BY BOB MIODONSKI
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF
WASHINGTON — Aging and upwardly mobile ethnic population shifts are among the factors contributing to "urban infill" — a trend in construction that may spell the end to suburban sprawl.
"This is a trend that's here to stay," consultant Clark Ellis of FMI told members of the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute Oct. 10 during their fall meeting here. "People don't want to travel any farther from home to work. There's a resistance to sprawl; commute time is a key factor."
Urban infill, which FMI defines as the development of underutilized land and buildings in a city or close-in suburb, can include residential or mixed-used projects. Changing family composition and other demographic changes that are fueling this trend include:
- Empty-nesters who don't want to move far away from home;
- People 25 to 35 years of age who have left colleges and professional schools and are making more money than young people in past generations; and
- Upwardly mobile ethnic populations who don't want to move to the suburbs but instead stay in touch with their cultures and families.
Basic consumer preferences such as safety of the community, parking availability, and proximity to retail services such as restaurants, banks, drug stores and dry cleaners are important to all these population groups, Ellis said. Differences among the groups, however, will affect the construction industry.
People ages 55 to 65, for example, want an easily managed floor plan for their homes, which typically means a single level, as well as the availability of significant amenities as options.
"They have disposable income and want to make a statement with high-end kitchens, etc.," Ellis said.
People ages 25 to 35, on the other hand, are more interested in affordability of housing prices, despite their higher incomes. They and upwardly mobile ethnic populations likely will be more interested in attached townhouses vs. a single-family house.
"Attached units will increase 5% to 25% of builder production in the next five years," Ellis said. "All the top 20 builders do some sort of urban building today."
Also driving the urban-infill trend is the availability of space to build, Ellis said. By 2030, the United States will need 427 billion sq. ft. of built space to accommodate projected population growth estimates. Half this space will be constructed between 2000 and 2030.
"Most of this space will be needed for housing," he said. "Meeting and sustaining this growth involves building in central city locations and downtown areas with mixeduse developments. This is a trend that will continue simply because builders can't find land."
Among the challenges facing builders will be managing larger and more sophisticated subcontractors, said FMI consultant John Doherty, who joined Ellis in the presentation.
"In some areas, builders who are used to dealing with nonunion contractors in the suburbs will be dealing with unionized trades," he said. "They need to skill up or bring in people who have those skills."
Builders of urban-infill projects will experience much more interaction with local governments and may have to source unfamiliar materials to comply with building codes for mid- and high-rise buildings, Doherty said. Safely installing these different products as well as packaging, delivering and storing them on jobsites are other issues.
Plumbing manufacturers, he said, should recognize that these projects frequently are a hybrid of commercial and residential jobs. They can partner with builders as they are moving into the urban-infill market as well as proactively work with existing trade contractors to assist their move into urban projects and build relationships with commercial contractors.