Preservation ABCs: I is for Infill

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.


I is for Infill

Randolph, Vermont. The three story brown building with the white cornice and tallest parapet is new construction, replacing a building block that burned. This building is an infill development.

Infill can refer to replacing a previous building that was demolished or filling a previously empty lot. Whether the building removed was historic or not, whether the lot was occupied or free of structures, when considering new structures in a historic district or adjacent to historic properties, what goes in that lot is just as important as (or sometimes more important than) what was previously there. Infill is about appropriate, complementary architecture. Infill does not have to be nondescript and completely subservient to existing structures, but it should not confuse historic and new development, nor should it detract from the integrity of a historic structure. It can take cues from the existing architecture, in terms of massing, materials, height, street frontage, etc.

Why do historic preservationists care about new structures? Simply stated, new structures have the power to affect the historic integrity of the surrounding historic environment. In the historic preservation field, we talk about existing structures and the seven characteristics that comprise historic integrity. One of those characteristics is setting. Setting illustrates place, its visual elements telling the story of a place. If a building’s surroundings are altered and the result is incompatible with the historic resources, then the integrity of those resources is diminished.

Imagine a strip mall or big box drug store (or chain restaurant, etc) replacing a three story brick building block in town, or being constructed adjacent to one, even just outside a historic district. Generally speaking, this would not be compatible. A downtown building block will have sidewalks and street parking perhaps, whereas a big box drug store most often has a large parking lot and a standard corporate image to its construction.

Appropriate infill allows our environment to be cohesive. It considers each place individually and allows that location to retain its visual integrity, which fosters sense-of-place. A good sense of place improves people’s appreciation of the environment, interaction with surroundings, and the livability of a community.