Nov 172011

November 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Project Profile


From Ghoulish To Glorious

The Historic Restoration of the Old Salem Jail


On a crisp, Sunday morning in March 2010, a long line of visitors gathered outside the latest development project of Boston-based developer New Boston Ventures. It was the project’s first open house, and the mood that day was electric. Organizers had scheduled the event to start at 10:00 a.m., and yet long before the doors had opened, the line had swollen to well over 100 feet long and two to three people thick. It was as if those waiting were “queuing up to see a prestigious show,” wrote one attendee at the event. And the line kept growing. Over the next few hours, an estimated 3,000 people toured the project, nearly all of whom, oddly enough, had no interest in renting one of the 23 available units.

The project, the adaptive reuse and historic restoration of the Old Salem Jail in Salem, Massachusetts, had captured the imagination of nearly everyone in and around the city. Built in 1813 and added onto in 1884, the jail had been in continuous operation for 175 years, making it the oldest in the country. Its main building, the jail house, is an imposing granite and brick building, four stories tall with two spire-like cupolas that rise 20 feet or so above the ridge. A second building, the jail-keeper’s house, is a long, slender, four-story brick building that stands in front of, and perpendicular to the jail house, forming the second side of an L-shaped courtyard. The jail’s third and final building, the carriage house, is a small, barn-like structure adjacent to the jail-keeper’s house, on the southeast corner of the property.

The jail had once been an economic boon for the city of Salem, but in 1991, a federal judge declared it uninhabitable and the prison was soon abandoned. The chain-link fence and razor remained in place, but offered little deterrent to the curious. Vandals broke in, smashed windows and painted graffiti on the walls. The yard grew thick with weeds and litter. In 1999, a fire gutted the jail-keeper’s house, destroying a wood addition and leaving much of the exterior brick blackened with soot. To ghost hunters and thrill seekers, the prison’s slow moldering into ruin only increased its appeal—the property made all the more haunting by the historic Howard Street Cemetery that borders it to the rear. The city of Salem didn’t share this affection. The prison had become a blight on the community. The buildings, added to the National and State Register of Historic Places in 1976, couldn’t be demolished, and yet repeated attempts to attract a developer failed to take hold. When, in 2000, the city bought the property from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a whopping $1.00, then Salem Mayor Stanley Usovicz reportedly joked, “I think I paid too much.”

The city again issued and RFP for the jail’s redevelopment in early 2006, and that is when Finegold Alexander + Associates (FA+A) and New Boston Ventures got involved. Jim Alexander, the project’s lead architect and a principle with FA+A, is a bit of an adaptive-reuse celebrity in the area, and the two firms worked together often. “Several of our architects live in Salem,” Alexander explains, “and so we saw the notice early on and brought it to the developer.” The site itself is a prime piece of real estate: 1.04 acres, just blocks from downtown, the train station and the water, and only 45 minutes from Boston. The team’s plan was to convert the buildings into high-end condominiums, along with a 4,000-square-foot restaurant (now the Great Escape Restaurant) on the ground floor of the 1884 addition.

The preliminary bid-work and city approval process then took the next two years to complete. There were no plans to draw from, and so in December 2006, Alexander and his associates entered the buildings to take measurements. The fire had mostly destroyed the jail-keeper’s house, leaving only the shell and remnants of the floor structure, spiral staircases and wooden mantel pieces that once defined its interior. The coach house, built of timber frame and wood siding, had rotted through and would be torn down and replicated. But the jail house itself was altogether different. Four floors of masonry and steel cell blocks filled the building’s central cavity, from basement to roofline, with catwalks and cast-iron staircases that led from one floor to the next. Massive slate and granite slabs made up the floors. Large flecks of lead paint peeled from the ceilings and walls. The place was a horror story and would have to be gutted completely.

New Boston Ventures agreed to buy the property for $100,000, and the project continued to progress until 2008 and the crash of the U.S. housing market. The market for condos had withered almost overnight, and New Boston now faced a finance market that had dried to a trickle. Again, FA+A presented a solution. “After the market crashed,” Alexander explains, “it was decided that the original scheme was not going to work.” The solution: reconfigure the project to make it eligible for federal and state incentives. Alexander calls these projects “Tax-Act” projects, referring to the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program administered by the National Park Service. The program provides a 20%-of-cost tax rebate on historic restorations. Massachusetts has a similar program, the Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, administered by the Massachusetts Historic Commission, which also provided a 20% tax incentive. All told, New Boston was able to reduce its estimated cost of roughly $10 million by a game-saving 40%, or $3.9 million.

