Long road to building sustainable neighborhood
When it comes to the Concord Riverwalk project, “energy efficient ” and “community” are not mere buzz words. They represent the dream of developer Dan Gainsboro to create a holistic, sustainable neighborhood in West Concord.
Concord Riverwalk lets homeowners live a solar-powered “Net Zero” life without reliance on fossil fuels. The development consists of 13 two- and three-bedroom cottages and townhouses. Homeowners share gardens, walkways, parking, and sparkling views of the Assabet River. The project includes new construction, plus renovated units in the “White House,” an 1864 structure (formerly known as Damon House); and the “Blue House,” a 1950s cape.
The development is set on 3.7 acres off Main Street.
As much visionary as businessman, Gainsboro is a disciple of Ross Chapin, an architect whose Craftsman-style “pocket community” projects in Washington State first drew national attention in the late 1990s. Chapin’s goal was to recreate old-time neighborhoods in which people were involved in neighbors’ lives. (Chapin is part of the Riverwalk design team.) Riverwalk homes also feature ideas from Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big ® House: multi-use spaces, varied ceiling heights, diagonal interior views.
Gainsboro built on Chapin and Susanka’s ideas by incorporating the latest green technology. Riverwalk homes are pre-wired for active solar heating and electricity generation. Units are super-insulated and outfitted with ultra high-efficiency mechanical systems. Reclaimed/recycled materials fit into the mix. And a storm water drainage system includes rainwater management and retention systems.
A Concord resident, Gainsboro has served on the town’s School Building Committee, Planning Board, and its Comprehensive Sustainable Energy Committee.
On a recent afternoon, Gainsboro sat down to talk about the final stages of the Riverwalk project—and where he hopes to take the sustainable living concept next.
Why did you keep original structures on the Riverwalk site instead of tearing them down?
It’s always more sustainable to work with what you have. We loved the history associated with the White House. We didn’t realize just how challenging it was going to be in terms of a renovation project. We knew we wanted to do a deep energy retrofit, which involves bringing the building back to the studs and then building it back up with state-of-the-art building systems. We wanted it to perform at a level that, if not equal to the new construction, was as close to it as was practical.
And what we discovered—under the heading of ‘lesson learned’—we certainly underestimated just how much of a challenge it was going to represent. You may have heard about some of our travails in the local press.
When we started the project we did our due diligence and we were informed that it (Damon House) was not on the demolition delay bylaw. Lo and behold, when we began the renovation, the building department referred to a list that showed it was on the demolition delay bylaw. So our plan for doing a deep energy retrofit ran smack into the objectives of the Historical Commission. That played out over the course of several weeks. The town finally decided that it was actually not on the demolition delay bylaw. An error had been made by the town clerk….
We were able to move forward with our original plan after losing a lot of time and spending a good deal more than we anticipated trying to mitigate the unforeseen conditions. We always anticipated we would salvage as much of the building as practical, and unfortunately in this case it was a little bit like pulling a thread on a shirt, only to discover by the time you were done pulling there was nothing left. Not much left, I should say. It was frustrating…
We did end up re-using portions of the building in other parts of the project. For example, we had to replace the foundation because it was a rubble foundation and it had a lot of problems with water infiltration. We used parts of the foundation to create a sundial element down in the lower court. The fireplaces and most of the traditional moldings inside, the doors and the trim, all had a lot of lead paint on them, so we decided not to reuse them. Unfortunately, most of the real charming details had been removed in earlier renovations. There was some asbestos inside when we started, and we had to take out an old boiler.
What about the Blue House?
We fully expect to be able to salvage the majority of it. It was constructed much more recently, and has very good bones in terms of the structure. It, too, will go back to the studs. Then we are planning to replace all of the windows and change the character of the house so that it’s more in keeping with the new homes.
What are the similarities and differences between the retrofitted units and the new construction?
The biggest difference is in the thermal and the air barriers.
As an aside, in our new homes we employed a framing approach known as advanced framing technologies. In this approach you sort of right-size your frame. In other words, you use the least amount of lumber that you absolutely need to meet the anticipated loads. This is not an economic play as much as it’s an energy efficiency play. The more lumber you have with direct contact from the inside to the outside, the greater the thermal bridges, which is a bad thing. So when you have the opportunity to reframe you can utilize this approach. We couldn’t do that in the older homes without basically tearing them down. So we tried to use as much of the frame as possible.
