January 25, 2023

What is “infill,” and why do we do it?

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Daniel Rakes
What is “infill,” and why do we do it?

“Infill” is a clever term used by some urban designers and developers that should just be called “fill-in.” If you’ve ever been walking through an older neighborhood and noticed a newly-built home or spotted a brand-new commercial building along a corridor of historic shops, you’ve seen infill development.

Simply put, it’s exactly what it says: new construction that “fills in” a vacant lot or sometimes takes the place of a dilapidated or abandoned structure. Some infill is residential, like a townhouse or apartment building, and some is commercial, like a storefront. A lot of it is both, with retail or office use on the ground floor and apartments or condos upstairs.

Sometimes, you’ll hear urban designers, architects, or city planners talk about the “urban fabric” of a city or a neighborhood. Generally, this refers to the specific look and feel of a place’s built environment. Are the buildings tall or kind of short? Are the building exteriors predominantly brick, glass, or some other material? Are they built up close to the street or set far back? What about sidewalks and street lights? All of these things make up the urban fabric. Infill development patches that fabric. 

Collier Construction prides itself on having a unique specialty in urban infill development, thanks to the level of experience and skills we’ve acquired over time. Infill developers need to be knowledgeable about specific zoning requirements that a city may have, especially when they involve historic zoning overlays or other regulations that carefully dictate building materials and design choices. They’re often working to tie into a city’s existing utility network, which can present interesting challenges, particularly if those utilities are quite old or hard to access.

More than anything, they have to know how to build in an area that is already occupied and sometimes quite busy – Main Street on Chattanooga’s bustling Southside is one example, as are the compact blocks and corners of the Hill City neighborhood. People, traffic, and city life need to go undisturbed even as a new building needs to go up. No wonder many developers would rather clear-cut greenfields in the middle of nowhere and build there.

That vibrant city life is exactly the reason why infill matters, however – an existing critical mass of people and traffic is a strong signal of demand and a reliable indicator that a market exists for what we may want to build, be it a residential development like Waypoint South or something as unassuming - but important - as the Bluegrass Grill. Many people who would never purchase a car that had been sold and resold four, five, or six times will think nothing of buying a house that is decades old… if it's in the right location. Figuring out how to build where people already want to be, and delivering a project that adds to the vitality of that place, is among the most economical, efficient, and fun things a developer can do.

Urban infill has other positives, not the least of which is that it’s a great deal easier on the environment. Buildings that produce comfortable, safe amounts of density mean that people have easier, walkable access to places where they can work, shop, dine out, or do whatever they want. This means they’re spending less time in their cars, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and wear and tear on our infrastructure - both of which are unfathomably expensive. From a city’s standpoint, density is simply easier to service: police, trash pickup, wastewater maintenance, and even animal control are faster and cheaper in parts of town where city employees don’t have to spend so much time driving around.

Less expensive and more fun: urban infill weaves a stronger urban fabric, which strengthens us all. 

Daniel Rakes

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