The New Incrementalism

The latest design trend appears to be designing a place to be realized in very gradual stages. Not in terms of planning for phases of development pods, built-out in a predetermined sequence, but about individual lots changing — evolving — over time. Very rarely now are we designing to build immediately for a project’s absolute highest and best use or, as Nathan Norris calls it, its “climax condition.” This new incrementalism focuses on how lots change — how they’re built upon and reconfigured over time before, ahem, reaching their climax.

I see this slow urbanism as having three typologies, based on time, from less permanent to more permanent structures:

1. Blow-up architecture: A movable, removable or deflatable architecture that is the most temporary of any building type. While it may last too many years for its neighbors, the tent, mobile trailer, and inflatable jumpy are easily put up and removed with very little regard for site preparation, such as grading, and utilities beyond an extension cord. Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi Avenue Market Place is a favorite of John Anderson, of Anderson+Kim in Chico, California. Tom Weigle of TownMakers has built a successful business model around his temporary Market Hall project first set up in Hercules, California.

Market Hall (Image courtesy of Tom Weigel)

2. A Movable Feast: The pre-fab shipping container, or modular construction type, is built to last but is able to be picked up and moved from place to place as needed. Seaside, Florida, has relied on this increment of urbanism for its 30 years. Once it’s time to build a permanent structure, the modular unit is ‘picked up’ with a forklift, crane or truck, and moved to another site to live another life. The well-known Katrina Cottage is the love child of this construct.

Montgomery, Alabama, has some great examples to learn from these days. The Tipping Point restaurant in the village of Hampstead is a simple yet beloved place. A coffee shop, restaurant, bar and entertainment joint, it will one day be moved to allow for a multi-storied, mixed-use development that simply cannot be financed today. In downtown Montgomery, Development Director Chad Emerson assembled a small, temporary green fronted by modular retail units on the corner of a large, vacant, redevelopment site. This temporary shopping green has been successful enough to attract developer interest.

The Tipping Point at Hampstead in Montgomery, Alabama.

3. Tear down that bearing wall, Mr. Gorbachev: Architects Steve Mouzon, from Miami, and Ted Smith, of San Diego, have been proponents of ‘Grow’ or ‘Go’ homes for several years. Their initial buildings are modest and configured with the intent of adding to them as their uses, needs and intensities change over time. The idea of building a structure to be torn down and replaced by a comparable one isn’t an economic reality anymore unless land cost is not an issue. And, of course, recycling a building and its material would be the most long-term type of incremental building.

Being a professional throughout the duration of Alan Greenspan’s career, I really didn’t become fully aware of an ‘incremental’ building perspective until 2005 as a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism team that worked on the Mississippi Gulf Coast immediately after Hurricane Katrina. The Katrina Cottages were designed with the intent of re-inhabiting the lot immediately… with the understanding that it might be years before the climax building condition would occur. With today’s economy swirling the air with uncertainty, more and more projects have some sort of incremental element to them, with Katrina Cottages popping up all over the place.

The Daybreak, Utah, sales center.

Howard Blackson

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  1. This is interesting and useful, but I suggest that the wider or further-reaching aspect is strategic. Think about the level of commitment required by each “increment.” It’s not really incremental at all. Something that is incremental is still on a linear track, whereas these maneuvers serve to keep the maximum number of options open as long as possible. It’s like a decision tree, in which each decision moves you from the trunk to a branch to a twig. Looking from the twig back it looks linear, but that’s only because you don’t see the choices not taken.

    So I would suggest that the three real characteristics are keeping options open, limited capital cost, and the general idea of proving-by-doing rather than by meeting certain formulas. For example, if the Tipping Point succeeds, it’s success can presumably be used to get a loan without having to meet more conventional loan criteria.

  2. In addition to the examples Howard listed, the incremental approach can be extended to quarter block and full block projects comprised of multiple small buildings. Building with finer-grain pieces to create a larger aggregate reduces the initial construction cost and risk of a betting on large buildings..

  3. I like the idea of an incremental approach to development in some cases, and I’ve been seeing this more and more. I didn’t realize it was becoming a thing until I read this. But I’ll be less convinced of its practicality until we can see the results of a project’s final development, if that is ever realized. When I think of incremental development I always thought of one large master project that is constructed in phases over the years. But with this incrementalism, the final design and climax of the project is not necessarily known. The examples look more like holistic approaches to design, where the use is defined but the climax will only be known until it finally gets there.

    It’s an approach that suggests that people will eventually upgrade/expand on their homes or businesses, but that’s where my concern starts. It seems a lot like buying a cheaper starter or project home where you fix it up over the years you live in it. But then there is the chance that nothing ever changes while people get comfortable with what they have. And on a development scale, how do you upgrade/expand if not all tenants are ready for the change?

  4. Kennith,

    The usual way in the past has been to keep the development pressure on. That is, towns became cities because proximity was in demand. Of course now the jury is out as to whether proximity can ever be in such demand again. We can build walkable urbanism, but it’s not clear that we can rebuild the underlying economic conditions that engendered it in the first place.

  5. Well, right. This is, traditionally, how cities grew. Midtown Manhattan was predominantly single-family residential at one point.

    But in order to get to this ability you need to abolish Euclidean zoning. Without that you’re just adding more phases or “pods”; the point we built out at single-family, the upzone to multifamily, the upzone to mid-rise, the upzone to high-rise.

    But then again, your “final” building typology is an expandable cottage. I’ve long been a proponent of this building type, but if you hold lowrise stickbuilt construction as “final buildout” then you’re not really getting outside the master-planned community box, you’re just adding some low-level interstitial steps. In the end you still get people driving past neighborhood after neighborhood of restricted single-family to get from their affordable house to their job – the status quo, in other words.

  6. Honestly, I’m only recognizing and writing aloud about a trend I see and the limited way I’m thinking about how to approach incremental building. The successes in Montgomery, AL and Mississippi’s Katrina Cottages have mostly shaped my thinking, but Tom Weigle’s Market Hall incubator development model is the most intentional approach I’ve seen. Tom is fully capable of being an owner/operator of a temporary Market Hall (mixed-use sans-residential) in order to secure land, prior to entitlements, and building political will for a future mixed-use block/buildings. I appreciate the comments above as I’m learning too.

  7. PlaceMakers says

    Interested in digging deeper into these cottage ideas? Check out these webinar conversations with Ben Brown and Bruce Tolar and also with Bruce Tolar and Ross Chapin.


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