As I’ve written before in the book Revitalizing Main Street (National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2009), the design of a new infill building, particularly its front façade, is a special challenge. It should be designed to look appropriate and compatible with surrounding buildings, yet still look like it was built today. While there is no clear blueprint for what new infill should look like, it is generally agreed upon that it should not pretend to be historic by too closely mimicking older facades, but it should be sensitive to the character of its neighbors. This may sound confusing, but if the guidelines below are followed, building owners and architects will be able to have some freedom of design while still respecting the historic integrity of neighboring buildings.
Where I differ from many preservationists, however, is the degree to which a building must look new. Far too often, they insist that there should be no detail or ornamentation whatsoever that might lead laypeople to believe it’s historic. I, on the other hand, believe that a new building can and should play off of building styles already found in the district, as long as a preservation expert with a trained eye can tell the difference. Often something as simple as a datestone can provide that distinguishing factor.
The main factors for infill design are height, width, composition, rhythm, materials, color and setback. If a new building is surrounded by buildings of the same height, the building should be the same height. If the building heights on the block vary, the building should reflect an average of the heights of the buildings directly adjacent to it. In instances where the vacant lot is identical in width to the adjacent buildings on the block, then the new building should fill the entire width of the lot. In some instances, however, multiple buildings in a row have been demolished. If this is the case, then multiple infill buildings should be built, or one building visually separated into multiple parts. Each building or visual part should reflect the width of the adjacent buildings on the block. The composition and rhythm of a façade relate to the organization of its parts (window size and spacing, storefront height, roof and cornice forms, etc.). Each of these elements on new infill construction should relate to that of the surrounding buildings. The examples in this segment are from Madison, Wisconsin.
This building in Madison, Wis. follows the height, massing, setback and rhythm of its neighbors on both sides.
While buildings in any Main Street district were built in an array of different architectural styles, there are surprisingly few different types of original materials used. Brick, stone, and wood are the most common on Main Street, but there are exceptions, such as the use of cararra glass, terra cotta, etc. The materials used in new infill construction should complement the materials found on adjacent buildings. The same is true with the colors of these elements.
This building filled an oddly-shaped lot between a parking garage and a stone/terra cotta building in downtown Madison, Wis., complementing the size and scale of one and the window patterns and materials of the other.
If you walk along any Main Street in any community, chances are most of the buildings were built right up to the sidewalk and right up to the buildings on either side. This is called zero setback. As a result, Main Street developed a so-called “street wall” of buildings, which should always be maintained with any new development.
These buildings, built in the 1980’s, do not fit in context with the surrounding residential neighborhood. They were set back from the street, and neither the style nor the massing took any cues from adjacent buildings.
Following these simple guidelines will help to create a building that fits in well with its surroundings and should stand the test of time as trends change. In the next segment I’ll discuss the design of new stand-alone developments.