Denver Housing Authority and Rocky Mountain Institute Push for Superefficient Housing in Denver

The Denver Housing Authority and the Rocky Mountain Institute teamed to push sustainable development in Curtis Park and beyond. Next: a development plan for Sustainability Park in the coming months, with groundbreaking slated for 2015.
Five university teams worked on a design for a "superefficient rowhouse" for Sustainability Park in the Curtis Park neighborhood as part of the Rocky Mountain Institute's Denver Superefficient Housing Challenge.

Teams were tasked with designing rowhouses 50 to 60 percent more efficient than code within DHA's real-world budget constraints. 

RMI, an energy-efficiency think tank based in Snowmass, and the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) came together on the competition circa 2010. Judges from the construction industry and community members evaluated the final designs on Thurs. Jan. 16 at RedLine Gallery.

Community members gave the People's Choice Award to teams from University of Utah and University of Colorado Denver. The industry experts gave the Technical Award to Ryerson University in Toronto.
"A strange vibrancy"Ryerson University's winning Harvest House.

Bounded by 25th, 26th, Lawrence and Arapahoe streets, Sustainability Park came to be after the DHA cleared two city blocks of dilapidated public housing starting in the late 1990s.

Plans were in "the concept stage" to develop housing on the site as of 2006, says Christopher Parr, DHA Director of Development. "Then a thing called 2008 happened."

Parr says DHA subsequently had "2.5 blocks of dirt" after redevelopment efforts stalled. The "placeholder" has been Sustainability Park, featuring an urban farm, sustainability exhibits and public art. 

"Some people thought it was the strangest thing they've ever seen," says Parr of the park. "Some thought it was the coolest thing they've ever seen. It had a strange vibrancy to it."

Now it's back to the drawing board for a new housing development on the site, says Parr. The urban farm will remain, but the rest of the park's features will be retired to make way. 

The goal of the Denver Superefficient Housing Challenge was to generate ideas for the project to come. "It's been an interesting process," says Parr. "What can we take, what can we embrace as we move forward?" 

Parr says he expects DHA will have a development partner for the site by March 2014, with a target of "mid-year next year for the shovel in the ground," adding, "We want to be really thoughtful about the design process."

An affordable Solar Decathlon
The final reception was held at RedLine Gallery.
Entrants into the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon typically cost over $1 million to build. The Superefficient Housing Challenge didn't require actual construction, just concept, opening it up to university teams.

"What it came down to was it had to be affordable," says RMI Project Manager Elaine Gallagher Adams.

"The whole point is to bring sustainable construction principles into education," says RMI's Craig Schiller, who managed the university teams.

One such team from Fred Andreas' Advanced Design class at CU Denver, Catherine Brown and Korey White came up with a plan for five interconnected rowhouses. As part of the assignment was to create novel systems, Brown and White came up with a solar-based district heating system for all five units. But they also wanted a development that meshed nicely with the historic character of Curtis Park.

"Korey and I are a little bit unique," says Brown. "She also studied urban planning and I also studied historic preservation. We really looked it as a whole of five units and really looked at the surrounding neighborhood."

Brown and White's vision calls for a "living alley" with benches and carports connecting the urban farm to a plaza on 26th Street that would be a natural fit for a farmers market, says White. 

Brown and White both graduated in Dec. 2013 and now are respectively working for Iron Horse Architects and Path21 Architecture in Denver.

Beyond educating students and faculty at the participating universities, RMI has even bigger targets. "We need to train the Housing Authority," says RMI's Adams. "There's really a huge opportunity to build more efficiently."
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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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