Skip to content

How to urban plan with TestFit

Written by:

Urban planning is crucial for real estate developers and cities alike to understand how a site will be developed and monetized over the next 10+ years. 

As an architect, how do you solve for multiple sites? How do you cope with design changes and iterations? How do you make sure you’re meeting density goals & parking requirements? If you’re anything like I was in my previous life as a Project Designer at an architecture firm, it involves a lot of hand-sketching and a helluva lot of rework.  

Here at TestFit, architects often come to us looking to solve 4-6 parcel sites that work from both a physical and financial point of view with real-time takeoffs. In this article, we’re going to cover exactly how to tackle this problem.

Figure 1.0: Live tabulations of the site

The 78

We’re going to go to a favorite site of my colleague’s in Chicago that has been slated for redevelopment for many years. The site is a massive park on the river near the United Center stadium.

Figure 2.0: Our proposed site in the South Loop of Chicago

A few important caveats before we get started:

  • This plan was done in 30 minutes; it is by no means a perfect urban plan. However, it does show you how quickly a detailed layout can be created with takeoffs, net rentable, parking ratios, and more with instant design iteration. TestFit’s Manual Mode allows you to further tweak those design details towards a truly perfect master plan. 
  • To keep it simple we’re going to ignore the train for now. 
  • Some people prefer working from inside of the site, outward; for this how-to, we’ll be working from the outside of the site, in, starting with site context! 

Let’s dive in 🤿.

1. Context, context, context

When we look at the surrounding area, we can see some major retail north of the site. So we’ll provide commercial connection along that edge. Using our institutional knowledge, we’ll use offices as anchor tenants for this space as we know they are heavily in demand in this region in Chicago.

Figure 3.0: Building context

There’s also a transit hub nearby, so we’ll build in some high-density housing with one of the mixed-use buildings at the top.

Figure 4.0: Measurement tool

Let’s also plan for a few approved developments planned nearby that we’ll need to consider.

Figure 5.0: Proposed buildings in massing mode

2. Wide open spaaacesssss

Whether it’s going to be on this urban plan or an adjacent site, open spaces are at the top of the list when planning public spaces. In order to preserve Chicago’s long history of public green space near waterways such as the park spaces along Lake Michigan, we’re going to make sure we offset our roadways from the river.

Figure 6.0: Existing waterway

You can also use the roads editor (which we’ll get to below) to add more green spaces by simply changing your presets.

3. Roads

All great urban plans typically start with a framework aka roads. As you know, framework gets you really thinking about how all the sites are connected and how you’re going to grow it. What’s great about TestFit is we can update that framework instantly. This process traditionally is very cumbersome with many revisions required, especially if you have to go back to redo the roads once you’ve started to work on your density. 

We’re going to use TestFit’s roads tool to start from larger, boundary roads, and move in. As you can see below, we’re outlining the site with larger avenues and smaller streets.  , Using the “Sections” menu on the left-hand side, simply select the type of road you want, and draw it in the viewer window. Intersections are automatically created. Simple in TestFit. Not so simple by hand.

Figure 7.0: Creating the site with boundary roads

Next, we’re going to program the site with a few retail anchor tenants accessed by secondary roads as you can see below.

Figure 8.0: Creating secondary roads with TestFit’s street tool

TestFit’s “Roads Editor” allows you to create custom streets sections and other accessories like on-street parking.  Bike lanes allow tenants to enjoy the outdoors, the great river, and the close car-free transit options. Parking is of course always a biggie and we’ll get to that in our individual sites shortly.

Figure 9.0: Adding on street parking, sidewalks, & bike lanes

Pst: If your client / traffic engineer / civil engineer / the city has critical feedback after traffic analysis, roads are simple to change WITHOUT killing your buildings. The buildings will simply adjust, maintaining your desired inputs. Setback and buffer adjustments are similarly adjustable.. Ask us about a demo today to see it for yourself.

We’re placing a few final roads using our lanes and alleys in the “Roads” tool and our sites are now defined:

Figure 10.0: Adding lanes and alleys with TestFit’s Roads tool

For more information on roads, including curved roads and more, check out our Knowledge Base article.

4. Building Time 😎

We’re going to pop some buildings onto each of the sites and then play with building typologies to get as close as possible to our feasibility study. All sites auto-populate with a 5-story wrap but can be changed to any topology desired.

Figure 11.0: Preliminary building inputs on our chosen sites

Site A

As previously mentioned, we planned for commercial space for the top half of the site. For Site A, we’ll start with office space using the “Site Type Selector”. Office space near the urban core of Chicago has historically been a solid move, but with unforeseen circumstances like COVID variants, we need an easy way to cycle through typologies or compare different schemes. Luckily, that’s exactly the kind of flexibility TestFit provides.

Figure 12.0: Generating an office building using the core-based buildings site type

We’re going to increase the height of our office building and check out some of the tabulations available. 

Fig 13.0: Takeoffs available from our full-height office building

For more information on TestFit outputs, check out our Knowledge Base article.

Site B

Moving on to  Site B, we’re going to provide a mixed-use tower with retail, office, and multifamily residential. As we really just want a sense of space here, we’re going to play with TestFit’s massing mode (select “Mass-Based Buildings” from the “Site Type dropdown”). Voids, setbacks, program by level, etc, can all be adjusted in real-time. In the end, we settled on multi-level car parking on the first couple of levels, retail on the next level, office levels, then multifamily at the top. We decided on retail above grade as the roadways are actually elevated around it. Check out our real-time decision-making based on some of our research and institutional knowledge around the site.