“Of course, in exchange for that,” notes Alexander, “we had to do certain things in the preservation of the buildings, [and] we had to negotiate that with the National Park Service. If you are just working on a historic building, [there are] certain local historic guidelines, and you can’t tear it down. But a lot of times there aren’t a lot of other rules. There aren’t the same kind of requirements you have when you are getting tax credits and using federal money.”

One of the key changes New Boston had to agree to was to convert the project from condos into apartments and to maintain the property as rental units for at least five years. In addition, FA+A eliminated plans for balconies and raised terraces that would have obscured the buildings’ facades. The Park Service also required, among other things, that more of the building’s historical fabric be retained and that a display of its history be available to the public. To this end, workers stripped and restored one of the ornate cast iron staircases on the east end of the building and left intact (and open to the public) two of the original cells [pictured above]. New Boston also chose, as an added touch, to bolt an original cell door next to each of the apartment entrances. “It gives people something to talk about,” Alexander says.

Work on the project began in May 2009, with Boston-based Metric Construction serving as the general contractor. Bob Puracchio, the project executive with Metric, recalls the complexity of gutting the old jail. Crews first spent nearly a month cleaning the interior of lead paint, scrubbing and scraping by hand to protect the brick and mortar and removing an estimated 30 drums of chips. Then came the dismantling of the cells. The cell block masonry supported the roof framing, and so before the cells could be removed, workers had to cut through the roof, insert steel beams across the building and construct massive trusses up inside the jail’s attic. Once completed, workers could then dismantle the cell blocks, brick by brick, down through the center of the building. “At one point,” Puracchio recalls, “we had totally gutted it out and had only this big cavernous expanse of nothing but the exterior granite walls.”

Another “magic of restoration” detail for Puracchio was the re-creation of the historic chimneys on the jail-keeper’s house. The interior renovation of the building had removed the interior substructure of the chimneys, and the challenge was to support the new, replicated chimneys without this foundation. Rather than build massive supports in the attic, Puracchio explains, the engineers instead chose to fake it in. From the outside, the chimneys look authentic, but are actually only hollow shells, constructed of plywood and encased in a half-inch thick brick veneer. “When you do this a lot, as we do,” Puracchio says, “you come up with fairly crafty ways of making things look authentic.”

All told, the jail’s renovation includes 23 units. Apartments in the jail house range from a 551-square-foot one-bedroom up to a 2,621-square-foot penthouse. There are now three, 1,700-square-foot townhouses in the jail-keeper’s house and a detached, two-bedroom home in the re-built carriage house. “The idea was to provide as many options of housing as we could to just cover the market,” Alexander says.

New Boston Ventures and Finegold Alexander are also currently working through plans for a fourth building that will measure 21,000 square-feet (including underground parking), add 13 new units and close off the third side of the central courtyard. The success of the project, notes Alexander, has been remarkably impressive. The community is thrilled. A blight is removed. And back in March 2010, after that first open house, it took less than a week to fill nearly all of the available units. “I’ve got to give Metric a lot of credit,” Alexander says. “They did a terrific job.”

Oct 292011

Summer 2011
Norwich Record: Norwich University Alumni Magazine
News Feature


Zero Weight, Infinite Span

An Analogy of Design


In the early 1970s, G. Robert le Ricolais, a University of Pennsylvania professor, presented to the fields of architecture and structural engineering the paradoxical dictum: “Zero weight, infinite span,” as the ultimate goal in structural design. The goal, of course, is impossible, but to seek the impossible, le Ricolais supposed, was to obtain, perhaps, the previously unimagined.

Mathew Lutz, a design/ build professor at Norwich University thinks often about this paradox. Norwich University students, over the past year and under the guidance of Lutz and assistant professor Danny Sagan, have been perfecting the designs of a net-zero, passive solar house, the RAE(V) house (pronounced rave). The students have worked with Lutz and Sagan in Norwich’s Design/Build Studio, and though the goal of the project is a tad less lofty than that of le Ricolais, Lutz’s expectation remains the same: Strive for the impossible and see how far you get.

