The Holy Grail of Urban Infill: Our Unreasonable Quest for Lots of Cheap, Cool Square Feet

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We want so bad to believe that we can have it all—a cool design with lots of space, for not a lot of money. But we can’t have it all.

So says Kansas City architect Dan Maginn over at GOOD. While not being too serious about it, I’ve explored building a new home in St. Louis City over the past couple years. I was looking for something simple, you know, about 2,000 square feet, a two-car garage, ability to finish the basement, three bedrooms, two and a half baths, maybe an extra bedroom to use as an office…oh, and if it could be “green” that would be swell. My budget? Oh, no more than $125 per square foot. Maybe it’s no wonder I’m still looking.

Interest in city living, calling a more urban environment home, is apparently on the rise (if you listen to urban pundits – and they’re most likely right to some degree), but the suburbs and demand for square feet isn’t going anywhere. Of course I could have had my new home with some compromises. Sage Homebuilders were doing some good work, but most on larger, custom homes. They came close with their duplex townhomes in Tower Grove South and 3327 Gustine is currently on the market at $299,000. And EcoUrban Homes had a couple great projects, but not in the neighborhoods we hoped to live.


{Sage Homebuilder’s project on Gustine Avenue-photo courtesy of Circa Properties}


{EcoUrban’s single-family home on Pennsylvania Avenue-photo courtesy of EcoUrban Homes}

I’m currently in 1,950 square feet with a very large two-car garage and basement that can’t be finished. There are three bedrooms and one and a half baths. It feels small. With the right design it could feel larger I’m sure. So I’m exploring another option, a gut rehab of a vacant home. The main problem? The new home lists at 1,800 square feet and I’m having a hard time envisioning “downsizing”.

All of this to highlight the fact that urban living requires choices be made up front while many suburban externalities come only after the fact: you purchase a large home, great yard, nice neighbors, right price…and then you have to endure the 40 minute commute, the 20 minute drive to soccer practice, chain restaurants, etc.

Maginn implores that “if you’re one of the thousands of everyday folks that doesn’t have a ton of dough, but still wants a cool house to live in, start by thinking hard about how big a house you actually, truly, absolutely, definitely need.” If this has proven so difficult for me, I imagine it’s a significant barrier to those considering city living. For places like St. Louis to attract and retain young professionals, families and others, a diversity in housing options and a shift in our expectations must take place.

The post at GOOD is the first of a four-part series. Click here to follow the series.

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