There are not many things that get me more excited than urban infill development… a competitive game of bocce ball on a nice summer afternoon might be something.  A local microbrew in hand on a rooftop patio with a setting sun and good company could be another.  But urban infill development… oh yeah… Love it!
A place to look for great infill examples is Philadelphia, PA, where chances are you’ll find Onion Flats developers lurking around some decayed factory…. This group has breathed fresh air into several neighborhoods by buying up properties that other developers wouldn’t drive by in their BMW X5’s, and turning them into contemporary models for sustainable living.

Pictured below is their E Flats project, which is integrated into a neighborhood of traditional row homes that are oh so prevalent in Philly.


Here’s a shot of the interior… gorgeous minimal space.

And how about using your rooftop as a place to kick it with friends?  Damn skippy!

Like I briefly hinted at above, urban infill development really is at the heart of ‘going green’.  It’s about taking coal and turning it into a gem…. It’s about bringing beauty and life to areas that are left for dead.  This in turn rewards not only a specific property, but entire communities.  People begin to see these older neglected neighborhoods as a hip place to be and bring fresh energy and innovative ideas… and obviously building on a previously developed site, opposed to virgin lands, gains you good karma from Mother Earth.

Let’s take a gander at another Onion Flats development, the Rag Flats.

Here is the before shot… the site used to house an industrial rag factory.  It is now the home to a residential garden community.  Check this thang out!

Yeah… that’s sick!  Another angle…

Incredible transformation!… but what about on-site renewable energy?

Gotcha covered… rooftop solar installation, no big deal.

Here’s another fun one… an old firehouse-turned-residence. Top is a picture of the exterior, very conspicuous…. interior pictured below, not so much.

And speaking of interiors, the Onion crew has done an incredible job of preserving a lot of the architectural integrity of the existing buildings, designing custom spaces that would be impossible to create with solely new materials.  The next couple images are from the Capital Flats.  Keep your eyelids peeled for the mixture of old and new.

What’s in store for the folks at Onion Flats with their many layers?  You know, continuing to take over Philadelphia with epic, inspiring projects, like the Thin Flats and New Market, respectively.  Both under construction now.

So what can we learn from this Fishtown crew?  How about that high density, low budgets, and difficult sites can be opportunities for good design instead of obstacles…. and borrowing the motto from Blu Dot furniture… Good design is good.


About Joshua Foss

Joshua is a leading voice for transformational change. He is the editor of Metro Hippie, co-founder and director of development of the Ecala Group, and adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is also an ambassador for the Living Building Challenge and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, trade shows and summits.