The RAE(V) house is being designed and built as part of the University’s bid for a place in the 2013 Solar Decathlon, a biennial competition hosted by the US Department of Energy. The DOE established the contest in 2002 to spur ingenuity in the field of sustainable design. Each competition invites collegiate teams from around the globe to submit plans for a solar-powered home that most effectively combines cost, aesthetics, energy efficiency and superior design. Twenty teams are then selected to compete, and if selected to compete, the home, once built, must be transported to Washington DC for display on the National Mall.

The RAE(V)house was first conceived in 2010 and submitted for entry in the 2011 Solar Decathlon. Norwich was not then chosen to compete, but Lutz and the others were not deterred. Their sights shifted to 2013, and the RAE(V) house went into considerable design review. “I can show you 20 different floor plans that we thought, ‘okay this is it,’ and then we found something better,” Lutz explains. “We just kept fine tuning it, and it kept getting better and better.”

More than 50 Norwich students have played a role in the conceptualization, design and construction of the RAE(V) house since it was started in 2010. The RAE(V) house is now one of two projects to be designed and eventually built under the direction of the university’s Center for the Integrated Study of the Built Environment (CISBE). The center was created in 2009 to encourage collaboration between Norwich’s architecture, engineering and construction management students, and the RAE(V) house is an example of its success.

Students began construction on the RAE(V) house earlier this spring and Lutz expects it will be finished by the end of August. Nine students enrolled in a summer Design/ Build Studio and spent nearly 80 percent of their class time working “in the field,” where they received regular instruction as the building progressed. “Of that 80 percent,” Lutz says, “there was a lot of talking. We huddled a lot and looked at details.”

The le Ricolais paradox is something Lutz often shares with his students. The goal of the RAE(V house — to be a low-cost, net-zero energy, fully solar-powered home in Vermont — is, if not impossible, extremely difficult to achieve. But like le Ricolais, Lutz pushes his students to reach for the impossible. “That was their challenge,” Lutz says. “And what they came up with was really extraordinary.”


Oct 282011

September 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Project Profile


The Net Zero Tract Home

A Final Frontier in Sustainable Housing


In 2005, Meritage Homes, a large-scale, production homebuilder headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, saw one of its most productive years to date. That year, Meritage Homes built close to 15,000 single-family houses, making it one of the top ten production homebuilders in the county. “We just put our heads down and built homes,” says C.R. Herro, Meritage’s VP President of Environmental Affairs. “The emphasis was on doing what we did well,” and that is what Meritage did. The company was founded in 1985, and in just 20 years it became a master at building a broad range of production homes with as most speed and efficiency as possible. Even today, Meritage offers some of its clients a “99 Days. Your Home. Your Way.” guarantee, with prices that can dip below $80 a square foot.

Meritage’s success, like the success of its competitors, had reached a zenith in 2005. The company operates in seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas. Those same states saw a surge in population over the preceding decade, spurring the largest housing boom in US history. Housing starts in the US, that year, topped a record-breaking 2 million homes, with the vast majority of that development taking place in these classically warm-weather states. By the close of 2006, however, most of that had begun to change. Meritage was still on top, still ranked among the industry giants, only the competition had begun to diminish. 2006 was the beginning of the end for the housing boom. Housing starts slumped, and by 2009, they had hit their lowest level in more than 70 years, with just 580,000 new homes built across the whole of the country. The housing boom was over, and Meritage Homes, like nearly every builder in the nation, was about to face its leanest years in decades. The question Meritage had to ask, as did all others, was simply: How would the company survive?

When faced with a market like this, says Herro, a production builder has one of two choices to make. “The market gives you a square-foot price that the market will bear,” he explains, “and you can either strip down and cheapen up to compete with bank re-sales, or you can come to the market with something that has a different value and creates its own opportunity, and the latter is what we consciously choose to do.”

It was Herro’s job, hired by Meritage in August 2009, to create that opportunity. “I was hired specifically to do innovation for the company,” he says, “so they created a role I don’t think exists anywhere else in the homebuilding industry. They hired a wacky environmental engineer and let me loose.” Herro actually holds two master’s degrees, one in environmental engineering and the other in environmental biology, and he is, in his own words, “the in-house nerd,” at Meritage. “To his credit,” Herro says of company founder and CEO, Steve Hilton, “he said, ‘Hey, we are going to hire someone whose job is to just focus on where the winds are blowing us and what is the best thing that we can do — the highest value for the least dollar — that lets us build something special.’”

