Best of Affordable Senior Housing Design 2015: Cutting Costs, Not Style

When the term “affordable housing” comes to mind, the first thing to pop into your head is unlikely to be high style. That’s exactly the reaction that the team behind The Renaissance Kilpatrick, an affordable senior housing project located in Chicago, is hoping to buck.

Jeanmarie Kapp, chief operating officer of The Renaissance Companies, would be the first to tell you that affordable housing doesn’t have to look like it’s made on the cheap.

“Our promise has always been that affordable housing doesn’t have to look like affordable housing,” says Kapp. “This building is proof positive of that. It’s 90% affordable, but you would never know it looking at it. Not by the way we manage it, not the way it’s developed, not the way it looks.”

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Situated near a main transportation artery in Chicago’s Portage Park, a neighborhood about eight miles northwest of downtown, the Kilpatrick is a unique affordable housing project that not only fits into its surrounding community, but adds to it.

The Concept

Affordable housing projects can be hard to come by, yet the need for these housing options for adults 55 and older continues to grow, according to Kapp. The Renaissance Companies has been filling the need for affordable senior housing and other, market-rate properties in the Chicago area since 1985. The Kilpatrick Renaissance, with its 98 independent living units, is 90% reserved for low-income adults 55 and older, with 10% market-rate units.

“Affordable, quality senior housing is in high demand in this area, probably across the country, but definitely in a lot of neighborhoods across Chicago,” says Kapp. “We knew that the need was here.”

The plot of land where the project sits was originally slated for multi-family housing. After the original development never got underway following the financial crisis, The Renaissance Companies swooped in to build the affordable age-restricted housing. The Kilpatrick sits near Cicero Avenue, a major thoroughfare, and is close to grocery stores, shopping and public transportation.

“It meets a huge need for affordable housing for seniors, which is a global and national need, as well as a city need,” says Todd Wiltse, a partner with the Chicago-based architecture firm Worn Jerabek Wiltse Architects, P.C., which designed the building. “Within the city of Chicago, it lets people stay in the neighborhood.”

While many residents who now live at The Kilpatrick are from the surrounding area, adults have come from across the country to reside in the building. When it came to designing the structure, Wiltse says it was essential to integrate the building into the surrounding area and enable older adults to live independently without feeling like they are living in low-income housing.

“The main thing, starting with the biggest picture, was how do we take the program of independent seniors housing and make it an integral part of the neighborhood so we’re not just making people independent through the building, but in the neighborhood,” says Wiltse. “It’s a very nice site and a very urban site in that sense. Our main focus was how to get a building that relates to that visually and to get people out to walk around, invite their neighbors into the building and not feel they are trapped in the building.”

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The success of that integration with the neighborhood is part of what makes The Kilpatrick Renaissance stand out in its category of affordable housing.

“One of the things we were tasked to judge is connection within the community of the building or with a broader sense,” says Jeff Anderzohn, FAIA, senior planner, design architect with Eppstein Uhen Architects and also one of the judges for the 2015 SHN Architecture & Design Awards. “In this case, I looked at community connection in a broader sense with its adjacency to the commercial that’s just to the south of the development. So the residents have ready access to a grocery store and some other commercial areas. It has a good community connection.”

Construction

Before construction began on the building, The Renaissance Companies applied for Low Income Housing Tax Credits with the City of Chicago and had to sell the concept to the community. The project was developed as a City of Chicago Planned Development. With the help of local Alderman John Arena, Kapp and her team held meetings with the community to educate people on what the project would look like and who it would serve.

“There are people who don’t understand what the product is, they don’t understand who we are trying to serve,” says Kapp. “When it’s lower-income seniors, that’s an education process for people who live around the property. Once they gave us the opportunity to let them know what we were proposing, people got on board, which was very helpful.”

The process of applying and receiving LITCs was a long one, up to a couple years before construction could begin, according to Kapp. The timeline for the application process can keep a development from getting underway for months, or even years.

“The city’s tax credits are awarded annually, so there’s a competition for those,” says Kapp. “Every developer who does credits has to apply on an annual basis if they have a project they want to get off the ground. That’s why it’s complicated too by the timelines.”

The construction budget for the project was close to $15.8 million, which was funded by the long-awaited tax credits. While market-rate constructions may have the ability to seek alternative financing with a little more flexibility in budgets, The Kilpatrick Renaissance was very limited. This constraint actually inspired some creativity and innovation in how the building was constructed.

To preserve some savings, the building is made of a precast concrete structure that was created off-site, in Wisconsin. That streamlined construction and left some of the interior walls concrete, reducing the need to spend more time and money on drywall. The exterior of the building consists mostly of brick and stone masonry with details of composite metals, a throwback to the classic Chicago “bungalow style,” says Kapp.

