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Best Green Houses:

The Chattanooga Used To: A defunct grocery store is reborn as a passively sustainable home.

Collier Construction and Elemi Architects

By David Sokol
August 2013
Photo © Robert Schellhammer

In 1969 the Environmental Protection Agency named Chattanooga the most polluted city in America. Thanks to tremendous citywide efforts, ranging from redevelopment of the city’s riverfront to procurement of an electric bus fleet, this former industrial city has undone its bad reputation and then some: Utne Reader declared it the most enlightened city in the nation; fans of Outside magazine more recently named it their favorite, too. Chattanooga’s turnaround also has relied on the piecemeal changes spurred by homeowners and entrepreneurs. They have borne the work of revitalizing the Southside neighborhood, for example, from an abandoned manufacturing nucleus to a creative-class destination.

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The individuals responsible for the transformation of the Southside have often called upon two of their own for help. Elemi Architects was founded by Eric Myers in 2006, and it has since worked primarily within the Chattanooga area, with projects that included the first LEED-Gold certified medical office in the state. Collier Construction, also located in Chattanooga’s Southside, is a custom builder founded in 2002 specializing in high-end, energy-efficient construction. Company namesake Ethan Collier recognized the importance of sustainability in 2005, while attending the National Association of Home Builders Green Building Conference. He explains, “I began to realize that a higher-quality product would last longer and have a more positive impact on the neighborhood. I literally got up after the class and called the folks back here in Chattanooga and said, ‘Stop what you’re doing until I get back.’” 

“We have a lot of dialogue about how we can push things further,” Brad Shelton, an architect at Elemi, says of the collaboration that takes place when the two companies take on projects together. “It’s naïve to just expect somebody to build a design to a certain standard without having him involved in the process from the early stages.” Shelton not only sees the error of an older, more compartmentalized way of design-bid-build project delivery, but also advocates for collaboration as “a method for getting a better sustainability outcome.” The Williams Street Residence, a Southside grocery that Collier and Elemi recently converted into a single-family residence, demonstrates how.

Originally built in the 1920s, the former grocery is textbook Chattanooga vernacular. Last used as office space, the building is slotted into a standard 25-by-80-foot city lot oriented east to west; its long north side abuts a brick warehouse, leaving just enough room for a narrow right of way grazing the south elevation and leading to a rear garden. Also typical is its load-bearing masonry wall, a three-brick-wide construction.

“It’s great from the standpoint of energy and embodied energy,” Collier says of the existing condition. “The masonry provides a nice thermal break in this climate, and because reuse is one of the most sustainable things you can do, a project like this basically requires encapsulating the envelope.” He admits that preparing the grocery for new life was not exactly a cakewalk, as the existing roof had begun experiencing leaking and plant growth. “After you get first penetration on the roof, the building would have been laying down after three or four of our summers.”  

Even so, an engineer’s assessment showed the nonagenarian building to be in good shape. To improve its prospects further, Collier’s crew placed floor loads and part of a new roof atop wood structure that they erected just inside the masonry, to which closed-cell spray insulation and drywall could also be applied. Salvaging surfaces untouched by leaks, Collier stored approximately 90 percent of the wood from the historic structure, such as ceiling timbers, and reused it for the new home’s floor structure.  

Shelton points out that the original orientation and massing posed more of an inherent challenge, from a passive sustainability perspective. With its ambient exposure completely blocked and little south-facing fenestration on the alley, “It was a long, thin, and dark space.” The project team’s solution was to opt for more transparency of the eastern and western bookends of the building, but to proceed with caution. “With sun being a little less harsh in the South in the mornings, we opened up the eastern side as much as structurally possible for daylighting.

“On the west end, we were able to provide an exterior patio for the master bedroom on the second floor, which doubled as a shading device and covered patio for the kitchen below.” The existing apertures on the south elevation were redone in double-glazed windows. Also, sun analysis guided the insertion of one north-facing roof monitor whose white-painted interior reflects diffuse daylight into the landing-cum-office on the second floor. Another was calculated to push daylight down the stairwell and into the dining area, having the overall effect of more uniformly illuminating the ground floor.

The Williams Street Residence’s sustainable impacts are both ecological and social in nature. The completion of the project has spawned two similar undertakings on the street, solidifying the neighborhood’s long-term durability. Perhaps more important, the project has invigorated the civic missions of two Southside trendsetters. “In our area, I would love to see $100,000 homes that perform like the homes we get to work on,” Collier says, “but with relatively cheap energy and conservative lending practices in this part of the world, that’s still a ways off.” And for Shelton, who studied under Samuel Mockbee shortly before his death, Collier’s salvaging and reusing the grocery store’s wood elements catapulted him back to his Rural Studio days. “Be aware of what you have, and try to reuse as much of it as possible even if that sometimes costs a little more up front,” Shelton says of Collier’s affordability challenge, in turn. “In the long run that’s going to save you money.”

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