Cover Story: House Rules

A Philly startup is out to prove that eco-friendly architecture can be affordable
story by Natalie Hope McDonald / photo by Shawn Corrigan

It happened over beers. Childhood friends Chad Ludeman and Nic Darling were in the process of making a huge change—leaving their jobs to launch a development company. Neither one had any work experience in architecture or design, but they could see a shift happening—green, energy-efficient building was the future, and they had a chance to capitalize. The pair were were brainstorming, mulling over traditional business models and rehashing their extensive research, when a distressing question arose: Did they really want to build houses that they themselves couldn’t afford? That their friends couldn’t afford? That same night, they went home and registered a domain name: 100khouse.com.

Ludeman and Darling have been friends since fifth grade. They grew up in a small, one-traffic-light town about 20 minutes south of snowy Rochester, NY. Even after attending different schools and moving away from their families, the two friends kept in touch and eventually relocated to the Philadelphia area.

Two years ago, they founded Postgreen, a development company they hope will change the way people build homes in this city.

“It started out of the purest essence of wanting to do our thing,” says Darling, who, along with Ludeman, quit his day job to launch this venture. Darling worked in software design and Ludeman, who sold his house to fund Postgreen, made barcode scanners. Neither had any formal training in architecture or construction, but they had an itch for real estate.

“We had always been interested in real estate as an investment model,” explains Darling. “Green building was less of a ‘let’s save the world’ thing and more of a ‘let’s build better houses’ thing.” They believe that green design is the inevitable future of construction—hence, their company’s name. “In a way, it’s a joke for us,” admits Darling. “Right now this is considered ‘green’ building, but in 10 or 20 years it will just be ‘building.’ We wanted to operate in a sense that what we’re doing is beyond green, or ‘post-green.’”

The team—which also includes Ludeman’s wife Courtney, chief financial officer and vice president of sales—spent every waking hour reading books and reaching out to architects and modular home designers around the country to better understand the industry into which they were taking an enormous leap.

Darling argues that, in some ways, not having experience in construction gave the company a fresh outlook. “We’re really driving the idea that green building—sustainable building—should not necessarily be more expensive,” he says. “We want to provide energy-efficient, architecturally-appealing houses to a market that normally doesn’t have access to any of those things.”

In many ways, Postgreen’s staff represents the company’s target demographic: young, creative types who want an aesthetically distinct home for a fair price, and construction that respects the environment.
“When we first started this project, we were looking at more traditional Philadelphia development models,” says Darling, referring to two-story properties with three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths that featured 1,800 square feet and sold between $400,000 and $800,000. But, after that formative soul-searching session, they decided to pursue a different direction, putting affordability at the top of their priority list.

Darling and Ludeman were both inspired by the title of author Karrie Jacobs’ book The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home (Viking, 2006). “The book itself is different from what we’re doing,” says Darling, “but it was an interesting concept.” The pair wanted to begin the design conversation with a specific end goal. “We wanted to do something that pushes the envelope,” adds Darling.

East Kensington is a neighborhood in transition. Boarded-up, burnt-out buildings, vacant lots and an active drug culture plague some areas of this working-class community. Once home to the city’s booming textile industry (a few of the old factories were being converted into condos before the real estate market lost its legs), the triangular area, bound to the North by Erie Avenue, Front Street to the West and Trenton Avenue to the East, has become home to various immigrant populations and, more recently, young artists and professionals looking for cheap digs.

It’s also a place where Postgreen saw possibility—they could replace vacant lots with affordable, green housing designed to fit between existing buildings, making room for healthier living in one of the city’s least likely environments. The low cost of land and proximity to public transportation also made Kensington appealing to Postgreen. They picked a lot on East Susquehanna Avenue near 21st Street as the site for their first project.

The completed 100K House, a LEED Platinum-certified two-unit residence, looks more like something you’d see in Berlin or Copenhagen than North Philly. The sleek, loft-style townhouses stand out on a block dominated by traditional walkups and fenced-in yards growing little more than dirt and tin cans. “In the same way that our buildings are challenging people to live better, our architecture is challenging people,” says Darling. “It signals that we’re doing something different.”

