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The Retreat Farm: Playing With Conceptual Design

When the Windham Foundation approached Stevens & Associates about coming up with concepts for redeveloping the Retreat Farm property out on Route 30, we knew if would be a fun project. At this stage of design, which you could call the “dream” stage, there are few limits to what you can explore. We keep budgets in mind, but we also encourage our clients to dream big. Sometimes, a design that seems impossibly expensive will come to fruition through creativity and innovation.

On to the details: for the Windham Foundation, we looked at repurposing existing farm buildings to create a retail and manufacturing cluster to add to Grafton Village Cheese’s existing facility. We looked at adding parking to the site and making it easier for pedestrians to enter and explore the site and access the Retreat Trails toward the back of the property.

Most exciting for us is the possibility of turning Route 30 into a boulevard, with a bike and walking path separated from the road by a planted strip. A planted strip would also separate the traffic lanes. Both of these things lead to better pedestrian and cyclist safety, since they visually cue drivers to slow down and watch for traffic. Such a boulevard could become a grand entrance to Brattleboro from Route 30.

It’s important to note that this is just a first pass at a conceptual design, and there is a lot of hard work before any of it would become reality. Further study will tell us where the wetlands are on the property and what effect development would have on them. It will also tell us if there are archaeological resources that need to be protected, and how best to control stormwater. We will look more closely at the buildings and what it would take to renovate them and adapt them to new uses. And then we will look at how much all of these ideas will cost.




Pedestrian Safety is Good for Business

Smart Growth American and the National Complete Streets Coalition have issued a report, entitled “Dangerous By Design 2014,” looking at the causes and frequency of pedestrian deaths and injuries on the nation’s roadways. It’s worth a look, especially in light of recent pedestrian accidents in the Brattleboro area.

Many of the hallmarks of “dangerous design” are present in our region, including state highways and thoroughfares with pedestrians and cyclists sharing roads designed for high vehicle speeds. (Think Route 9 between Marlboro and Brattleboro, or Route 30 coming into town.)

There’s a ton of data in the report, but what struck us was a small case study about West Jefferson, North Carolina. Apparently, the main street of the town is also a state highway, which had been designed for large trucks and high vehicle speeds.

Working with the state, the town eliminated traffic signals and replaced them with four-way stop signs, painted high-visibility crosswalks, increased on-street parking, and extending curbs to lessen the length of pedestrian crossings. Traffic slowed and people started walking again.

Within a few years, new stores opened up in previously vacant storefronts (dropping vacancies from 33 to 5). The downtown renewal prompted $500,000 in renovations and investment, the opening of 10 new businesses , creation of 55 new jobs, and a 19% increase in tourist visits.

The point is this: pedestrian safety is good for business, good for downtowns, good for the grand list, good for just about everyone and everything. There are several plans for the Brattleboro area that incorporate these measures; let’s work to get them built.


(Photos from



Welcoming Ham Hodgman

We’d like to welcome Ham Hodgman to the team here at Stevens & Associates. Ham worked for us quite some time ago, and then moved away down South. But now he’s back, bringing his civil engineering expertise with him.

To quote his resume:

“Hamilton (Ham) Hodgman has worked as a civil engineer in Vermont, North Carolina, and South Carolina for over a decade. His work has included schematic design, design development, state and local permitting, and construction phases for residential and commercial construction. He is well-versed in public presentations and client relations.

In addition to his civil engineering and design work, Ham has extensive experience providing construction services, including technical review, geotechnical engineering, inspections, and materials testing on projects for industrial, institutional, and commercial facilities clients.”




Historic Preservation is Green

While the greenest building may be the one that’s never built, the next greenest may be the historic one that’s being rehabbed.

A couple of years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released a study quantifying the environmental benefits of rehabilitating old buildings instead of construction new ones. The study concluded that it can take “between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts that were created during the construction process.”

Renovation of historic buildings has environmental costs, too—the materials used in renovation take energy to make and put in the building. But the environmental costs are 4%-46% less than those incurred by new construction.

The study offers some caveats. Renovation needs to improve the energy performance of the building to pay off, and you need to be careful about the types of materials you use. Turning warehouses into apartments, for example, requires many new materials and may not offer any environmental benefits over building new.

Making an older building meet the demands of the twenty-first century isn’t a simple process. In the Brooks House, for example, we had to add framing to increase the available space for insulation. Many of the windows were replaced, and others (the ones that were especially important historically) were rehabilitated to make them more energy efficient.

Many of the features of historic buildings are inherently energy-efficient. Large, operable windows allow daylighting and ventilation, meaning you can turn lights and air-conditioning off more often. Massive brick walls take a long time to heat up and cool down, which means that interior spaces stay comfortable longer without air conditioning or heat.

