Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Christmas Architects


Yes, Virginia, Maryland and D.C., there is a Santa Claus. Though they may not see themselves that way, to the residents of Ward 8’s embattled Wheeler Terrace, 1217 Valley Ave. SE, Old St. Nick came in the guise of Wiencek & Associates, a 30-member Maryland and D.C.-based architecture firm whose primary focus is community building, one crime scene at a time.

“I can’t say it was the worst of the buildings we’d seen in D.C.,” firm President Michael Wiencek said of the initial 113 units spread among seven structures (during renovation, three more units were added), “but it was not a place you’d choose to live if you had other choices. It had lots and lots of problems: a lot of moisture in the building; falling ceilings and damaged floors; the sewage backed up into the basement. People were robbed at gunpoint regularly in that area. It was one of the District’s top 14 crime hotspots.”

Point of Sale

When Wheeler Terrace’s former owners decided to sell, under TOPA (D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act) residents were given the option to purchase the property and formed the Wheeler Terrace Tenant Association. The group eventually chose the Community Preservation and Development Corporation (CPDC) as developer for the 133,000 s.f. site, with 25-year affordable housing renovation veterans Wiencek & Associates in tow.

With housing projects such as Edgewood Terrace, Southern Ridge and Overlook at Oxon Run in their fight book, Wiencek explained that when they approach a project such as this, the goal is as much a social renovation as it is a physical one. There are matters of crime and conscience to be considered, with aesthetics often impacting the end result.

With a slogan that says “Let us welcome you home,” Wiencek said he wants people to have a sense of place. “I always talk about the kid who never really wanted to bring their friends to their house because it wasn’t a place you wanted to show. But then when you get done, you can say, ‘That’s my home. Come on over.’”

Point of View
In the case of Wheeler Terrace, as with many affordable housing projects, he admits budgetary constraints warranted trade-offs with exterior plans and finishes that would have included green roofs, green screens and trellises, which yielded to critical interior components such as bathrooms, insulation and ventilation. Built in the 1940s as housing for WWII veterans (Richard Nixon reportedly lived nearby as a junior senator), the garden-style units were saddled with antiquated, inoperative and even dangerous mechanical systems, leaky steel casement single glaze windows and moldy finishes, among other things.

Though champions of dozens of public and general multifamily housing renovations, in the last decade with green building still a nascent yet burgeoning trend Wiencek & Associates typically fought a losing battle for sustainable solutions in its public housing designs due to economics. Where Wheeler Terrace was concerned (and though Wiencek’s initial 2006 funding submission was not green) the D.C. Green Building Act, which mandates various levels of LEED compliance, went into effect during the design process so that construction became less about standard practices and more about best practices. “In the past, you were sort of laughed at if you tried to push people,” Wiencek said. “But now, three years later, we’d be laughed at if we didn’t make it green – absolutely green.” The firm goes the extra step in achieving this by integrating green charrettes into the planning process: intensive workshops where the project’s decision-makers collectively address sustainable issues.

According to James “Jay” Wilson, Wheeler Terrace project manager for Wiencek & Associates and task force member of the D.C. Green Building Act, pursuing grants from the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) helped facilitate the kind of “healthy construction” the firm desired. With asthma and other respiratory illnesses pervasive among residents - largely children - of public housing due to moisture, mold, filthy ductwork and high voc (volatile organic compound) issues, Wiencek & Associates moved to install hard surface flooring in place of carpeting in each unit’s common areas, reducing particulates. Thicker filters were installed on all the HVAC equipment, as well as using low-voc paint and other finishes, and urea/formaldehyde-free cabinets. Tantamount to that, where the average unit wasn’t required to have outside air produced in the building prior to the Green Building Act (Wiencek said if you turn on a bathroom fan in most city apartments, there’s nothing replacing the air, and often nothing is even pulled out), at Wheeler Terrace fans are on a constant circuit - meaning they are always on - so units are continuously ventilated; there’s always a fresh air exchange. In fact, per the parameters of the NCHH grant, resident health will be followed over the next 10 years to see if healthy construction has made a difference.

Hot Point

“Usually in the winter time, you have to heat air that’s 30 degrees up to 70 degrees to heat the unit,” Wilson said, referencing the ground source heat pump mechanical system – or geothermal heating – installed at the site. One hundred wells go down 350-450 feet, utilizing a glycol mixture which prevents freezing, among other things. “Now you’re heating a water mixture, which comes in through a heating chamber in the building, always at a constant 55 degrees, so it ends up being 35 percent more efficient than a typical system,” Wilson explained.

Speaking to “CPDC’s altruism,” Wiencek indicated the mechanical system cost the developer a lot of money. “Most developers would never elect to do this because they’d say ‘I’m not going to get payback,’” Wiencek said, noting the $7-10,000 per unit overage vs. a standard system. The thinking behind this is that in affordable housing, you’re trying to get the resident to pay for utilities because then they respect them and are more likely to use them efficiently, according to Wiencek. “The residents will have lower utility costs, but it did cost more in the first place.”

Point Well Taken

In proud pursuit of LEED Gold, Wilson noted the documentation process is nearly finished and if achieved, Wheeler Terrace may be the first Section 8 affordable housing development in the U.S. to garner it.

“It’s great advertising for the city, the developer,” Wiencek said. “One of the neat things about the kind of housing we do is that we get a lot of joy out of helping people - changing people’s lives,” he added, noting residents respect that they’ve been given this great opportunity and crime is significantly down since the renovation. “You really raise the bar on living in that neighborhood.” The grand opening will occur this Thursday, July 29.

Photography by Eric Taylor, EricTaylorPhoto.com

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"...with housing projects such as Edgewood Terrace, Southern Ridge and Overlook at Oxon Run in their fight book..."

I wouldn't brag about those.

IMGoph on Jul 27, 2010, 7:40:00 PM said...

why, anonymous? do poorer people not deserve housing that isn't falling down around them?

[and editors, your commenting system said "1 insightful comment" when this one above mine was there alone. i'd say that's false advertising ;) ]

the poo said...

+1 IMGoph

all in all, it's a brilliant story, a brilliant plan, and a brilliant future for the folks that will inhabit the premises.

i'm still amazed at how a simple coat of paint brought that bldg into the 21st century. sometimes good architecture needs a bit of salt and pepper...

Brandi on Jul 29, 2010, 9:28:00 AM said...

It seems that it was well beyond a coat of paint that improved the development. New technology that focused on public health and environmental sustainability was the difference. That, however, requires, great $ investment. I am very pleased that CPDC chose to invest in both people and place.

 

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