Taking a cue from European design, the 100K House showcases Postgreen’s philosophy: marrying affordability and eco-friendly living with simple, scaled-down architecture. Darling says that the reaction from neighbors has been overwhelmingly positive, despite the radical departure from the area’s traditional aesthetic. He explains that they were happy to see something, anything going up, and excited about seeing a vacant lot used for more than loitering and trash. That said, not all reaction has been positive. “A guy stopped in a van one day and yelled that it was the ugliest house in the neighborhood,” he recalls.

“The process was to think of the house like an industrial design piece—a functional object,” explains Brian Phillips of Interface Studio, the project’s architect. “We designed it to perform.”

Phillips and Ludeman met at a conference several years before joining forces to build Postgreen’s premier project. Phillips and his firm were intrigued by the prospect of designing a concept that could be used as a model for homes throughout the city. “From the start, I was very excited,” says Phillips. “I knew what was so radical about it wasn’t how green it was, but how small it was. This is a very urban ideal.”

The first 100K House has a clean, boxy design and features two single-family units (one at 1,150 and the other at 1,270 square feet) on two levels. For Phillips, designing a residence that was compact, functional and green was a welcome challenge, especially considering all the ways urban design has gone wrong in recent years. “Philadelphia has suffered too much from the weird urban McMansion hybrids,” he says. “When you live in the city, the city is your living room.”

There is a definite ideological thrust behind the layout of 100K’s indoor spaces—Postgreen has a specific vision for how people should live. The home’s common spaces are dynamic and flexible, encouraging interaction among the residents, while the bedrooms are relatively small and open to the house.

Ludeman and his wife Courtney are experiencing this lifestyle firsthand: Upon completion, they moved into one of the units, new baby in tow. Courtney admits she was concerned about the small floor plan at first, especially given the new addition to their family. “I was worried when it was being designed that there wouldn’t be enough space,” she says. “But quite the opposite has been true.”

While the floor plan is lean, the open-air design provides a sense of spaciousness. “We’re spoiled,” says Darling. “The American home has gone from an average of 900 square feet with 3.3 people per household to an average of 2,700 square feet with 2.2 people per household.” That kind of living is isolating—and not ideal for small city spaces.

Given the tens of thousands of vacant lots in the City of Brotherly Love, production housing like this—housing that can be repeated—has a bright future. The hope is that other homes like 100K House will be designed around town, with custom elements adjusted depending on the homeowner’s goals and desires.

“We’re very excited about the potential for small, super-efficient houses as a great option for urban buyers—especially in this economy,” says Phillips. “We like the fact that the tight budget allowed us to use exposed concrete and plywood finishes.” The units at 100K sold for $200,000 and $250,000, respectively—and were each built at a cost of $100,000.

The architect describes the design as minimalist; he was inspired by cars, IKEA and products outside of the realm of architecture. “We know it’s landmark,” he says. “It demonstrates that high-performance houses can be affordable. We tried to minimize superfluous finishes and elements. But the resulting minimalism certainly feels like a more expensive product.”

The building features many hallmarks of green design, such as Energy Star appliances, rainwater collection, low-flow, dual-flush toilets, solar thermal hot water, radiant and passive cooling, CFL lighting and low- or no-VOC finishes throughout.

“We wanted to prove that we could build a green home for the same or less than regular or new construction,” explains Darling. “We also wanted to create a housing model that would fit into these lots in between houses in Philly.” East Kensington is a particularly good place to build since so much of the neighborhood is blown-out and abandoned.

Since 100K House went up and residents moved in, Postgreen has moved onto several other projects, including the Skinny Project, a modern home design (also on East Susquehanna Avenue) that’s configured to fit into narrow infill lots, and the Passive Project on Amber Street, the developer’s first crack at the German Passive House standard. That project consists of two adjacent rowhomes designed to reduce heating and cooling by a whopping 90 percent. “What we hope is that we’re doing things to bring up the value of the area and bringing more vitality to the neighborhood,” says Darling. “But we’re careful not to create something that’s hugely imbalanced.”

