Editor’s Note: Repair or Replace?

I have to admit that sourcing urban infill houses for an issue like this is not an easy task. There are plenty of beautiful custom homes on rural sites—and we will feature some great ones next issue—but most custom residential architecture in cities is devoted to remodeling and not new builds. That makes sense, given the embedded costs of city sites—or does it?

In most prosperous urban areas, where we are more likely to find clients who can afford construction projects, desirable sites are largely built out. That means you have to add in the cost of removing an existing building, the headaches of permitting for new construction, and working around cranky neighbors for the two- or three-year timeline of a new build. It’s no wonder the math seems to tip solidly toward renovation. 

But pros know that numbers can lie. When renovating undistinguished buildings of mediocre character and middling materials, clients often discover after the fact that the math was not the home run they’d hoped for. Usually, the construction team encounters an unforeseen problem and the budget starts to swell. And then, as the project advances, the compromises imposed by existing conditions become more obvious and regretful.  

It’s not uncommon for clients to come to the end of the journey and conclude that it would not have cost much more to build it right from the start—with better function, better performance, better and longer-lasting materials, and so on. 

Design/builder Paul Field learned this firsthand with his own house in Dallas, which he had remodeled over the years as funds became available. Just prior to COVID, he and his family had decided the alterations no longer worked for them, and they set about finding a lot for a new build. They looked for a year but came to realize they’d had the best lot all along. It was better to replace their old cottage with a new house designed from the ground up for how they really wanted to live. The striking new building (featured in our Case Study on page 22) is a wonderful addition to the neighborhood—if you can find it behind its multiple tiers of green roofs.  

Our Design Lab feature on page 30 looks at three additional urban infill houses that reconceive how a city house can occupy its site and serve its owners. One in California by EYRC creates precious outdoor space where everyone was sure there could be none. Another in Minnesota by PKA finds a way to infuse the pleasures of outdoor living in an inhospitable climate. And our third in Seattle by Hybrid densifies a squandered site, cleverly squeezing four flexible, affordable dwelling units into the space of a duplex. 

For our interiors story on page 14, we feature Nicole Blair’s project, The Perch, a 660-square-foot building that hovers above the owners’ bungalow—offering them multiple possibilities for function in a simply knock-out form.