Passive & Panelized

7 min read

Robotics Revamp 50-Year-Old Urban Village 

Robots. Factories.

Entire building sections shipped in on trucks. Walls keeping cold air in during the summer and warm air in during the winter with virtually no leakage and minimal energy costs. These are all components of a modern story of low-income affordable housing in Washington, DC.

The saga of Urban Village at 3403 16th Street, NW in the nation’s capital (and just up the block from NH&RA headquarters) began in the thick of the Civil Rights movement more than 50 years ago. Its next chapter is being written now, with ultra-modern construction concepts and techniques that were not imagined back then.

But to appreciate the whole story, it’s worth looking back more than a half century.

A Church’s Gift
St. Stephen and the Incarnation was long known as a socially active and morally conscious Episcopal church in Washington’s Columbia Heights, only a short distance from the 14th Street corridor devastated by the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination. Two years later, with the neighborhood still reeling, its parishioners voted overwhelmingly to deed three lots, totaling 1.28 acres and valued at $300,000 for a new “urban village” apartment complex for residents at all income levels. St. Stephen partnered with the local Cafritz Construction Company and by the time the project opened in 1978, it had evolved into a 72-apartment garden-style building with a Section 8 contract. The name Urban Village stuck.

When the Section 8 commitment expired in 1998, Cafritz was ready to sell and the Urban Village Tenant Association chose Somerset Development Company, LLC, based in the District, to acquire and renovate the property. Somerset sees its mission as revitalizing urban communities through development and preservation of affordable housing, often undertaking the redevelopment of distressed areas to turn them into assets, while preserving the essence of the neighborhood. The Urban Village sale was completed in 2003, utilizing tax exempt bonds and Low Income Housing Tax Credits issued through the DC Housing Finance Agency, plus Community Development Block Grant funds from the DC Department of Housing and Community Development.

Expanding the Vision
“After Year 15, the original tax credit investor left,” says Patrick McAnaney, Somerset’s project manager. “The garden style was definitely starting to age. We had plenty of issues with our elderly residents, including the challenge that the building was a walk-up. Because of where it was on 16th Street, the property was zoned for pretty high density and we wanted to be able to expand to more units.”

“In response to DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s call for 12,000 new affordable housing units, we decided to redevelop the site in two phases,” says Bill Whitman, Somerset’s development partner.

“It is a four percent LIHTC deal with 115 units in the first phase of a projected total of 230. Tenants will be relocated offsite with a right to return.” All of the apartments in both phases will be affordable at between 50 and 60 percent of area median income (AMI).

“Additionally, there will be 14 two- and three-bedroom apartments designed as permanent supportive housing for those vulnerable to homelessness, fed in from family shelters to long-term housing and managed by Housing Up, our nonprofit partner,” says McAnaney.

“A response to homelessness has always been part of our overall plan.” Somerset routinely contributes directly to providing supportive services for its properties, including facilities like community and computer rooms and counselors on site.

Eric Colbert & Associates PC, a firm noted for its transformational projects, is the architect. Whiting-Turner of Baltimore is the general contractor.

Though there is no official name yet for the renovated and expanded facility, the working title is Urban Village Phase One.

Modern Concepts
Somerset is redeveloping Urban Village with Passive House design, a concept that originated in Germany and Sweden in the late 1980s, involving high efficiency and a strong ecological footprint that requires little energy for heating, ventilation and cooling. “Energy efficiency is part of the scoring criteria for Housing Trust Fund money,” says Whitman, “but Somerset always tries to be as green as we can, and it is exciting to be moving the green bar higher.”

McAnaney elaborates, “When the city puts out its annual RFP for housing, we try to figure out what the cost is and what we can do to make our projects as green as possible. This did add a layer of complexity, but we figured it would be an important test for us going forward.”

Somerset enlisted Blueprint Robotics of Baltimore, an innovative company that manufactures panelized construction components in a factory that employs robotic technology to achieve high precision and adapt to custom design specifications.

“In Passive House construction, the membrane is key,” McAnaney explains. “We worked with Blueprint on a passive wall they developed in their factory. One of the broader challenges is that the Passive concept wasdesigned in Germany where the concern is colder weather. Here in Washington, we have different climate sensitivities. So, we worked with a Passive House consultant in Baltimore and an engineering consultant in Virginia.” The panelized wall segments are complete with plumbing, duct work, electrical wiring, HVAC components and insulation when they leave the factory.

“The design meetings were absolutely fascinating,” Whitman says. “We were talking about carbon footprints not only of building materials, but of transportation costs, construction techniques, etc. We spent time looking at other passive buildings. Blueprint is still evolving what they do. The initial designs came from the architect and various subcontractors and then was translated into computer codes that the machines use. We also avoid conflicts, like plumbing and wiring being put in the same place, because the software is 3D. This was a moment waiting to happen.”

The Cost-Saving Equation
“An interesting component was thinking about landscaping,” McAnaney adds. “How do trees affect the environment? How can we be smart about using the shading from trees? This really turned out to be about nature and technology interacting. For instance, we have the newest HVAC, combined with ancient thinking about solar heating and cooling.”

“It’s like going back to the days of the Whole Earth Catalog,” Whitman comments.

One of the great draws of factory-fabricated paneling, such as walls, floors and roofs, is the cost savings based on manufacturing efficiency, timeline planning and predictability, and the minimization of weather delays. “One of the areas of savings is taking three months off the normal production schedule,” says Whitman.

“Normally, you have savings with Blueprint’s system,” states Anya Kamara, Somerset’s director of development. But there is quite a premium in building a Passive House, so we’re finding the two factors are somewhat negating each other. But we’re working on determining projected savings for the company and for the residents themselves, which is very important for affordability. And right before we put a pause on the project, we were presented with a different heating and cooling system to consider, so we’re still figuring that out.”

The pause Kamara refers to was caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and had implications across the board, from design completion to start and completion dates. “The main unknown is how we’re going to relocate tenants,” McAnaney says.

“We’re hoping to get everything going again soon,” Whitman notes, “maybe breaking ground this time next year. Right now, we’re still in design. Traditional carpenters measure tolerances in quarter inches. Blueprint measures them in millimeters. It’s quite impressive.”

“Passive House has to be so perfect,” McAnaney says. “It’s really one of the benefits. It’s hard to quantify [how much extra this is costing] but we knew precision would be important for a tighter sealed building. It’s certainly our hope that the trajectory of the learning curve will lower costs over time. There is reason to be optimistic; and also, we don’t have a choice. Both federal mandates and local requirements will get stricter and stricter.”

Whitman concurs. “The city we’re building in now is going to be a drastically different climate in 20 years. So, even if we can’t quantify that now, we’re building for the future. This is scalable and I certainly want to do more of it. Passive House and panelized construction will become one aspect of a whole array of efforts.”

Story Contacts:
Anya Kamara                             

Patrick McAnaney                      

William Whitman