When Boston-based CBT Architects was hired to design the redevelopment of the 42-year old Charlesview Apartments in Boston, the building was in complete disrepair.

It had systemic problems and an unsound foundation that had begun to disintegrate, forcing the developers—The Community Builders and Charlesview, Inc.—to relocate and build the affordable housing community anew nearby.

But the redesign wasn’t the hardest part for CBT.

A land-swap deal allotted the redevelopment roughly 18 acres of new space on what originally served as a sprawling shopping center in Brighton, Mass. The large, awkwardly shaped canvas made it difficult to create a typology that felt like a community.

“We didn’t want to replace one big project with another,” says Christopher Hill, CBT partner and design principal for the Charlesview project. Instead, the team ended up creating a brand-new neighborhood and sense of community by building new streets and splitting up the project to include both single-family townhomes and multifamily residences.

The challenging design of the land compelled the team to get creative. But CBT soon found the unwritten beauty in designing with odd footprints: Sometimes they bring out the best in a new project.

Getting Creative
Its odd shape notwithstanding, the new Charlesview parcel was almost a blessing for the architects because of its large size, which made designing the new Charlesview easier than it might have been on a smaller piece of land.

In general, the smaller an unusually shaped site, the more difficult it is to overcome its physical drawbacks. If a parcel is oddly proportioned or narrow, the developer will likely lose a lot of buildable area, more so than a typical square site would.

Nadel Architects knows small spaces all too well, with many of its projects encompassing smaller parcels. The team at the Los Angeles–based firm knows that, in evaluating an unconventionally shaped site, the first thing the developers need to do is check the parking layout.

“Unit layouts in multifamily have quite a bit of flexibility, but parking doesn’t,” says Dale Yonkin, project manager with Nadel. “You’re required to have certain widths, depths, circulations, turns, etc.”

That allotted space for parking can easily cut into living areas. On large sites, one can use a general rule of thumb to determine what the rentable areas and their cost are, based on parking availability. But small sites are limited.

“They’re much less flexible, so that’s often where we start,” Yonkin adds.

That same attention to detail is needed not just when building a project from the ground up, but when rehabilitating an old building, as well. Before Boston-based WinnDevelopment considers transforming a historic mill into lofts, for example, it determines whether the project is worth doing just by looking at the property.

“[Not] all mills are good for housing,” says Adam Stein, vice president of WinnDevelopment. “When we look at mills, existing buildings that you can’t create today, the biggest thing is the floor plan.”

Stein looks at the width of the existing rooms and the placement of columns, in addition to how the windows line up. The width and height of the windows from the floor are important, because the dimensions need to be such that future occupants can operate them.

“If it all makes sense, it leads to housing,” Stein says.

But buildings that are excessively wide—more than 100 feet—make efficient rehabilitation difficult, especially the more rooms a unit has. For that reason, placing windows in every room of a super-wide unit only works well for one-bedrooms or studios, Stein says.

Most mills also have a column grid of about 8 feet, which allows developers to add a kitchen and separate the rooms by inserting partition walls. But tighter column grids can be intrusive, permitting only studio-sized floor plans.

“You can’t change them because they’re historic buildings, which receive historic tax credits,” Stein adds. Iconic Benefits
Despite the challenges, there are a number of benefits in choosing odd sites. For one, they’re often overlooked by other developers.

“Often, people look for easy sites,” Nadel Architects’ Yonkin says. “And the easy site costs more per square foot in the same neighborhood where you might get similar kinds of rents and similar development costs.”

He advocates spending a bit of extra time planning for unusual sites, noting that many developers don’t take the time to devise creative solutions for challenging layouts.

Geometrically, many parcels will work in a developer’s favor if it’s wide and relatively shallow. In such an arrangement, more units will face the street, a preferable alternative to having them look out on adjacent sites or side yards. And with shallow units, the window placement will let in more light and exposure than deeper units might.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of dealing with an awkward site is the creativity—and exclusivity—it can spawn.

“It often forces people to create more iconic massing of the building that’s way more memorable and interesting … with higher rents and more prestige,” ­Yonkin says. “Think the Flatiron Building in New York. It separates you from competitors with sites with usual shapes.”