Once you get past that the next biggest concern is the air barrier… Any time you introduce more complexity to the architecture or the massing, the more challenging it is to get a good air barrier. Each one of these intersections represents a potential air leak.
If you take that back to an existing home, unless you have conditions where you can reframe or change, it’s very difficult to get a good air barrier. For example, one of the places for big leaks in an existing home is where a foundation wall and the bottom plate—which is the first piece of wood that gets attached to the foundation—meet, that joint has been a huge source of leaks. Even in newer homes it remains a significant source of air leaks. So when you have an existing home, where the sill may or may not have all of its integrity—and they certainly didn’t have a product called “sill seal” back then, which basically creates a bond between those two materials—there’s a (potential) problem. Short of jacking the whole house up, it’s very difficult to get that good seal. It’s a big area of difference between new and old construction.
Will all Riverwalk units have the same heating and electrical system, and the same ability to install solar panels?
They all utilize the same mechanical systems for heating, cooling and electrical distribution.
In addition, all of the homes have the ability to install roof-mounted solar hot water and solar photovoltaic panels. The homes are designed to be run completely by electricity, because one of our goals at the outset of the project was to avoid fossil fuel consumption.
On the White House, which is our only two-unit building, the ridge runs north-south. That’s not ideal for solar panels. Ideally, the ridge would run east-west. In that building only, it’s north-south. But because it’s a relatively flat roof, we’re able to mitigate that by using a racking system that straddles the roof.
I should also mention that all our homes are outfitted with an energy monitoring device. This enables residents to know instantaneously how much energy they are consuming, and enables them to adjust their use patterns. It has been an amazing tool that has also identified when appliances were not working properly. In this case knowledge is truly power.
Out of the 13 units, you set aside one for a town employee. Did the town require that?
No. That was a choice. Believe it or not, we’re under the allowed density by about three units. We could have put three more units on the project but we felt like this was the right number. And I felt very strongly that I wanted to provide a moderate price unit. I’ve done a lot of work in the town, both as a volunteer and as a professional in my previous life. I think we’re very well served by the staff in this town. So it seemed like the right thing to do. I’m glad we were able to do it.
One unit is moderate price. That’s not by the state definition of affordable—we couldn’t get to that—but it’s affordable by the town’s definition. All of the units are moderate priced by Concord standards.
How do you characterize Riverwalk buyers?
I will say right off the bat that I would be reluctant to put anyone in a box. Having said that, there are certainly some similar characteristics that I’ve seen. It’s a relatively diverse group of people in terms of age. We have empty nesters, single professionals, and most recently, three families with small children.
That is consistent with what Ross (Chapin) found in Seattle. We have four educators/teachers in the community, and we have at least one, if not two, healthcare professionals. I think that Ross said 90 percent of his residents worked in either the health care or education fields.
Not high tech?
No. It (Riverwalk) appeals to our residents because of the sense of community and security. If they take a vacation, they know someone else will be looking out for them.
One thing I have heard from several of the residents is that they all value being part of a micro-community, a community within a community. We have worked very hard to find the correct balance of community and privacy. I would also say concern for the environment and wanting to live a smaller energy footprint is a common theme. In addition, Concord Riverwalk residents are eager to pursue a simpler life. Since it’s an association, all the upkeep will be taken care of by others. And finally, all the residents love the walkability. They can walk to the train station, to shops. They are all very enamored with West Concord and what it has to offer.
What are you planning in the way of sustainable landscaping?
All native species. All designed to require little or no irrigation. We’re managing storm water with something called a low-impact development technique, which means that instead of putting the storm water in catch basins or pipes, we use bio-retention swales (using vegetation for filtration of pollutants from storm runoff) for our storm water. The majority of the time these (swales) look like landscaped areas. When it’s raining, they look like brooks with plants in them.
Some of the folks have mentioned that they want to put a rain barrel in because they want to use rainwater to water their gardens. All of the units have exclusive use areas they can plant and design the way they want, so they can use it for that.
Are additional building projects in Concord and surrounding towns in the works?
Several. Now that we have demonstrated to ourselves that there is market interest, we’d like to try two at a time, then hopefully four. We are currently looking for sites on the North and South Shores, to help build awareness of the concept. We look for towns that have strong existing town centers and access to public transportation like trains or buses. Those are priorities for us. The projects typically need to be anywhere from eight to 16 units. Less than that and you don’t really have the critical mass required to create a community. More than that, it really becomes something else. So, yes, there will be more in the future.