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Building for Tomorrow

May 19, 2014

Like many cities across the country, St. Louis has thousands of vacant lots and empty buildings. In fact, the city owns nearly 8,000 vacant lots and 3,500 empty buildings — a substantial inventory that is more concentrated on the city’s northside.

Collaboration and some friendly competition are helping transform some of these abandoned properties in St. Louis into innovative, stylish and efficient green housing.

The St. Louis Association of REALTORS® (SLAR) and Housing and Community Solutions, Inc. (HCSI) envisioned replacing the vacant lots and buildings with inviting energy-efficient alternatives, while simultaneously educating the public about the benefits of sustainability. To achieve that vision, they identified and secured approximately a dozen vacant lots or buildings owned by the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and Universal City.

They then turned to architects, designers, builders, contractors and community visionaries for innovative housing concepts. The result was St. Louis’ first Energy Efficient Housing Contest.

“The necessity of creating a sustainable market in the St. Louis Metro area cannot be understated,” said Dawn Kennedy, CEO of SLAR at the kick off of the contest. “The St. Louis Association of REALTORS® is proud to be part of the effort to build a brighter future for the next generation of homeowners.”

The contest required that entries not only be energy efficient, but also a prototype. Design/build teams were called on to create innovative, healthy, right-sized housing for targeted consumer groups. But the contest also required that plans must be able to be replicated elsewhere in the city. Winning contest entries would serve as models for success stories throughout St. Louis.

“Ideas that could be replicated were important because we wanted to develop some models people could learn from and use in the future,” explained Eric Friedman, a REALTOR® and president of HCSI, owner of the Fried-man Group and SLAR board member.

The contest was a collaboration of local government, including the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County and nearly a dozen nonprofit and business partners. An NAR $15,000 Smart Growth Action Grant also helped organizers hire a consultant to help manage the contest and develop and use various educational and promotional methods to raise public awareness about the benefits of energy efficiency.

Entrants were asked to focus on developing energy-efficient housing for first-time buyers, live-work unit entrepreneurs and empty nesters. These groups are ideally suited to benefit from the sustainable home designs the contest generated. The St. Louis County strategic plan has identified the attraction of millennials and support for aging-in-place seniors as priorities, so Friedman said it made sense to target the contest to the needs of these consumers.

“We saw compact housing as a new type of product that could be built for those populations,” said Friedman. “Compact housing isn’t something we often see being built.”

Wide Variety of Winning Entries

Winning entries represented a wide range of sustainability options. One project was a net-zero, new construction home, which produces more electricity than it consumes. Another developer turned a drafty, empty building into housing with a Home Energy Rating (HER) of 50, meaning it is 50 percent more energy efficient than a standard new home. A third winner created designs for an inexpensive, energy-efficient home that can be adapted to suit any neighborhood.

Architect Mark O’Bryan produced the winning entry in the design-only category for a neighborhood in Lemay, an inner-ring county suburb just 20 minutes south of the Arch. The design features a simple, compact floor plan for a 3-bedroom residence that can be a stand-alone single home or a side-by-side duplex. It includes a variety of façade choices for easy replication and neighborhood infill; energy-efficient heating and cooling; water conservation; and green building techniques.

“What we build now will be part of our children’s future, and perhaps the next two or three generations,” said O’Bryan, president of Art & Architecture. “Architects must be involved in the small homes market, and everyone in the house building market MUST be mindful of creating the most energy-efficient homes as possible for this entry-level market. It is key to economic survival of the future owners, or renters, especially considering that homes built now should last another 80 to 100 years with proper care.”

Green historical developer Patty Maher won the contest’s Historic Rehab category and transformed a two-story empty brick building into two energy-efficient, side-by-side townhomes. The new 2,300-square-foot homes feature 12-foot ceilings and exceptionally low heating bills. In fact, even when the St. Louis’ temperature dips below zero, the townhouse owner can expect to save up to 70 percent on the average heating bill for a similar-sized home.

“I take old, 100-year-old properties that are uninhabited and gut and rehab them with complete new systems according to Missouri Historic Preservation and Energy Star standards,” explained Maher. “We builders must apply energy standards or get out of the game.”

Missouri’s first “passive” home won the new construction category. The single-family home met the Passive Building Standard, meaning it uses 90 percent less energy than conventional building energy codes. Architect Ralph Wafer with Architecture & Planning worked with Trumpet Construction and Butterfly Energy Works to build a house that utilizes a Geothermal Heat Pump and Energy Recovery Ventilator; solar panels; and kitchen cabinets made from sycamore lumber milled from logs salvaged from local tree service/tree removal companies. The result was a modern Net Zero Plus home that produces more electricity than it uses.

Wafer explained that the passive home offers substantial benefits for the homeowner and makes sense for the future.

“There are multiple rewards. A building far superior in occupant comfort and energy consumption is created; awareness of better building materials and techniques is heightened and solutions to significantly reducing energy use are seen as reachable,” said Wafer. “Although this project was the ‘first of’, the next generation is already being designed.”

Educating Homeowners

But the St. Louis Energy Efficient Housing Contest went beyond bringing innovative housing plans from the design table to the construction site. It had an important educational component. The contest’s website offers a wide range of tips and resources about sustainable housing, useful to both the public and industry insiders. The contest recognition ceremony even included an Energy Efficient Housing Seminar that explained the basics of energy-efficient housing, the benefits to the homeowner and financing options.

“This wasn’t just a contest,” explained Friedman. “We’re working for cultural change. Both for our members and for the public.”

Committed to Sustainability

The Energy Efficient Housing Contest was the latest step in an ongoing effort to boost St. Louis’ livability. It’s a process that has been underway for more than 15 years.

“The contest fits into a long context of sustainability,” said Friedman. “It’s a process that began back in 1998 when SLAR was asked for assistance in the creation of a State Historic Tax Credit.”

Back then, St. Louis had the dubious distinction of being the second most sprawling city in the country. Freidman says the State Historic Tax Credit has been a game changer in helping the city move from sprawl to sustainability. Missouri’s state historic tax credit differs from its federal counterpart in important ways. It is transferrable, includes homeownership and doesn’t require a collaborator.

“We’ve developed a really good, elegant system that includes homeownership,” said Friedman. “It can be combined with federal tax credits and can also be used to help increase workforce housing.”

Since Missouri adopted its State Historic Tax Credit, 100 buildings have been rebuilt for 5,000 residents and there has been an explosion of entrepreneurial activity. The Wall Street Journal called it a model for the nation.

Then in 2012, civic innovator Dan Burden came to St. Louis and guided a walking audit of portions of the city. Walk/Live St. Louis 2012, another HCSI project, brought together community leaders, nonprofit organizations, public entities and industry stakeholders, such as SLAR, to promote a more walkable, bikeable and safe city. Nearly 500 people participated in nine events at more than a half dozen city locations. These types of events get people excited and inspired to promote smart growth and sustainable housing.

Now the winners of St. Louis’ first Energy Efficient Housing Contest are inspiring the next generation of green building. Designers, developers and REALTORS®, working with government and other community leaders, are ensuring St. Louis’s long-term livability by filling the city with sustainable, affordable and beautiful homes and educating future homeowners about the green possibilities.