Figure 14.0: Conceptualizing a mixed-use tower featuring parking, retail, office & multifamily

We’re going to build up this building, using more voids and offsets to create an amenity deck, as shown below.

Figure 15.0: Amenity deck and setbacks added to multifamily portion of tower

Under “Building Input”, we’ve set the efficiency to 80% for our multifamily section of this tower, with a 780’ unit average for Chicago’s hot market. We’re going to adjust our parking requirements to 1 stall per unit as the building is close to public transport. You can see from the red text at the bottom right-hand corner that this scheme still does not meet the parking requirements for this site. We’ll need to continue working with the inputs to find a valid output. TestFit’s real-time feedback makes this quick and easy.

Figure 16.0: Playing with TestFit inputs in mass-based buildings

For more information on mass-based buildings, please check out our Knowledge Base article.

Site C

For Site C, we’re going to switch to the podium preset, increase the height of the initial building, and change our unit average. We’re going to aim for a unit mix of 50% studios, 30% one-beds, and 20% two-beds. This is all real-time math, with a visual understanding of what the layouts will look like. We’ll also add some setbacks to let some natural light in. We’ll do that by holding the shift key while dragging the edge of the building.

Figure 17.0: Changing multifamily unit height & averages, and adding setbacks

Density can be more manipulated here by adjusting the courtyard aspect ratio, adding verticals, etc. The lifts need a bit more work here, but for now, it’s enough for just allocating space.

Figure 18.0: Changing the input’s in TestFit’s high-density configurator

For more on high-density inputs, check out the Knowledge Base article

Pst – enjoying the article so far? Subscribe to make sure you don’t miss the latest blogs & news. The article continues below!

Site D

On Site D, we’re going to place a podium hotel. TestFit auto-generates 4 possible options at the bottom-right of the screen and we will toggle to Option A.

Figure 19.0: Deciding on schemes for our hotel building

We’ll substitute the standard units to hotel standard which is a pre-made database in TestFit. We’ll drop parking down to 0.5. We can see in real-time how many keys we are getting in the tabulation underneath to know if we are roughly hitting our desired count.

Figure 20.0: Adding standard hotel units

For more information about TestFit for hotels, please check out this info page.

Site F

On Site F, we’re going to match some of the existing density opposite this site with some lower-density deals. After adjusting setbacks, we’ll start to play with the lower-density housing site types.

Figure 21.0: Turning site E into low-density housing

Next, we will alter our townhouse inputs, including row maximums and minimums, row gap sizes, side-green and back-to-back buffers.

Figure 22.0: Altering low-density inputs in TestFit to achieve a roughly ideal Townhouse layout

Instead of hopping right into manual mode, we looked at our unit sizes and decided to use parameters to adjust the density (in this case unit depth).

We can also enable entries by clicking “Site Exits / Show” and dragging and dropping them into position. We’ll also add a park right opposite the entrance as a common transitional space. We’ll use our “Spaces Tool” to create the park, change the space type to park, and change the color.

Figure 23.0: Modifying the community entrances and adding a communal park

Site E

We’re not too sure what to do with this one. Garden apartments or more single-family housing are viable possibilities. We’re going to start with garden apartments on this site.

Figure 24.0: Laying out garden apartments

We’re not quite getting the density we want and the parking is a little off from our goals. So we’re going to save this scheme to revisit later, save the parameters as a preset from site F, and apply that preset to the low density on site E as a new scheme. The last step is to match the unit sizes in the “Configurator Panel”.

Figure 25.0: Saving sites E and F as scheme

After mirroring the layout of Site F, we can compare metrics between the schemes. Surprisingly, while garden apartments seem the least dense, they’re actually denser, with 120 units.

Figure 26.0: Comparing density between the two schemes

5. Zooming out again

As we toggle into 3D context at the bottom of the screen, we can see that our plan of echoing the existing neighborhood and moving from high density to low (from top to bottom) is panning out pretty well.

Figure 27.0: Populating 3D context on our site

At this early design stage, we can apply budgets to quick takeoffs from TestFit to make sure we are in scope. Based on this, we can pretty easily draw some informal conclusions on whether the site will work or not. 

We can show our real estate developer client these findings to make sure we are on the right track before diving into more critical elements of the buildings (i.e. life safety, amenities, back-of-house rooms, parking details, etc, and the details that truly define a space like unit layouts and balconies). 

It is crucial to note that this is just a first iteration: The ultimate power of TestFit lies in the ability to instantly iterate on your designs in real-time as many times as needed.  

Here’s a demonstration of how you can change your roads without completely losing your hard work on the buildings

Figure 28.0: Move roads around and watch buildings change

My kind of fun


When people think of TestFit, they usually think of it for single sites. But as you can see, urban planners, real estate developers, and architects alike can use it for much much more. I like to think of it as tech-enabled sketches that sparks data-driven creativity. 


Move the conversation from a napkin sketch to data-driven solutions in a matter of minutes. 

Not yet using TestFit? Sign up for a free trial.

Recent Articles