Developing / Small infill houses from longtime residential developers
Two recent projects embody new trends in Buffalo residential real estate
A West Side infill project
Photo by kc kratt
Two recent projects embody several trends in Buffalo residential real estate: infill, small houses, accessibility, and extreme energy efficiency. The first is on a side street west of Richmond, where a small but stylish house rises from a vacant lot.
Developer Tim Sick clarifies that this small house is not a “tiny house.” Tiny houses often sacrifice amenities, such as driveways and parking. This house has both, as well as a backyard and front porch. It also has plenty of room for an extensive garden in front, thanks to a pre-Green Code setback required by the city. Tiny houses are usually under 1,000 square feet, but this house is about 1,250.
Inside the West Side infill project—developer Tim Sick at top, left
Although noticeably smaller than the classic doubles on either side, the house stylishly complements the architecture of the block, with one big difference: the south side has far more extensive glazing than the north side. Inside, the effect of those south-facing windows enhances both lighting and heating. In the summer, the hot sun high overhead will be largely blocked by overhanging eaves, and the working transoms will provide cross-ventilation. Less window area on the north side provides space for bookshelves, living room furniture, and kitchen cabinets.
Although not net-zero, this house is designed for extreme energy efficiency, literally from the ground up. The thick, insulated concrete-form foundation adds thermal mass and incorporates a radiant heating system. That does the bulk of the heating but can be supplemented with central heat. Windows are R-50 aluminum-clad wood. The walls are framed with two-by-six lumber, enabling super-insulation. Sick expects heating and cooling to cost less than forty dollars per month.
Sick takes great pride in the home’s accessibility features, which include three accessible entrances, including rear porch access from the master bedroom and a roll-in roll-out downstairs bathroom. Both Sick and Sal Zambito, his development partner and life partner, have experience with mobility-challenged family members. They also have enough experience with Buffalo real estate to know that few existing homes, except in multiunit buildings, are accessible. Many have been made marginally so only through clunky and unsightly retrofits like porch ramps and stairway elevators. Accessibility is rarely designed-in, as it was in the first floor of this house from the beginning. The developers planned a comfortable living space for a household with a disabled member, perhaps a veteran, for whom suitable housing can be hard to find in the city. The design also supports the trend of aging in place.
Exterior and interior renderings of the finished WS house
Sick takes inspiration from the narrow houses he’s seen at Huntington Beach, commenting, “They’re sixteen feet wide—that’s crazy!” Sick has a design background, and worked closely with TRM Architecture principal Matthew Moscati, whose enthusiasm over the project inspired him to become an investor.
The final choice of amenities, colors, and finishes for the house is to be determined by the buyer. Contractor JRB Construction specializes in accessibility and is incorporating salvage material, including doors from the demolished Broderick Park Inn.
Sick and Zambito are using this house as a prototype and expect to keep tweaking the design with each iteration. “We’re going to get this perfect,” Sick asserts. “We want to design the most comfortable, accessible house.” The developer has plans for another infill project several blocks away. Over the years, Sick and Zambito have accumulated a dozen lots in the Elmwood Village and elsewhere; eventually, they plan to infill all of them, but not all with small houses. It will depend on the existing housing stock nearby.
A rendering of the Linwood project
The Linwood project
To date, infill is generally welcomed by neighbors and applauded by the community, but perhaps the most notable exception in recent memory is a project at the corner of Linwood and Delavan, the site of another infill house from Sick and Zambito. Initially, the pair proposed a one-story house for this location—a buildable lot where a craftsman-style house burned down years ago—and planned to live there. One story was all they needed, and they proposed a house that took cues from Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style, but could be squeezed onto a lot just twenty-three feet wide. The single-story would allow the two-story house next door to retain its views of Forest Lawn.
Things seemed on track, until the house next door went up for sale. The new owner was adamantly opposed to their project and fought it during the permitting process. Because Linwood is a local preservation district, the developers had to obtain preservation board approval. It took nearly four years, and several redesigns, but finally a daunting series of hurdles was cleared. Taking substantial design cues from the house that once occupied the site, the new structure is now planned to be a two-and-a-half story double. The developers now own several other lots in the adjoining Oxford Square neighborhood, where increasing real estate values in the neighborhood make it feasible to build additional infill houses.
As the reurbanization of Buffalo continues, infill, small-is-beautiful, extreme energy efficiency, and accessibility are the trends to watch.
Alan Oberst writes on development for Spree and Buffalo Rising.