Infill Capital of North America: Calgary vs Nashville

For decades now, I thought Calgary was the infill capital of North America.  This belief comes not from any scientific-based research but rather from wandering the inner city streets of Austin, Denver, Chicago, San Diego, Montreal, Ottawa, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and several other cities over the past decade.  And in that time, I have not seen anything that compares to Calgary’s plethora of new homes being built in Calgary’s established communities. 

To be clear, I am not talking about infill condos but infill single family, duplex, triplex and row housing. 

New infill homes homes in Nashville's City Centre are very popular.

New infill homes homes in Nashville's City Centre are very popular.

It was surprising how many of the infill homes didn't have garages in Nashville and if they did often is was just a single car garage. 

It was surprising how many of the infill homes didn't have garages in Nashville and if they did often is was just a single car garage. 

At least, that’s what I thought, until I went to Nashville!

After spending three days at the lovely Omni Hotel in the heart of downtown Nashville, we moved to an Airbnb in the trendy 12 South district, situated about 4 km from downtown. Across the street was a lovely new, two-story, single-family house while two doors down was an infill duplex not unlike what we would see in Calgary’s Altadore or Parkdale communities. 

Skinny Homes

Who knew I had chosen an Airbnb in the infill epicentre of Nashville! Not only were there new infill homes on almost every block, but the back lanes were filled with what they call “guest homes.”  Most often these homes were built above the garage but in some cases they were completely independent homes.  

Nashville’s infill homes are known locally as “Tall Skinnys,” which was in fact what the earlier Calgary infills were often called.  While Calgary’s infill housing dates back to the late ‘80s, in Nashville it is a relatively new phenomenon starting around 2010. 

However – and not surprisingly - communities there are protesting how infills are negatively changing the architecture of the communities.  In true southern style, attractive early and mid-century brick, colonial and craftsman homes with lovely big porches on huge lots (it is not uncommon for lots to be 100 by 200 feet) populate Nashville’s established communities.  

It is vastly different from the cookie-cutter homes that were built in the ‘40s ‘50s and ‘60s in Calgary’s inner city.

An example of a large corner lot with three houses (one old and two new) with room still lots of grass. Note: no sidewalk. 

An example of a large corner lot with three houses (one old and two new) with room still lots of grass. Note: no sidewalk. 

An older duplex with the umbilical cord attachment between the two new houses. 

An older duplex with the umbilical cord attachment between the two new houses. 

As I wandered, I also noticed many of the new infill houses had strange connections between them, including one that looked like a +15 bridge.  

I later learned a previous building code required some kind of attachment between the two dwellings on the same lot, leading to small shared walls nicknamed “umbilical cords.”

Fortunately, the city has cut the “umbilical cord” and they are no longer required.

In the 12 South community, a new heritage bylaw no longer allows developers to demolish an old house. Instead, they have to renovate and incorporate it into the new larger home which often becomes a duplex with one home facing the street and one the back alley.  In some cases, three homes can be squeezed onto a corner lot.

Construction of two houses on one lot, one at the front and one in the back.  Note there are no basements in most Nashville homes. 

Construction of two houses on one lot, one at the front and one in the back.  Note there are no basements in most Nashville homes. 

An older home being renovated with the addition of second floor and new home at the back. 

An older home being renovated with the addition of second floor and new home at the back. 

Nashville back alley home.

Nashville back alley home.

Design

Nashville’s skinnys are also made to appear skinnier by design elements that accentuate the vertical nature of the homes.  Most have steep pitched, gabled roofs. The siding is often installed vertically rather than horizontally creating an even more of a sense of height.

This could easily be in any one of dozens of Calgary's inner-city communities, but this is in Nashville's 12 South District. 

This could easily be in any one of dozens of Calgary's inner-city communities, but this is in Nashville's 12 South District. 

Some have both a porch and balcony above, resulting in pillars or posts that give the home’s façade a more vertical thrust.  

For some reason, almost all homes in Nashville are built several feet above the roadway even though they don’t have basements. 

In effect, this can add another half story to the house, creating a taller effect.

New homes at the front and at the back of the lot create four new homes on one large lot.

New homes at the front and at the back of the lot create four new homes on one large lot.

Vertical siding is also quite common in Nashville.

Vertical siding is also quite common in Nashville.

It is very common to have a few step at the sidewalk to get up to the front lawn and then more steps at the house help enhance the image of a tall skinny house.

It is very common to have a few step at the sidewalk to get up to the front lawn and then more steps at the house help enhance the image of a tall skinny house.

Strangest Infill Project Ever

We love to get off the beaten path, which one day included a bus transfer in the Gulch community (aka Calgary’s East Village) where we decided to wander a bit before catching the next bus. 

Crossing under an overpass, we encountered the strangest City Centre infill project I have ever seen. It was a completely new subdivision with tiny identical homes on huge lots, all with manicured lawns, no fences and not a person in sight.  It was a surreal, pastoral suburban-looking community sitting just blocks away from new highrises.  Turns out it is a public housing project that replaced an older inner-city apartment project.

It seemed such a waste of land in the middle of the city.

New City Centre infill community in Nashville.  You can see the new condo and office cranes in the distance. Nashville has nothing to compare to Calgary's mega East Village, Currie or University District urban villages. 

New City Centre infill community in Nashville.  You can see the new condo and office cranes in the distance. Nashville has nothing to compare to Calgary's mega East Village, Currie or University District urban villages. 

Calgary: Still The Reigning Infill Capital

Since 2012, 4,876 new infill homes (single and duplex) have been built in Calgary. By the end of September 2017, already 659 new infill homes have been built or are under construction. 

Altadore leads the way with 421 new infills, followed by Killarney/Glengarry (368), Mount Pleasant (346), Richmond (229) and West Hillhurst (208).

Wandering more streets in other communities around Nashville’s City Centre, it was obvious that while infill housing is happening in all of its established communities, 12 South is the epicentre. 

I contacted Craig Owensby, Nashville’s Planning Department’s Public Information Officer to see if I could get similar stats for Nashville, but unfortunately they don’t keep records of infill development as a separate sub-category for new builds.

So while Nashville indeed has a very active infill housing market, is not nearly as old, widespread or vibrant as Calgary’s.  So, in my opinion, Calgary remains the “Infill Capital of North America.”

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Homes section on Saturday, November 25, 2017.  

Calgary's inner-city communities were dominated by these small single story homes on 50 by 120 foot lots until the 1980s when new infill homes started to become popular. 

Calgary's inner-city communities were dominated by these small single story homes on 50 by 120 foot lots until the 1980s when new infill homes started to become popular. 

This street in Parkdale is on the block immediately west of the one above. It is lined with new infills that illustrate the diversity of infill designs that can be found in Calgary.

This street in Parkdale is on the block immediately west of the one above. It is lined with new infills that illustrate the diversity of infill designs that can be found in Calgary.

This is a street in Calgary's Hillhurst community, it looked like a suburban parade of show homes when I took the photo a few years ago. These homes are very popular with young families, which helps to revitalize established communities, creating a healthy inner-city. Today, even in a recession there are new infill homes being built on almost every other block in all established communities within 5 to 10 km of downtown. 

This is a street in Calgary's Hillhurst community, it looked like a suburban parade of show homes when I took the photo a few years ago. These homes are very popular with young families, which helps to revitalize established communities, creating a healthy inner-city.

Today, even in a recession there are new infill homes being built on almost every other block in all established communities within 5 to 10 km of downtown.