“That is unique, particularly with the way they treated the exterior elevations as if it were masonry construction,” says Anderzohn. “Precast in this case allows it to be built a lot quicker and saves money. Time is money.”

The concrete reduced costs significantly, according to Bruce Sterling, vice president of Sterling Renaissance, Inc., the construction services company that built The Kilpatrick Renaissance. Sterling Renaissance subcontracted the manufacturing of the precast structure of the building.

“Early on we all got together and had the idea that we would leave the exterior walls exposed,” says Sterling. “And the people that made the product did such a good job that it actually looks like drywall. That saved a load of money. That saves studs, drywall, painting, taping, carpentry, labor. And the end result is it really looks nice.”

While making certain cost adjustments was one challenge, erecting the building also was no easy feat when dealing with the harsh Chicago winter weather, according to Sterling. As the project got underway, Sterling and his team were hit with one of the coldest winters on record, delaying the process.

“We started construction late November of 2013,” says Bruce Sterling. “Then it was the worst winter in 20 years. Then it was deathly cold for six weeks. Then it was cold and windy. Finally, when it warmed up, it got really rainy. It was a long process. …It was really almost 18 months, but we lost many, many days. We lost maybe 28 days from beginning of December 2013 to March 2014. …We just made it. There are all kinds of constraints [for] when you have to be done by for the equity partner, and we just made it for all of the delays that we had.”

Completion

After most of the building had been constructed and put together, Kapp and Sterling ran into another snag that delayed the project and ultimately changed the course of one of the development’s certification goals.

“The project was originally slated to be submitted for multifamily highrise code for the Energy Star, which falls under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” says Sterling. “The engineers designed a building that met all these criteria, and were positive that they had the review the way it was supposed to be. We had framed everything in the building and had the roof on. And then they made the submittal to the EPA, and the EPA came back and said we were short by one-half the amount of exhaust we needed.”

Realizing this problem so close to the end of the construction was a huge problem. The fix, according to Kapp, would have cost another $500,000 However, the City of Chicago disagreed that the building needed another component to its already efficient exhaust system. After much back and forth that lasted from July 2014 until October of the same year, The Kilpatrick Renaissance team finally decided to forgo its Energy Star certification.

However, the building still boasts an efficient exhaust, heating and cooling system that also benefits from the concrete interior walls, energy efficient lighting, Energy Star appliances, water-conserving plumbing fixtures and a rainwater harvesting system. All these energy savings are great benefits to residents.

The Kilpatrick Renaissance was completed in July 2015, with 38 studio units, 54 one-bedroom units and 6 two-bedroom units. Applications for the buildings units reached upwards of 430, according to Kapp, reflecting the high demand for this type of housing for adults 55 and older.

Since The Kilpatrick offers independent living, there was also a need for action plans should the acuity level of residents increase and their care needs change. As residents moved in, Renaissance Social Services, Inc. (RSSI) opened its doors on the main floor, providing 24-hour onsite staff to address the needs of residents and conduct programming for the building. RSSI also services 10 units of housing for Colbert Consent Decree/Illinois Department on Aging Individuals, which will provide these residents with relocation assistance, counseling, case management to rebuild social skills, housing management skills and more.

The four-story building features large common areas on the first floor where residents can interact and host events, such as exercise classes and workshops. The main floor holds a library with computers and Internet access, a club room with a fireplace, a landscaped private courtyard, fitness room and resident storage. The library holds a number of donated books on its dark wood shelves. Each room of the building requires an access key to enter, keeping the building secure.

To keep costs low, Kapp hand-picked much of the furnishings in the common areas and the art adorning the walls, much of it coming from second-hand stores or hotel sales. Off the front entrance of the building is a mailroom with inviting seating, including a high-winged loveseat couch that originated from a Chicago hotel. The club room features high-end shelving, a surround-sound system and television. The shelving is neatly decorated with items picked by Sterling and Kapp from stores like Home Goods, providing residents with a home-like feeling without a high cost. From the club room, residents can access the private courtyard, which is partially covered with an aluminum pergola and holds a number of grills for use.

Each floor of the building is a different color and the hallways have artwork that matches. Some floors have access to smaller outdoor spaces that are open seasonally. Within the resident rooms, Kapp and Sterling have cut costs, but kept a high-end feel. The floor has the appearance of wood, but is made of a less expensive material that is durable and easy to replace. The cabinetry is interlocking wood that is built to last. Within the market-rate units, the appliances are high-end compared to others in the building, but much the layout remains the same with adaptable features in the bathrooms and kitchens.

In some units, Sterling also rigged up a system so that residents can open windows with the push of a button. The system makes the windows compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, which say windows should be opened with a force of no more than five pounds.

It also is one more demonstration of the guiding principle for Sterling, Kapp and their teams: With ingenuity and a commitment to the goal, it’s possible to offer affordable housing without compromising on creature comforts or innovative design.

Written by Amy Baxter