Building a Green Legacy in OTR

Leaky, single-paned windows and a crumbling foundation. Attics and walls with no insulation. Ill-fitting doors and pale layers of chipped lead paint. The 1870's Italianate on Over-the-Rhine's Elm Street is typical of many homes in aged urban neighborhoods. Historic features have been long overshadowed by neglect. A working family's budget is too tight for lead abatement, masonry work or energy efficient upgrades. Like a frowsy dowager born in a different era, the building seems ill-suited for the next, a faded throw-back in a new age of high energy costs and expensive maintenance. Knowing that over 19,000 Cincinnati families today live in this kind of substandard housing, poverty housing activists can't help but see red.

Sanyog Rathod sees green.

Rathod, the owner of SOL Developments, a sustainable development, design and consulting firm, is also active with the US Green Building Council's local chapter. In planning this June's "Greening the Heartland" conference in Cincinnati, the chapter was searching for a legacy project in Over-the-Rhine, where green building features might seem too costly when coupled with historic preservation issues and affordable housing concerns.

Rathod and Gordon Schweitzer, leading the USGBS's Legacy Project effort, knew that the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, with help from the University of Cincinnati and a team of professionals, had just done a green historic study that broke the myth that historic buildings cannot be green. So why not take that study one step further and show just how green - and affordable - a historic building can be, and then showcase the results as a legacy project?

So Rathod and the OTR Foundation devised a Life Cycle Assessment Study, which will be presented this June in Cincinnati and again at the international conference this fall in Toronto. One of the nation's first life-cycle assessments of a historic building, it shows that, even with leaky windows and poor insulation, an old building starts out "green" just by being built - no energy goes into the making, milling and refining of existing construction materials. It also quantifies the green value of location. Factors that favor walkability and urban chemistry give an old building in an urban landscape an immediate head start in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Then "the real challenge of meeting the maximum energy efficiency requirements seems more achievable ," says Rathod, "because that's all that's left to do."

Timing is everything. While the OTR Foundation searched for a house to stage its Life Cycle Assessment Study, Cincinnati Habitat for Humanity was experimenting more with home rehabilitation and green building techniques in its new builds. Rathod approached Habitat with a challenge: would it consider renovating an existing home, meeting LEED certification standards, follow historic preservation guidelines and, in keeping with Habitat's mission, keep it affordable?

Habitat for Humanity is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year in Cincinnati, and its history is one of new home construction, scattershot across many neighborhoods in order to spread its resources equitably. But in a change of direction last year, Habitat launched an innovative project on one College Hill Street that combined new building techniques with larger-scale neighborhood revitalization. Each house - a green build, a quick build, and a rehab - symbolized what Habitat saw as its future: using new green techniques in energy efficiency, building homes faster with more help, and rehabbing existing homes which might otherwise by vacant or in foreclosure. Just as importantly, with that project, Habitat revitalized the streetscape, improving the lives of their partner families and those of their neighbors, as well. With the College Hill project under its belt, Habitat felt up to the USGBC's challenge.

Collaboration with other community organization was the only way Rathod's intriguing proposal would work. Partnering with Over-the-Rhine Community Housing was pivotal - it offered Habitat the 1522-24 Elm Street duplex.

"Nobody is better than Habitat at affordable home ownership," says Mary Burke, its director, and this building was better suited to single family ownership than the affordable rental market OTR Community Housing encouraged. To sweeten the deal, Burke provided money from a City of Cincinnati grant to fund lead abatement for the building.

Meanwhile, the Over-the-Rhine Foundation offered the professional services of historic preservation planner Michael Matts and board member Kevin Pape, president of Gray & Pape Cultural Resources Consultants. They worked with GBBN Architects and Rathod to create plans for the building that preserved its historic integrity while meeting LEED standards of energy efficiency.

Despite these in-kind offers, Habitat still needed generous funding and hard-working volunteers. Procter & Gamble's Home Care division stepped up. Home Care had been a steady Habitat supporter for years, offering cleaning-crew volunteers who sweep through newly-built houses, leaving behind the fresh smell of disinfectant and a care package of cleaning products. This year, P&G is offering $160,000 to this first Habitat rehab in Over-the-Rhine, along with all the volunteers needed to finish the job.

Officially named the G2OTR Project, it now includes a new build on a nearby Mohawk Avenue lot - a four-bedroom home with a fa├žade that complements the streetscape. With this in-fill construction being funded by long-time supporter Wells Fargo Bank and others, "Habitat is moving further away from being a single family home developer to true neighborhood revitalization," states Marissa Woodly, its development director.

That comes with challenges. "Rough," says Pape drily, referring to the condition of the long-vacant Elm Street building. "No one was living there except a very healthy family of raccoons," adds Woodly. Historic preservation work also requires some skilled labor, hard to find in a volunteer crew, but Habitat plans to teach its partner families and its volunteers some of this specialized work. Says Woodly, "One of the beautiful things about Habitat is you're not just helping the community, you're also gaining valuable skills for yourself to put into your tool belt and use in your own home."

Partnership was another challenge for Habitat, admits Ed Lee, its executive director.

"We're learning to collaborate. We're not experts at other social aspects of neighborhood revitalization - job creation, education, safety, economic stability and growth - and so we're really looking to partner with others that can fill up that puzzle and move neighborhood revitalization forward."

Given all the organizations involved, the impressive local financial support, and an astounding brain trust of professional help, it wasn't too surprising when the US Green Building Council announced several weeks ago that the G2OTR Project was selected to be its conference Legacy Project.

In breaking ground on three affordable, LEED certified homes, Habitat and its many partners are proving that affordability and LEED are not mutually exclusive and showing the green building community gathering here this June that innovative things happen when a community shares the work together.

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Interior photos by Adam C Nelson

1522 Elm St, Over the Rhine facade
Marissa D. Woodly, Development Director, Cincinnati Habitat for Humanity
1522 Elm St, Over the Rhine, interiors
Marissa at 1522 Elm St.
Kevin Pape
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