New homes, older communities
Home buyers who want all the modern amenities and established neighborhoods are tearing down older dwellings and building shiny new houses on their lots. The process is not without its challenges.
Greg and Andrea Sawchyn, with their newborn daughter, in the spacious living area of their home in Upper Arlington. The couple bought an older house, tore it down and built a more suitable home in its place. "There were some challenges along the way that we wouldn't have faced if we had built in a newer development," says Greg, "but I think at the end of the day it was well worth it."
Michael A. Foley/MAF Photography
It’s exactly the neighborhood you want. Great schools, leafy streets, strong city services, a quick stroll to your favorite restaurant. But the surrounding homes are all 60 years old, and you don’t want to deal with the issues an older home can present. For some people, the answer to this quandary is infill building.
Builders, developers and homeowners are buying houses in established, desirable areas such as Upper Arlington, Worthington, Clintonville and Bexley, then tearing them down and building new homes in their places. It allows buyers to pair an older, walkable neighborhood with a home that features modern elements such as an open floor plan, fully equipped kitchen, walk-in shower, plentiful storage, prewiring for a wide range of home systems and energy-efficient construction.
Greg Sawchyn, an Upper Arlington resident who built his home through the infill process, says, “There were some challenges along the way that we wouldn’t have faced if we had built in a newer development, but I think at the end of the day it was well worth it, and we would certainly do it again.”
When Sawchyn and his wife, Andrea, began their Columbus house hunt, they were living in downtown Philadelphia while Andrea, an ophthalmologist, completed a fellowship before starting a job at the Ohio State University Medical Center. The couple enjoyed being within walking distance of the places where they liked to eat out and shop, and they hoped to find a home in a Central Ohio neighborhood that offered similar walkability and convenience.
After looking at houses in new subdivisions north of I-270, the Sawchyns zeroed in on the Grandview and Upper Arlington areas. Either suburb offered good schools and a close proximity to restaurants, stores and friends, as well as a short commute for Andrea. But although they liked the Grandview and Upper Arlington homes they toured, the houses in their price range didn’t have the bedrooms, square footage or lower-level space they were after.
During their search, the couple found a 1,100-square-foot, 1950s-vintage home in Upper Arlington’s Northam Park neighborhood that met their location criteria. But the home needed a lot of updating, and the tight lot meant they wouldn’t be able to build an addition. So the couple came up with a plan: They decided to buy the old house, knock it down and build the home they wanted on the lot. “Things started falling into place,” says Sawchyn. “We thought, we can pull this off.”
They bought the older house and worked with Schumacher Homes in Lewis Center to build their new home. First, Schumacher got the Sawchyns’ home plans approved by Upper Arlington. “It was an established neighborhood, and what we wanted to do was a little bit different from the existing neighborhood,” says Sawchyn. “We had to make sure it wasn’t obtrusive and that it didn’t look out of place.”
Schumacher Homes handled the challenges of building on the tight lot, and in July 2010 the Sawchyns moved into their new four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath, 3,000-square-foot home. Among the modern advantages: The home is well-insulated, has Energy Star appliances and includes a nine-foot-high basement space that can be finished in the future.
“The thing we love the most is that we’ve got great neighbors who’ve been here for years and years,” says Sawchyn, “and we also love the proximity to parks, restaurants, the grocery and being able to go for runs in historic Upper Arlington and on campus.”
So what does it take to achieve successful infill building such as the Sawchyns’ experience? City officials say neighborhood compatibility is key.
“The goal in Bexley is not uniformity of design, since Bexley has so many architectural styles, but instead the goal is to foster compatible design with respect to a home’s existing styles and its surroundings,” says Kathy Rose, building department manager and zoning officer for the city of Bexley. “It’s making sure it’s appropriate for the neighborhoods and keeping Bexley the beautiful city that it is.”
Bexley’s ordinances call for the city’s Architectural Review Board to review applications for the demolition of older homes or structures such as carriage houses. According to the ordinance, the board uses specific criteria to determine whether the structure is “historically or culturally significant or otherwise worthy of preservation.”
“The city of Upper Arlington has been very proactive in protecting its premier residential neighborhoods,” says Chad Gibson, senior planning officer for the city of Upper Arlington. UA’s new neighborhood compatibility ordinance requires houses to be compatible with other homes on the block in terms of character, site layout, architectural style, materials, setbacks, height, roof pitch and other features.
Gibson points out that the ordinance doesn’t require cookie-cutter design, but a new home must respect the neighborhood and integrate into its aesthetic. He says the new ordinance has been well-received and the city works with builders and homeowners to create a win-win situation. When Upper Arlington receives an application for a new infill home, city officials actually visit the site to see if the proposed dwelling will blend in with the surrounding houses.
It’s unusual to find an infill lot big enough to build several houses, since large lots are extremely limited in established, built-out neighborhoods. However, Rich Conie, president of the Richard J. Conie Company, found just such an opportunity when he purchased two and a half acres of land on Haviland Road in Upper Arlington, where he plans to create an eight-home infill subdivision named Middlesex Place. The site once was the location of Discover Christian Church. “I just got lucky and stumbled upon it,” he says.
