The 9 Principals of Incremental Development

In Michigan, we are working toward a more generative real estate model where local people can invest in their own neighborhoods and create new life and value that benefits their community. At the Incremental Development Alliance, we follow and teach nine principles that projects are benefiting both the developer and the community.

  1. Commit yourself to a place you love and that needs you

At IncDev, we say “Find Your Farm,” meaning find a place that you can get to know intimately, that can provide you a livelihood, and that you love enough to improve over the years. Your projects should both enrich the soil (i.e. strengthen your place) and satisfy a market. Time is your friend because each new project you grow benefits the existing ones. Staying in one place gives you invaluable expertise about what grows well and where.

Having a sense of purpose in development is wind in your sails. When you become known to your neighbors as someone who is truly committed to the place you live, warts and all, you will start to attract information, opportunities, and allies that were not obvious at the outset. By putting a physical signal out there - like a building - that you care about a place and believe it is worthy of investment, you may inspire such loyalty in others too. This powerful flywheel effect underpins a city’s strength through hard times and your commitment helps get that wheel turning.


2. take the next smallest step

Achieving a goal one small step at a time is not only practical, it’s smart. No one can be certain if a business will survive, if construction will stay on budget, or what you’ll uncover behind the walls of a 100-year-old building. By taking the smallest step you can in the right direction, you minimize your risk of cataclysmic loss while gaining intelligence to guide decisions when the stakes are higher. For example, when a retail store begins as a market stall or pop-up shop, it gains crucial information about business operations with little overhead liability. It can then make smarter choices about the amount, type, and location of building it can afford when ready to grow.

In development, it’s tempting to think in terms of the full build-out. We envision beautiful watercolor plans of our neighborhoods and HGTV-worthy interiors in our buildings. In reality, the best blocks and buildings are not built to 100% completeness from the outset. They need the chance to learn from their inhabitants and adapt to new circumstances. There is deep intelligence baked into things that grow incrementally; you can tap into it by taking small steps.

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3. Learn the rules so you can maximize the opportunity within them

There are a lot of rules governing development; they are entangled and arcane. This unfortunate circumstance often results in one of two reactions: a) despair and conviction that the process is too torturous to get anything done; or b) an attempt to ignore the rules and build something anyway. The first reaction kills a project before a shovel hits the ground and the second may lead to a very short career as a developer.

While we work with cities all over the country to assess where rules may be unnecessarily burdensome, we also believe that enforcing limits leads to creativity. Finding or inventing opportunity within the rules means that you can avoid a prolonged approvals process and antagonism with city staff. Your project also becomes more adaptable and ready-to-grow when you have nothing to hide. First, it’s important to learn the rules by letter and intent. When you understand those thresholds and boundaries, you can avoid danger and discover useful code-hacks.


4. Focus on building a stronger neighborhood, one building at a time.

Even if you only have one project in mind, you will benefit from an attitude that holds what is good for the neighborhood is good for you. When your focus is on filling gaps and creating value in your neighborhood, you’ll find that your work punches above its weight. This is not only a credit to you, but the momentum generated by neighborhood-focused projects creates the opportunity for bigger and better things.

Developers with a long term commitment to building a better neighborhood also find the freedom to think holistically about their work. Not every project needs to be a grand slam when you measure yourself on the sum of investments all working together. This kind of attitude is also an insurance policy. Even if you develop something that falls short of your financial goals, you’ll still have improved your neighborhood, strengthening your other projects, your reputation, and the local momentum to do more.


5. Build in rectangles that can adapt and improve over time

Deploying the humble rectangle is one of the surest ways to save expense and headache on a building project. It is also the core geometry of incremental development. The rectangle is the most forgiving and flexible of building layouts. Rectangular spaces are easiest to build, grow, subdivide, roof, repair, furnish. They can be organized efficiently and elegantly on standard rectangular building lots. While an obvious choice, it can be tempting to deviate from the rectangle into trendy or unique-looking shapes. We do not recommend it without caution and experience.

One can rarely predict how a building will be used over the long term but building in rectangular units allows for it to adapt and age well. Designing in rectangles is designing for change.


6. Opt for cozy and human over large and luxury

There is something about smallness that people love, whether babies, animals, trinkets, or spaces. You can use this to your advantage to create wonderfully enticing spaces with a reasonable budget. Square footage can be a real trap in development; don’t let it be your selling feature. Instead, recognize what architect Steve Mouzon calls the Teddy Bear Principle, “which basically states that the smaller something gets, the more charming and lovable it becomes.”

Teddy Bear advantages reach beyond marketability. There is a true economy to designing buildings on a small scale, including savings on materials and mechanical systems. On the other hand, when you are creating and conditioning a small space, you can afford to opt for higher quality finishes and components. People may be impressed by large spaces, but they prefer to live in small ones. When it comes to smart, frugal, cozy design, Danish architect Jan Gehl has good advice: “Whenever in doubt, leave some space out.”


7. Employ, support, and partner with locals, creating stewards of the neighborhood

You cannot do this alone. Even in the best-case scenario where you create wonderful, income-producing buildings, you still need great tenants to bring them to life. Fortunately, developing buildings requires developing relationships. Be intentional about lifting up locals in that process and you’ll gradually build an army of people with a shared interest in protecting and promoting your neighborhood.

If your projects employ your neighbors, they will do what they can to ensure you’re successful. If you help neighboring businesses become owner-occupants of their own buildings, they’ll be eyes on the street, protecting your investment as well as their own. If you are a team player with local changemakers, you’ll tap into a network of people who can be friends and allies through the inevitable bumps along your way.


8. Right-size regulation and re-legalize time honored buildings

For many reasons and over many decades, building regulations have diverged from the realities of small-scale developers. These rules may work for large scale subdivisions or apartment blocks built quickly by huge development outfits, but small-scale infill by your neighbor with a hammer has completely different needs. Right-sizing regulation is essential if we want local developers with a community-building business model. This does not mean de-regulation, it means matching the scale of regulation to the scale of the project. A small developer cannot afford to hire a team of consultants to build the most basic improvement to their block, so simple projects should have similarly simple, inexpensive, and accessible approvals.

A core undertaking in right-sizing is recognizing which projects should be simple, a process which we believe starts with tradition. All across America, classic building types emerged because they are practical, affordable, lovable, and adaptable. Recent decades have outlawed many of these building types in favour of single-use single-unit buildings. Re-legalizing hardworking buildings like live-works and multi-plexes (mansion apartments) and backyard cottages would unlock entrepreneurial opportunity and housing capacity across the nation.


9. Build things that give more than they take

Your buildings must earn their keep to you and the community if you want them to survive. This means they need to cash flow and not cause you so much distress that you conclude it’s not worth it. Despite some inevitable rough patches, your projects should become a source of pride, security, or satisfaction.

Giving more to the community than you take is about priorities. Spend your time and money on the parts of your project that most affect the public. Your street-facing façades should look great even if that means a lower budget for the rear. People who interact with your building should feel glad it’s there. You can achieve this in thousands of ways from flowers to funny signs, craftsmanship to affordable space. The way you choose to give more than you take is like your signature as a developer. When multiplied and scaled up, this is how whole neighborhoods and cities create a sense of place.