential housing with unusual footprints all over the world. Chicago architects and city planners have also intensified their quest to design buildings and neighborhoods that efficiently and aesthetically utilize existing parcels.

    A new book, Infill: New Houses for Urban Sites by Adam
Mornement and Annabel Biles, showcases 40 new urban houses ranging from a 258-square-foot home in Yokohama, Japan, to underground homes in Paris to sloping sites in California.
    The ingenuity of the designs, created against the outer
pressures inherent in urban design, is showcased by the colorful
photography incities around the world, each home reflecting the
surrounding culture and landscape.
    In Venice, California, where Frank Gehry built some of his
earliest structures, one couple transformed a two-story stucco house built in the early ‘50s into a “one-window-house” sheathed in corrugated steel. Other light is provided by skylights and sliding glass doors.
    The affordable Lowerline House, built on the banks of the
Mississippi River between two traditional cottages was completed one week before Hurricane Katrina hit.  Designed against the backdrop of an industrial neighborhood, it was named by architect Byron Mouton as a domestic shed. The exterior is covered in corrugated steel and raised three feet off the ground. The house remained solidly intact after the storm, although it retained a dent in its side from a neighbor’s roof blown off during the hurricane.
    In Toledo, Spain, the Sanchez Medina House shows how even a five-bedroom home within a UNESCO World Heritage Site can be properly designed within strict infill limitations. Located on a mountain top and surrounded on three sides by the Tigris River, the cliff-edge plot was previously a partial ruin. The city is home to Moorish, Jewish and Christian cultures that live in harmony with both each other and the environment. The house fits in perfectly, yet was designed and built to modern standards.
    The town of Geinhausen, Germany, was founded in 1180 with its biggest period of reconstruction going back to the late 17th century, following the Thirty Years’ War. Two architects snapped up a structure that had fallen into terminal disrepair and constructed a new house that blends into the surrounding architecture. Inside, the ground floor is designed around an enormous limestone boulder.  Smaller boulders adorn the room, which has a floor of loose gravel chips. The concept is threefold. “The ground floor is earthbound by the rock; a miniature ‘horizon’ is created by the rock’s four edges. The top deck on the box is open to the skies. The private spaces and other features inside the box refer to the journey of life...”
    In Paris, France, a miniature split-level house with a footprint
of 323 square feet contains a living room, kitchen, bathroom, dining area, integrated storage and staircase to the second level bedroom.  Glass walls facing a courtyard extend the feeling of spaciousness, and like a boat, integrated furniture, fittings and storage space were chiseled out of the thick layer of masonry that lines the back wall.

Infill defined
    The authors simply define “infill” as the industry term for
the development of small-scale vacant parcels of land within built-up areas. “In recent years, houses on thin slivers of abandoned land, on precipitous hillsides and even in alleyways have proliferated in the pages of architecture and lifestyle magazines around the world,” according to the book.
    Factors influencing the phenomenon include government policies on the reuse of urban land and the growing numbers of people preferring city life with its opportunity for work and entertainment.  Smaller families, singles and aging populations are increasing demand for single-unit dwellings.
    Urban areas, according to Mornement and Biles, are always facing shifting pressures depending on times and place, such as economic fluctuations, demographic change, homeland security concerns, revised building codes, new construction technologies and shifts in rate of taxation. These can create a new infill site or cultivate an existing space. One historical example was the when Paris changed its building code to allow increased height limits in 1902.  Reinforced concrete was also being used, and architect Auguste Perret designed an apartment building that would have been impossible to build 10 years prior, setting a new precedent in the city.
    Another positive offshoot of infill housing is the
revitalization of run-down and deprived areas, which often offer opportunities for more affordable land and perhaps some local incentives for development.

Infill works with the environment
    From the green perspective, infill reduces energy consumption, improves air quality by reducing traffic miles and prevents the consumption of even more agricultural land.
    At 1016 Architecture, a local firm, architects Josh Canale and
Andrew Wilson have been working on the design for Wrightwood Crossing at 1307 Wrightwood, a 19-unit residential building that has earned a LEED Platinum Level Award for its green qualities, but as Canale points out, the fact that it was a masonry factory garnered extra points.
    Canale recently worked on an unusually large infill project in the South Loop, where a 180-unit, mixed-use project covered nearly an acre of land and raised only seven stories.
    The firm is also working on designing an alpaca ranch, where the house is to be made from used shipping containers, which are in good supply. Economically, it’s easier for other countries to ship and leave the containers behind rather than incur the cost of
transporting them back to their original destination.
    These extremely durable ISBU’s, or intermodal steel building
units, measuring about 40 feet long by eight feet wide by eight and a half feet tall, have hardwood floors and are being touted as building blocks for housing. While some emergency housing may consist of one container, six or eight of them can make a comfortable, fashionable dwelling in the hands of the right architects and be about 20 percent less expensive than a stick-built house.
    Working with infill sites in Chicago can be a challenging
process, according to Canale. Navigating building and zoning codes requires a knowledgeable team that can figure out what can and cannot be done and putting together a well-crafted, thought-out presentation. “It takes a lot of pieces falling into place,” says Canale. “A tear-down is one way to go. Renovating or restoring is definitely a form of infill architecture.”

Chicago’s infill plan
    The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning intends to issue it’s “Go To 2040” plan in 2010 to help the northeastern Illinois region figure out how much growth between now and 2040 can be expected to occur on infill sites within existing communities.
    The current CMAP Regional Snapshot report says within this time frame, northeastern Illinois will grow by 2.8 million people and 1.8 million jobs. Without good planning, the growth could strain the region’s infrastructure and consumer natural resources and overwhelm social systems. It tries to identify infill sites within established communities where roads, water treatment facilities and public services are available, as opposed to new development beyond the urban borders where these amenities do not exist.
    The report argues that the need to address infill can offer
substantial benefits, including the revitalization of stressed
communities, increased tax revenues, opportunities to create
affordable housing, preservation of natural resources in undeveloped areas and effective use of existing infrastructure and services. More businesses and residents can mean more taxes without having to build more roads, sewers and electrical lines. It can improve equity by reinvesting in neighborhoods with declining tax bases.
    As anyone living in the Chicago area knows, parking is a growing challenge. CMAP presents a case study showing that large surface parking lots have considerable redevelopment potential. It identifies a number of areas where commercial buildings are surrounded by large areas of asphalt that can also produce “heat-island” effects.
    Since parking demands vary by time of day and week for different areas, the report recommends that businesses and tenants share parking spaces so parking areas can be minimized to create possibilities for more development or natural landscaping.
    One such project underway is the site of the old Lakehurst Mall, which was purchased in 2003 and all buildings demolished. Planning is underway for a mixed-use development, which officials say should be environmentally balanced for housing, employment and economic development.
    Redevelopment of commercial centers should also be more
pedestrian-friendly, according to the report, to encourage some
shoppers to come by foot or bicycle to reduce congestion and provide some health benefits to consumers.

Published: June 07, 2009
Issue: Summer 2009 Urban Living