Green goes historic with the Gramse building 

They don't build them like this anymore. That's what people often say about a historic building like the Gramse at 22nd and Broadway. Built in 1915, the Gramse Building features classic Prairie-style lines, a sturdy, two-storey brick exterior and, inside, plenty of woodwork to accentuate its hardwood floors and enclosed porches.

Now there's something else to say about the Gramse Building: It's green. Not only that, the Gramse is the first building in Indiana -- one of only a few in the entire country -- to not only qualify for LEED certification (the standard by which buildings' positive environmental impact is judged), but also meet standards for historic preservation and affordability.

The Gramse's 13 condominiums are being sold by the King Park Development Corp., a federally-funded neighborhood Community Development Corporation (CDC) responsible for the creation of affordable housing in the urban core bordered by Fall Creek Blvd., the Monon Trail, I-65 and Meridian St.

King Park acquires and rehabs existing housing that has fallen into such disrepair that it draws complaints from neighbors; constructs new housing at a price that low income home buyers can afford; and also offers home repairs to seniors and other low income homeowners.

Kristen Dobbs, King Park's Director of Housing Programs, said the Gramse Building represents a new level of ambition for the CDC. "We've historically done single-family homes and we try to do infill housing. The Gramse is such a neighborhood landmark; I can describe where it is and people know that building. We thought this would be a good way for King Park to make a big splash in the neighborhood. We haven't done anything with this type of impact before."

Offering condos represents a new dimension for King Park, which, until now, has dealt in single-family homes. "It's opening a niche for people who might have been priced out of the neighborhood before, or who may have been priced out of buying a single-family home," said Dobbs. "It's a good way to get a mix into the neighborhood."

Eleven of the 13 one and two-bedroom condos are aimed at low to moderate income buyers -- people whose income is below the average in Indianapolis. The residences range in size from 600 to 1300 square feet, feature Energy Star appliances, on-demand water heaters, nontoxic paints and other interior materials, as well as high performance heating, cooling and insulation systems. The condos are priced starting in the $70,000s and range up to just under $130,000.

The building's transformation has been engineered by Casa Verde, a local green development company. David Kadlec has served as the project manager. Casa Verde was working on a single-family home in the Gramse's vicinity when Kadlec and his colleagues were approached by the Gramse's owner at that time. The building was all but abandoned in those days; one elderly woman was the only tenant left and, while the building was structurally sound, it was in need of major attention.

"Right away we were drawn to the building itself," recalled Kadlec. "It's a beautiful building with intact architectural elements. It hadn't been mauled and switched out here and there or whacked to pieces like a lot of buildings have."

Eventually King Park acquired the property and contracted Casa Verde to make it green. Dobbs credits King Park's Executive Director, Janine Betsey, for her organization's long-standing emphasis on creating a smaller carbon footprint in their community. "She was green before green was cool. Since being here and working with her, it's something I've learned a lot about."

Dobbs said the decision to work with Casa Verde signified, a natural progression. We're doing affordable homes. The green stuff is not just trendy, it's also more affordable. It cuts bills and reduces the amount of maintenance someone may have to do on a water heater or furnace. It can lower their bills. Affordable needs to be a continuing process. It's not affordable if you can get in the house and monthly maintenance is a hardship.

Making what's old new

The enthusiasm to create LEED certified, small carbon footprint buildings has also had a trace of irony about it: The vast majority of LEED certified structures have been new. The next frontier for LEED construction involves recycling buildings that already exist. According to Casa Verde's Kadlec, figuring out how to retrofit a vintage structure like the Gramse wasn't the project's only challenge. "Building new, you can plan and lay out heating systems, where the ducts go, right from the start, without having to place all this consideration about what's already there. So it's a different animal," he said. "Then was the arrival of the historic preservation people, which brought another wrinkle to it."

It turned out the Gramse was distinctive enough to be a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places. This was thrilling news. But it was also the kind of development that can turn a developer's hair prematurely gray. "We had to follow very strict guidelines about maintaining the original pieces of the building and disturb as little as possible," said Kadlec.

But the Gramse's historic character only served to emphasize the quality of the opportunity the project represented. "Working with a historic building is green from the get-go," said Kadlec. "It's an existing building where human and extractive energy went into its creation. We call that embedded energy: The effort and cost and actual cutting of the lumber and firing of the bricks, all that happened 95 years ago. That energy still exists. It's still usable. So we reclaim that and we don't have to cut down more trees and we don't have to buy a bunch of bricks that got fired by natural gas that created pollution now. We can capture that and keep it alive. That flywheel that was started 95 years ago is still running and it's a solid enough structure it will last a long time if properly maintained."

Kadlec said that attention to historic preservation has added value to the project. "We're on the same team because we believe in that building and we believe in being true to its character, preserving it as intact as possible and to have it live on. The preservation people are like a conscience to make sure what makes the building significant stays there."

Attention to the Gramse's historic character has also made the project unique. "I did a Google search when we started this thing," said Kadlec, "and I found next to nothing when I combined low-moderate income, LEED certified and historic preservation guidelines and National Register candidate. It's hard to find. So we are inventing the wheel here by bringing together these three mighty universes that often might think that they can't get along."

Casa Verde's efforts have not been limited to the building. King Park was able to acquire a lot adjacent to the Gramse's north side, which will be preserved as green space for the tenants, providing a play area for kids and a potential garden. "It's a great way to increase the usability of the building and provide something for urban dwellers that often doesn't happen, since as you get closer to Downtown, lot sizes crunch down and buildings typically take up a whole lot," said Kadlec, who also noted the way Casa Verde has worked off-street parking and provision of storm water capture through pervious paving and an absorption basin into the project's overall design.

The finishing touches are being made on the Gramse and the building should be ready for occupancy before the end of the year. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, first time home buyers who commit to a condo at the Gramse before December 1 can qualify for a tax credit equal to 10 percent of the cost of the home up to $8,000.

"I would love to see a mix of people in the building," said King Park's Dobbs. "Young professionals, but also parents and older people, as well." A project like the Gramse Building, she said, "makes people rethink urban living."

For more information about the Gramse Building, contact Kristen Dobbs at King Park, 2430 N. Delaware St., 46205. Phone: 317-924-8116. Email: Website:

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