That something special, to Herro, was evident from the start. Herro is “a nerd.” He is an engineer. And he knew where the winds were blowing. Herro has worked in the construction industry for more than 20 years, and during all that time he has kept a keen eye on the advancing green-built market. “The building industry,” he observes, “has had very little innovation for the last 40 years, while a tremendous amount of innovation was going on around it.” To Herro, the industry was stilted, caught in the single-minded pursuit of efficiency at the expense of other advancements. Green building in the US, he notes, had remained mostly on the periphery of the overall housing market. A few, generalized innovations had filtered through. Appliances became more efficient. Insulation was beefed-up and then altogether changed. Windows were upgraded. But when it came to a wholesale re-imagining of the single-family home, that was left primarily to high-cost, custom homes and show homes never intended for resale. “All the pieces of the puzzle have existed for 20 years,” Herro says. “We just went through the trouble of putting it all together. All I did was stand on some really broad shoulders, take the best of the best from around the world, and that is our program.”

Meritage’s new program, under the direction of Herro and officially launched in September 2010, was to design, build and sell the US’s first net-zero energy tract home, at a price competitive with the production home market. The company now builds its net-zero homes in two communities and offers a similar option on all other homes it builds. “The first thing we did,” says Herro, “was to look at the building shell: the windows, the insulation, the framing, the conditioned attic, the lighting system and the appliances, all of which works to cut the energy demand for the footprint of that house in half.” From there, Meritage moved on to energy production, part two of the net-zero equation. The company joined forces with EchoFirst, Inc, manufacturers of the EchoFirst Solar System, an innovative dual solar PV and thermal array, with an integrated air management system. Standard on nearly every Meritage Home is now a 2.15 kWh EchoFirst Solar system, and for roughly $10,000 more, clients can upgrade to a 5.64 kWh system that would make the house a net-zero energy home.

The EchoFirst system, itself, represents an impressive advancement in efficiency, increasing the energy output over a similarly sized PV system by upwards of 100 percent. Meritage’s partnership with EchoFirst, Inc. shows why the production homebuilder belongs in the sustainable market. As Herro notes, though many builders offer similar amenities, most are offered as add-ons and built on a house by house basis. Meritage made these amenities standard, and by doing so, it was able to leverage its economy of scale, both in terms of material costs and installation. “A big piece of this is our trade partners,” Herro says, “because all the things we do on these homes, we’ll do 3,500 times. We spent a year designing, and we spent six months with our trade partners (framers, plumbers, etc.) getting their heads around it.”

Oriana Schooley is a sales associate for Meritage in the master-planned community of Verrado, just outside Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona, Phoenix and the surrounding Maricopa County was, and still is, one the hardest hit regions for foreclosures in the US. Roughly 15 percent of Arizona households received a foreclosure notice in 2009. The market is tougher than it has ever been, says Schooley, and yet she remains decidedly optimistic. “This has been great for us,” she says of Meritage’s new net-zero program. DMB Associates, Inc, out of Scottsdale, AZ, is the developer at Verrado, and five builders, including Meritage, are vying for the buyer’s attention.

Meritage, to help both educate and attract those buyers, has built a partially deconstructed model home, which the company’s uses to emphasize its new “extreme energy efficiency” approaches. Some clients are sold on the spot, Schooley says, while others need as much educating as they do selling. The sales pitch takes longer and it is far more complex, but the results are impressive. The Meritage sales team, in the Verrado community, has managed to outsell its leading competitor by more than three to one, and this, Schooley notes, with homes that can carry a premium of $20,000 or more.

“I think it is the cake and the icing, too,” she says. “Here, there is no compromise. I am the largest lots, the most square-footage, the most efficient, the most technologically advanced, and I am the most expensive. So, when it comes down to it, there is no real explanation for why it is going as well as it is, but my understanding is that we’ve taken a two-year project and we are down to the end of it (after) only ten months.” And this, she adds, in the worst housing market in US history.

“Is there a lot of potential coming?” says Herro, “Yes. Have we extracted all that value? No. But, we are extracting some, and in this market, that’s just fine with us. These homes, with this kind of incorporated extreme energy efficiency, have demonstrated to be more profitable for us than conventional construction.”