Phillips sees 100K House as a sign of the times—both good and bad. “I like its honesty,” he says. “I think it’s a cool house, but it never attempts to be anything other than what it is, which is a super-minimal, flat box with great light. I also like the fact that some people really hate it. That’s a sign that we’re onto something quite good.”

Sam Klein, senior technical consultant for MaGrann Associates in Moorestown, NJ, advised Postgreen about the project’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) goals. For housing to qualify for LEED certification, it must pass benchmarks established by the Green Building Rating System.

“We score a home’s energy performance on a scale of zero to 100,” says Klein. “Zero is perfect because that means it consumes zero energy. And 100 is code. Most of our homes come in at around 70, or 30 percent improvement. The 100K House scored a 49, which is very good.”

Another area that’s important for LEED certification is Indoor Air Quality. “Most projects do the bare minimum to meet the Indoor Air Quality portion of LEED,” he explains. “But 100K is part of a small group doing the right thing by adding continuous ventilation with a heat recovery ventilator.” This means the heating and cooling that a home normally loses through ventilation is captured by a device that transfers it from the outgoing air back into the incoming air.

“The 100K House definitely proved that there’s a market for extreme green,” says Klein. “I think it’s a great example to all builders out there who think that they have to build green, but keep a traditional aesthetic.”

By moving into one of the units, the Ludemans essentially established a show home—and installed themselves as a show couple—in service of the company’s agenda.

As mentioned, Ludeman sold his house to fund the company, so moving into the finished product—coming full circle—signaled a certain amount of success. The pride shows: The Ludemans (plus baby) post photos of life in their new, ultra-mod digs on the 100K Blog and Flickr page.

“I have absolutely loved living in the home,” says Courtney. “It’s bright and airy, and very spacious." In addition to saving considerable money on energy costs, Courtney has also noticed a difference in the air quality. She’s currently building a spreadsheet that showcases their reduced energy bills—they’re paying 25 to 50 percent less depending on the season thanks to the home’s energy-efficient features.

“This winter, our house was very warm and comfortable,” she says. “No drafts, hot or cold spots. In fact, I’m normally bundled up in sweaters and covered in blankets—this has been the first year where that has not been the case.”

The two biggest advantages of the building model are energy-efficiency and healthy design. “Right now we’re starting to build up a case study of 100K,” says Darling. “Our energy model said utilities would be about $1,200 a year, but it’s coming in significantly less than that.” He says energy costs are about half that of the average home in the U.S., and have one third the operating costs of many old Philly rowhomes.

Rating the health standards is a little more difficult. “We focus on low-VOC finishes, and the mechanical ventilation system is robust,” he says. “The air exchange has a filter that cleans the air. Our homes are a lot more hypoallergenic than others, and protect against molds and toxins.”

They also consume less water. “We’re building up the quality of how we deal with rainwater,” explains Darling. “That’s one areas where we’re really behind Europe. We lack the products, but we’re hoping the glorious thing called American ingenuity gets up and goes.” The demand for LEED-certified housing is on the upswing, which may signal more opportunities for builders like Postgreen, who are in need of products and concepts already being used across the pond that are difficult to get in the U.S.

There are other logistical issues: Darling admits that with each new project being planned, including a sustainable, affordable housing project on Sheridan Street (slated to be the greenest publicly-subsidized housing project in the Commonwealth) and the development of a new green rental unit, Postgreen faces challenges for funding in today’s economic climate.

Despite those challenges, Postgreen’s projects continue to go up in Philadelphia, transitioning from lines on paper to metal and wood. Darling admits he’s learned a lot from the company’s inaugural 100K House. “There’s nothing tangible at first, and then suddenly a house is being built,” he says. “The first time you build something, it’s a pretty shocking thing.”