Many historic buildings are located in neighborhoods and downtowns that were built before the automobile was invented. Historic buildings make up Main Street, the icon of mixed-use walkability in this country. Kaid Benfield noted recently that “Main Street is a terrific model worth preserving and emulating…It has a human scale, neither skyscrapers nor sprawl, but something in between.”



What We’re Reading, May Edition

Want to read what we’ve been reading? Read on…

“In Cape Town, Urban Design Reduces Violence”

From the American Society of Landscape Architects comes a blog entry about an urban design project in Cape Town, South Africa, that has reduced murders (an insight into overall violence) in one of the city’s townships by 22% overall. How? A group of planners, landscape architects, and architects created four “safe nodes” throughout the township. These nodes provide well-lit pedestrian malls, wide walkways, and other elements that promote safe walking routes. New public facilities, including community buildings, parks, and a sports complex provide spaces for community events, get-togethers, and play.

“Search for Ash Borers Turns Up Termites in Vermont”

Termites in Vermont? Well, maybe. WCAX reports that traps set for invasive ash borers have found one infestation of subterranean termites near the town of Wells.

“Do We Need Affordable Housing or Affordable Living?”

Housing is getting more expensive, here in Brattleboro and everywhere else. Blogger Dan Zack at Better! Cities and Town offers the opinion that housing itself is only part of the problem, and argues that we should be focused not on affordable housing alone, but on affordable living. He breaks the issue down into two parts, talking first about the combined cost of housing and transportation, which is approaching roughly 50% of average household income. This is largely because to get to cheaper housing, you need to go further away from the city, where the jobs are, making commutes longer and transportation costs higher.
There’s a tool from the Center for Neighborhood Technology called the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index. There’s not enough data for Brattleboro specifically, but the surrounding towns all hit that 50% mark or higher for costs. We live in a rural area, and most people drive for work, groceries, and other things.
The second part of Zack’s article talks about the size of living spaces. He points out that smaller living spaces cost less, and that an investment in public spaces would make smaller private spaces more palatable.

(Capetown Photos found here.)


How Do You Decide to Save a Building?

Next month, we are going to a walk-through of 14 Mill Street in Bellows Falls. The Town is looking for someone to redevelop two buildings on the site, which is down a back street downtown. A developer would enter into a partnership with the Town, which would assist with grant funding and redevelopment, then sell the property to the developer for $1. So what does a developer consider in a situation like this? How do you decide to save a building?

First you look at the building itself. Will the building and its spaces work for your proposed use? Does it have enough parking or access for your needs? What are the floor-to-floor heights? How big are the rooms? What condition is the building in? Is it structurally sound?

The 14 Mill Street property has some lovely details, including brick work and large windows. Most of it is likely still sound, structurally, but some has deteriorated and is no longer safe. The building would not likely be suitable for retail purposes, since it has no street presence on the main square of the village, and vehicular access is a little tricky.

Next you think about the financing for the project. What sources of funding are available to you? Does the project qualify for tax credits? What about grants and loans? What can you count on for project “hard” costs (materials and construction expenses)? What about “soft” costs (designers, lawyers, etc.)?  What is the market like in the area, and what can you get for rents?

Although you would need a lot more detail on the building to know for sure, from first glance, we can tell that 14 Mill Street is in a New Market Tax Credit zone and is likely eligible for Historic Preservation Tax Credits. It may also be eligible for a Community Block Development Grant for Slums and Blight Development. You can assume somewhere around $200/ft2 for hard costs and another $50 or $60/ft2 for soft costs. We have a rough idea of square footage from previous work on the building, which means that we can guess that you would need to get $25/ft2 in rent to support those redevelopment costs if you didn’t have subsidies and tax credits. To make the project viable, you need to get the rental figure down to what the market will bear, somewhere in the $10-$12/ft2 range.

(Let’s take a minute here to remind ourselves that this is ALL guesswork, and that a full feasibility study would be required to make any of these numbers even close to accurate. We’d also like to note that we will be taking a deeper look at each of these funding sources in the future.)

So what’s the next step? A developer would go back after a walk-through and try to firm up the numbers above and analyze the building and its location. A call to an architect might be in order (that’s why we go to the walk-through) to talk about what’s needed for the building, and a rough budget for the project needs to be developed. Then the developer would submit a proposal, with budgets and maybe even rough design sketches, to the Town.  If they are awarded the building, they move on to a more complete look at the feasibility of the project, called a “feasibility study.” And then to design and construction.