Oct 282011

Autumn 2011
Vermont Life Magazine
Profile: Q & A


Every Vermonter Has a Story

Ana Araguas-DiTursi: tango teacher, empanada entrepreneur


Though Ana Araguas-DiTursi left Argentina 16 years ago, the culture of her native country continues to shape her life in Vermont.

A former professional ballerina, Araguas-DiTursi works as a dance instructor, teaching traditional Argentine tango and other dances to any Vermonter who has “the spirit and the soul” to learn. Araguas-DiTursi and her husband, Robert DiTursi, the parents of two small boys, also operate Ana’s Empanadas, a takeout food business built on her recipes for the traditional Spanish pastries. Araguas-DiTursi began selling her empanadas four years ago from a table at the Rutland Farmers Market, and the couple has since opened a winter snack bar at the base of the Needle’s Eye chairlift at Killington resort and a commercial kitchen and storefront in Rutland.

VL: What made you leave Buenos Aires and move to New York?

AA-D: The ballet was run by the government … and one day the government says, ‘Why are we paying all these dancers? No more ballet.’ That was in 1994, one year before I came here [to the U.S.].

VL: Why did you and your husband decide to move to Vermont?

AA-D: Robert knew Vermont, his uncle owned a house in Lake Bomoseen, and growing up, he loved Vermont. And then after 9/11, we were scared. We had a house in Brooklyn, and all the papers from the towers came into our backyard. … There was too much going on, and Robert says, ‘Let’s move to Vermont,’ and I said, ‘Sure,’ and we moved up here, and it is a wonderful, wonderful state. I just love it.

VL: So, no regrets?

AA-D: No. It is a little cold sometimes.

VL: What is your earliest memory of dancing tango?

AA-D: I danced tango when I was 4 with my dad, every weekend. It was like a family dance. Every time I return to Argentina, we dance tango. It is so normal for us. My dad puts the radio on and everybody in the family dances tango.

VL: How long have you taught tango in Vermont?

AA-D: For seven years, at schools, Castleton College, in Brandon, and I’ve done a lot of private lessons. They come to my house, actually. I have a little place in the basement, and the couples come and I teach private classes.

VL: What is the secret to dancing a good tango?

AA-D: My dad used to say, ‘You can dance a good tango, even if you do a simple movement, if you have it in your heart.’

VL: Is there a different style of tango that you teach in Vermont compared to the tango of Buenos Aires?

AA-D: No. Actually, I find that here in Vermont it is more like Argentine tango than when you go to Texas or other states. Tango is taught different all over the place, and the other tango they have here in America is American tango.

VL: How is it different from Argentine tango?

AA-D: American tango is more artistic, let’s say, like a waltz, like ballroom dancing. They do not do steps like Argentine tango. Argentine tango is more close and little steps.

VL: What spurred you to start selling empanadas at the farmers market?

AA-D: It is very difficult to be a ballet instructor and tango dancer in Vermont, and I am a very energetic person. I have to do something all the time. So, I called my husband and said, ‘I don’t know what you are thinking, but I am selling empanadas at the farmers market.’ And that’s it, I put my baby in my backpack, he was six months, and I went and sold my 50 empanadas. They ate them cold.

VL: When did you realize you had a viable business?

AA-D: That started gradually. I spent $100 to make my first market. After my third market, I said ‘Wait a minute, everyone has a tent, and I don’t have a tent.’ I don’t think I really realized it [was viable] until I got the business at the mountain.

VL: Where do you get your recipes?

AA-D: I do a lot of original Argentinean (recipes). The Humita is a family recipe. My mom taught me how to make it. I called my cousin in Argentina for the La Bomba, a three-cheese empanada. What I like to do is go to a city in Argentina and stop and talk to the owner of an empanada business, and they are very nice and just give me the recipes.

VL: Since you brought tango and empanadas to Vermont, is there anything about Vermont that you’ve brought back to Argentina?

AA-D: It is funny. I actually think that when I go back to Argentina, what I bring is the peace that is in this state.

VL: Peace?

AA-D: Yeah, peace. It is more relaxing. Buenos Aires is a little bit similar to Manhattan. Living in the city is very stressful. Here, Vermont is peace. The people are amazing.

I’ve met the best people in the world in Vermont. The farmers are very intelligent people and just down [to] earth. Vermont people are so kind. It is different. They are different.