Conie’s land development company primarily develops land for single-family homes. The company’s first infill development project was in 1990 in Worthington.
Infill building is an attractive alternative for developers such as Conie because they can work on a smaller scale, making financing and land improvements easier to handle. “It seems like when the market slows down, you can find more of a demand in the infills than the outer areas,” says Conie.
The Middlesex Place site is in the middle of a well-maintained single-family neighborhood, close to Windermere Elementary School and Thompson Park, with houses surrounding it on all four sides. The subdivision’s construction drawings include a demolition plan for the existing structure, along with an asbestos study and plans to disconnect all existing utilities.
“One of the most important things after the utilities would be the zoning,” says Conie. For infill sites, developers need to work with the existing zoning regulations. “You have to abide by what’s already dictated,” says Conie. “You have to lay it out and develop it per what’s already planned.” To make the project work, the zoning has to be right for the use the developer has in mind. If it’s not, and the developer still wants to move ahead, the next step is to try to have it rezoned.
“We were so fortunate on this site because we didn’t have any variances, and that’s one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle,” says Conie. “If it’s zoned for your use and you don’t need any variances and you don’t need to change any zoning, that’s one of the most important parts of infill building.” Teardown of a single home to build another in its place doesn’t usually present a zoning issue, though building codes can affect matters such as design, structure height and garage placement.
Infills present challenges for builders as well as developers. Connecting to existing utilities can be problematic and may lead to some last-minute tweaks in engineering plans. And the site location itself can be challenging to access and work in. Construction on a street where new-home building—with its increased truck traffic, debris and noise—hasn’t been the norm since the 1920s means that building companies have to be sensitive to the needs of the surrounding homeowners.
“We have to be very cognizant of the neighbors,” says Mark Braunsdorf, president of Compass Homes. “You’re building in a neighborhood where people live.”
Builders caution their workers to tone down their radios and toss out their trash, park construction vehicles where they will provide minimum inconvenience and be careful not to damage the surrounding trees. Questions such as where to put towering stacks of building materials and a Porta-Potty carry more urgency in a tight lot in Clintonville than they would in a relatively vast space in Dublin.
Builders and architects also need to make sure a new home’s exterior fits in with other houses on the block. Braunsdorf, who will build several homes in Middlesex Place, has been driving up and down the streets of Upper Arlington, noting everything from the homes’ proportions to the kind of stone used in their exteriors. He plans to use this research to create homes that will blend in beautifully.
“Upper Arlington has a lot of great architecture and you want to fit into the feel,” he says. “I’ll take thousands of pictures and we’ll put them together and develop elevations that will fit in. You don’t want to overwhelm the neighborhood, you want to have real sensitivity as to what will fit in.”
Craig Tuckerman, president of the Tuckerman Home Group, not only has built infill homes for his buyers, he also built one for himself.
“The number-one factor for the people who’ve come to us and the deals we’ve done—and for our own—is that people want to have a new home in a well-established community,” says Tuckerman, who has built infill houses in Worthington, German Village, Bexley and on Columbus’s east side. “There are definite logistics—and in some cases nightmares—to deal with,” he says. “There are challenges and you work your way around it, but you always run into something you’ve never seen or heard of before.”
Lot size and even street size make the job of building more difficult in older neighborhoods. In the German Village area, Tuckerman built a home on a lot that was so tight, workers excavating the foundation had to haul all of the dirt to a site in Grove City, then truck it all back in after the land was graded. “There was no room at all to have a stockpile of dirt,” he says. “Not to mention, how do you get a truck with trusses around a German Village street?”
When it came time for Tuckerman and his wife, Connie, to move to a larger home, they considered moving to one of Central Ohio’s newer neighborhoods. But they wanted to stay in Bexley, the suburb where they both grew up and where they had family and friends. “We wanted to be in an established community with great schools and great services,” he says. An additional incentive: Since he typically builds homes in the outer suburbs, Tuckerman wanted to use his drive home to Bexley as a time to decompress.
Seven years ago, the Tuckermans had the chance to purchase a dilapidated Bexley house at a sheriff’s auction. “It was an absolute fluke when it came upon us,” remembers Tuckerman. “We looked at it and said, this is not something we can repair.”
The Tuckermans decided to tear down the house and build their family’s new home on its site—and they chose to give as much back to the community as they could in the process. They asked the Columbus Fire Department to raze the home as a training exercise. They donated items from the old home to Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits. Bexley High School seniors did a class project by assisting during the demolition.
While building his new home, Tuckerman ran into the uncertainties that aging utilities bring to the infill process. His workers tapped into a clay sewage line that he thought might have been 90 years old. Not having the specifics about the line’s age, depth or capabilities made it trickier to install items such as a basement toilet and shower and have them work properly. They even had to string new cable lines because the existing ones were too old to accommodate modern digital cable TV.
Today, the Tuckermans have the home they want, complete with convenient layout, energy efficiency and new appliances, plumbing, wiring and roofing, plus a beautiful exterior that blends into the neighborhood. “We could have built it for a lot less outside of Bexley,” says Tuckerman, “but it was worth it for us.”
Carol Rich is a freelance writer and editor of Builder Update, the official publication of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio.