Article No: 31

2006-04-28 14:34:17
Rebuilding the Heart of Chicago

Deep in the heart of Chicago, Monterrey Homes, Smith & Smith Associates architects, LaSalle National Bank and Union Baptist Missionary Church are quietly changing the face of urban renewal through the Mohawk North Condominium Association. The innovative condominium development, built in concrete, is the culmination of a plan by the Chicago Housing Authority to integrate downtown Chicago neighborhoods by eliminating the lines of separation of race and socio-economic status.

"The city requested proposals for five urban non-contiguous infill lots, or housing units that are not connected and are infilled between existing structures," said Jeff Welsh, vice president of Monterrey Homes. "The Housing Authority called for bids on three-unit condominium buildings built on five small lots in a prime, downtown location for a total of 15 units. We proposed to sell five of those units to the Housing Authority for subsidized housing, three units to low income buyers and seven units to market-rate buyers."

The small, infill lots are 30 feet wide by 125 feet deep, and are tucked tightly between buildings in the inner city, creating special space considerations in design, construction and material. Constructing the innovative condominium development with Lite-Form insulating concrete forms (ICFs) made sense for a variety of reasons.

"The key to making this project work was the location," Welsh says. "It's a beautiful, desirable area in downtown Chicago, central to Old Town, and it has a great view of the Sears Tower and the city lights." Welsh says that while the location was prime, the lots were small, and there wasn't a lot of room to maneuver heavy machinery and bulky building materials.

By using ICFs, the Monterrey Homes team was able to overcome many of the difficulties associated with building in a tight, urban environment.

"Building with Lite-Form is much faster and in many cases more convenient than building with wood frame shells," says Don Vaughn of Owens Corning, the company that sells Lite-Form and Pinkform Xtra Insulated Concrete Forming System. "It's also more economical in the long run, because the resulting building is extremely energy efficient, pest resistant, fire and wind resistant, and is noticeably more quiet."

The building process included two layers of 2-inch thick insulation panels locked in place by connector ties to form a core of poured concrete.

"After the concrete hardens, the panels may be stripped away for reuse or kept in place to provide an energy efficiency rating of more than R-20 when utilized with energy efficient windows and doors," Vaughn says.

"Energy efficiency was a key factor when we built these condominiums," says Gerardo Ayala, president of Monterrey Homes. "The gas bill for an average house in Chicago in the winter is between $300 and $400. The cost of gas for one of our concrete homes in the Mohawk condominiums is between $11 and $25. This is especially important for the environment, and for people who live on fixed incomes."

Despite the many benefits of building with concrete, the crew at Monterrey Homes had a tough sell when presenting their proposal to the code inspectors in Chicago.

"We had some difficulties with code agencies initially because they were new to the ICF concept," Welsh says. "These are four-story ICFs with masonry brick fronts, vinyl siding and combination roofs. We did a lot of structural calculations and overkill on the rebar, and were able to convince the building department that ICFs were safe and could meet code."

Welsh says that once codes were met, community support was incredible. "One of the keys to the success of Mohawk North is location," he says. "By building the development in a highly desirable area, we were able to draw the market-rate buyers. The location and price point helped the development overcome any kind of pre-conceived notions and has helped people get to know their neighbors, regardless of race or economic status."

The concept behind Mohawk North has been so successful that Monterrey Homes and the other members of the team had no need to spend money in advertising. "We had 14 of the 15 units sold within the first week," Welsh said. "We marketed the development in local churches that were interested in the idea of integrated community and the response has been overwhelming."

Since its inception, the Mohawk North Condominium Association has become a model for a citywide project to provide more integrated housing across social and economic borders, and has sparked interest in urban renewal. The Monterrey Homes team is looking forward to a bright future built on a foundation of concrete in the heart of the city.

"We're proposing development for a larger 650-unit development constructed in concrete, and Mohawk North has leveraged us into a much larger scale of public housing," Welsh says.

Lite-Form's Vaughn adds, "We're very impressed with the Mohawk North development, and we look forward to working with Monterrey Homes in their future successes."

According to Ayala, "People are starting to realize how revolutionary building with concrete is. When built properly, concrete is easy on the environment, durable and practically maintenance-free."

Ayala went on to say that structures built in concrete have a longer life than masonry and other structures. "The walls are protected on the inside and outside, so temperature changes don't affect the walls the way they do in other types of building," Ayala says. "Changing temperatures cause many other types of materials to expand and contract, which can prematurely age a building. Because the concrete structure is so well insulated, you don't have those problems. The insulation also makes the building nearly soundproof, which is very important in the city."

"We're inner-city builders," Welsh says. "Our hearts are in rebuilding and revitalizing inner-city Chicago. It's the only place we want to be."

Ayala agrees, saying he has found his calling in working to rebuild the infrastructure of an integrated downtown Chicago. "It's a real passion for both of us," Ayala says. "The best thing about Chicago is great opportunities for everybody who is willing to work for them."

And the Monterrey team's love of the city and its work ethic is paying off in more than economic terms.

"We formed a unique limited partnership in the community between builders, architects, a bank and a church, and we were all committed to building a neighborhood that crosses all perceived lines in the inner city," Welsh says. "We think this model will be a prototype for bridging social and economic boundaries in cities all across America."