Adaptive Reuse for Landscapes: The High Line

We most often think of adaptive reuse in terms of restoration of buildings, but the term applies to landscapes and other structures, too. The High Line in Manhattan repurposed an elevated rail track along 10th Avenue to make a park and walking trail through downtown.The project was completed in phases; the first segment opened in 2009, the second in 2011. A third section has been proposed. Before the High Line could be planted, the railroad tracks and support structures had to be renovated, their lead paint removed, and their aging structures properly bolstered.The landscape, designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, echoes the overgrown railroad tracks one can spot throughout the country. Wildflowers and grasses are interspersed between planks and walking paths. Trees provide color and shade, as well as bird habitat, both needed in urban environments.The width of the walking paths varies along the High Line, narrow walking areas opening onto wider gathering and resting spots. In this way, it is much like an urban street that opens onto a plaza, where you might be able to eat at an outdoor café. (Indeed, there are food vendors along the path.)Unlike other parks in New York, High Line does not try to separate visitors from the city, or necessarily provide a respite. It is in the heart of the city (it even runs right through some buildings), and allows access to urban sights and sounds.The High Line presents one answer for what to do with our country’s (and our region’s) aging infrastructure.

Traveling the back roads of northern New England, it’s not uncommon to find long-abandoned carriage roads taken over by the wildflowers and forests. What if we did that intentionally on the unused railroad track the runs so often through the back sides of our towns and villages?

In Brattleboro, we are faced with aging bridges into New Hampshire. Among the many discussions about those bridges and what should happen to them, perhaps we should consider using a High Line approach on the old bridges once they are replaced, allowing better pedestrian access to Mount Wantastiquet and the Connecticut River.

(Photos are from the Friends of the High Line site.)


Adaptive Reuse: Preserving Old Buildings for Future Uses

“Adaptive reuse refers to the process of reusing an old site or building for a purpose other than that which it was built or designed for,” according to The American Institute of Architects. In other words, it’s keeping the shell of an old building and redesigning the inside to meet changing needs. When adapting downtown buildings, creating mixed-use spaces is common, with retail and office space on bottom floors and residential space up top.

Very often, adaptive reuse projects include historic preservation requirements that limit what can be changed in the building. These requirements, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, are tied to the historic preservation tax credits used to finance many projects. The standards state that, “A property shall be used for its historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment.”

Opinions vary on what makes something a “defining characteristic,” which means pursuing an adaptive reuse project can involve a little bit of negotiation between an owner, architect, historic consultant, and the National Park Service (which oversees the tax credits). Generally, things that can’t be changed include exterior details (which can be repaired or replaced with exact replicas) and interior details, such as tin ceilings, that mark the building as belonging to a particular time and place and are worth preserving.

At one of our projects, the Brooks House in Brattleboro, Vermont, many of the interior “defining characteristics” of the 1870s hotel had been removed during a renovation in the 1970s that turned it into apartments; most of the remaining interior elements were destroyed in a 2011 fire. The exterior, however, remained largely intact.

The owners of the building wanted to improve the access to the retail spaces on the first floor of the building, make room for a community college and offices on the second floor, and enlarge the apartments on the third and fourth floors. To accommodate these new uses in the building, we needed to completely remove most of the interior partition walls and construct an addition on the rear of the building.  The exterior needed to be preserved to meet historic preservation requirements, and the addition needed to complement, not compete with, the existing building.

When the building is complete, it will have another new life, and will continue to contribute to the vibrant downtown in which it sits. That is the power of adaptive reuse: making something new out of something old. We preserve history to create space for the future.






Introducing Bob Speck, P.E.

We’d like to introduce you to the newest member of our team, Bob Speck, PE. We are very excited to have him on board, because he brings with him years of structural engineering and design experience as well as a passion for and deep commitment to sustainable design.

Over the past ten years, Bob has pursued several passions, among them the design of custom, efficient, timber-framed homes and barns for builders throughout New England and upstate New York. Clients included The Wadsworth Company, Vermont Timber Frames, and Vermont Barns. During this time he also consulted with Engineering Ventures on timber frame engineering, building sciences, and sustainable design. He is known for his ability to develop design solutions that integrate efficient structural design with sustainable, time-tested building practices and architectural goals.

Bob began his career with 18 years at Ryan-Biggs Associates, where he began as a project engineer and became a business partner with leadership roles in hiring, staff development, and quality improvement. His engineering work while there included hospitals, parking structures, schools and colleges, historic buildings, restaurants, office buildings, residences, and specialty structures. His leadership work while there included serving as president of the Mohawk-Hudson section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. His research work on drifted snow loads on buildings, performed while completing his master’s degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is still referenced in building codes.

In addition to his work in engineering, Bob has 40 years of experience in the snow sports industry, having served as a program manager of the Mountain Sports School at Stratton Mountain and as a training coordinator at the Adaptive Sports Foundation. He continues to enjoy promoting the health and wellness benefits of fitness, yoga, and outdoor adventure. He lives in Manchester, Vermont, with his wife Jo Kirsch, co-owner of Heart of the Village Yoga Studio.


(From top: Bob Speck; Barn Frame, Vermont Barns; Home Addition, The Wadsworth Company)