BY BRIAN LIBBY
Over the past couple of years as the real estate economy has gathered steam, much attention has been devoted to the push-pull between large multifamily residential buildings (apartments, condos) and single-family homes. Whether it's the incongruity of a house next to a five-story building or the difficulties that plague neighborhoods when large buildings without parking spots are built, the growing pains seem somewhat inevitable.
The Ankeny Row housing project, designed and built by Green Hammer, is neither a massive multifamily building nor a one-off house. It's a co-housing project spearheaded by its owners, all of them approaching or at retirement age and looking for downsized homes in which they can age in place. "The four of us lived in big houses but we wanted to downsize, to do it environmentally friendly and to live with our friends,” explained Francie Royce, who now lives in one of the units with her husband Michael, on a recent tour of the project.
The development includes a pair of two-story townhouses in front and three in back with a small courtyard in between, as well as an adjacent commons building with a two-bedroom apartment. Each of the townhouses include about 1400 square feet of interior space with two bedrooms and two and a half baths, with master bedrooms on the ground floor to allow easier aging in place.
Ankeny Row is also designed to achieve net-zero energy status. The project is also seeking LEED Platinum certification and was designed to Passive House standards (although that certification will not be pursued). In fact, the project is so efficient that it can achieve net-zero energy with only about 3,500 square feet of photovoltaic panels, whereas most homes need about 5,000 square feet to do so.
The project features extensive insulation, via a blown-in insulation system using reconstituted newspapers. The walls are actually 16 inches thick. Green Hammer's CEO, Stephen Aiguier, explained standing inside on a recent day and practically not being able to hear the stone being cut for landscaping outside. Under the floor is an 18-inch foam slab, not unlike what was done at the Karuna House by Holst Architecture and Hammer & Hand and certain other Passive House projects. Ankeny Row's designers and builders also oversaw a variety of house-tightening measures to keep plumbing and electrical penetrations from detracting from ambitious energy-efficiency goals. Triple-pane windows, for example, are 15 times the standard for air tightness. Heating and cooling come from ductless heat pumps. Water conservation comes from efficient shower heads, faucets and toilets. The metal roofs are made from recycled content, and the project utilizes all FSC-certified wood. Each unit in Ankeny Row took advantage of about $20,000 in green building and renewable energy incentives.
The group of owners considered about three different sites before choosing the land on Ankeny Street, which was culled together from two lots, one of which was a former warehouse, meaning the project is constructed on a grayfield. More importantly for the owners, it came with a robust walk score of 87.
The completed project is the final one to be designed by Green Hammer's in-house architect, Daryl Rantis, who unfortunately passed away last March from a heart attack. Rantis had an impressive background, too. Before joining Green Hammer he began his career in Chicago at the firm of internationally acclaimed architect Helmut Jahn, and later worked in Arkansas for the late AIA Gold Medal winner Fay Jones.
What I'd hope for Rantis to take pride in if he were still with us is just how pleasant a place to live Ankeny Row seems to be. Because of the insulation and materials, each unit remains comfortable year-round, with the temperature fluctuating very little even on an extremely cold or hot day. And the units aren't just efficient: they feel inviting. While designing to Passive House standards can mean not a lot of windows, inside Ankeny Row's units the glass seems well placed, so as to deliver an ideal diffuse natural illumination that avoids glare.
During the press tour, as many of the residents made themselves available to talk with assembled press, you could see the happiness on their faces. In a time when gentrification is driving poorer residents towards the suburbs or at least many miles from the city center, and when the affluent residents remaining seem inclined towards large multifamily buildings or large single-family homes, Ankeny Row is not just admirably sustainable but is of a medium density that seems congruent with the existing fabric of old houses as well as the taller buildings nearby. It feels like a kind of sweet spot in terms of scale.
Most every project is a blend of strengths and weaknesses, and while I overwhelmingly like Ankeny Row and the thinking behind it on the part of the owners, builders and designers, my lone criticism is that I don't find the project's exterior to be very beautiful in a pure aesthetic sense. Next door to Ankeny Row, for example, the Colab-designed Ankeny Lofts project, which was featured in a recent post for our Portfolio series, is to my eyes substantially more handsome. Ankeny Row feels to me a little bit visually clunky when viewed from outside. The durable but not so aesthetically pleasing fiber-cement siding contributes to this effect, and sometimes designing to Passive House standards can mean less glass than other buildings. Yet it's also about the overall flow of the architecture. But it could just be a matter of taste. Others might see it differently.
Besides, maybe that superlative functionality is worth it and then some. I know I'd be pretty happy living at Ankeny Row, and maybe ultimately that's what matters most, along with the project's exemplary environmental credentials. I absolutely admire the design contribution Rantis made, and I feel pretty confident that the owners who spearheaded this final project are very happy with the design and construction job they got. I could see it on their faces.