Infill Townhomes: Sustainable Solution or Urban Blight?

July 1, 2008

Infill housing.

Drive through Seattle and this term will begin to seem synonymous with plain woodframe structures that crowd the streets like like weeds.

According to an article in the Seattle P-I,

Townhomes don’t have to be ugly and dampen the human spirit. But so many of them are eyesores that townhomes have become a lighting rod in the local debate over housing. They’ve been blamed for the decline of community and called a threat to single-family neighborhoods. Their rapid proliferation has even prompted recent City Council-led community forums… [But] townhomes aren’t the problem. … Bad design and laziness are the real problem.

There is also growing concern that the new crop of townhomes is not sustainable (for a discussion of this, as well as a thourough recounting of Seattle’s recent forum on townhomes, see Smarter Neighbors: Seattle Land Use Blog, Seattle Channel’s Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee, and the West Seattle Blog).

The authors of the P-I article, Graham Black of gProjects and Brad Khouri of b9 Architects, who have built several successful multifamily projects in the city, belive that Seattle can address the problem by changing its permitting and design review processes. Building codes which reward a cookie-cutter approach have been called into question by many Seattlites.

Townhomes are built the way they are, of course, to maximize profits. Developers protect their investments by finding an efficient building style which provides just enough ‘curb appeal’ to attract renters and buyers. Furthermore, the efficiency of this model provides a benefit that extends to the consumer: the nondescript boxes sprouting up in the city’s old neighborhoods are, often enough, comparatively affordable. For developers, the economic benefit in upgrading  a project’s design — like the economic benefit of building green — comes down to having a more marketable project, which in turn commands a higher price.

But sometimes a project can walk the line between profitability for the developer and affordability for the consumer. If the developer is able to find affordable land that is located in an area which is perceived to be “up and coming”, the housing is likely to have a lower price tag AND appeal to consumers. A recent example is Pb Elemental’s South Park Lofts.

Pb Elemental’s website says they experiment with modern influence on the typeical multifamily home, with a focus on a refined aesthetic in detailing, form and finish.  The South Park Lofts offer buyers eye-catching design (stained wood siding contrasts nicely with metal and concrete, solar awnings are used to add visual interest to facades) coupled with Built Green certification (in addition to solar power, units feature rainwater collection and greywater recycling, as well as ample use of bamboo on the interiors). The South Park development’s 5 units — four of them 776 sq. ft. lofts, and the fifth, central, unit a 1300 sq. ft., three story one — are built on a 6000 sq. ft. lot south of the city near Boeing Field. This area has been predominantly industrial for more than 30 years, but some regeneration has recently taken hold. With a few small businesses and a new library, and a budget increase which allowed the area to afford new youth programs and street improvements, South Park is attracting residents. Pb’s lofts are sold, and the firm has more projects underway in the neighborhood.

Image Credit: Live Modern

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