Rethinking the row home

Philadelphia's Postgreen Homes lures buyers with a rare promise: eco-friendly new construction for less than $300,000. Despite a tough economy, the company has sold nine houses. Here's why.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

Chad and Courtney Ludeman didn't consider themselves environmentalists before starting their company, which builds efficient -- and inexpensive -- new homes in Philadelphia. But they always thought everything should be built in the best way possible.

For homes, that meant gearing toward health and affordability. "We try to build a home the way we think is the best way to build a home for people," Courtney Ludeman said. "This is going to be the new normal because it makes sense."

With backgrounds in engineering and real estate, the couple deliberated for years before deciding in 2008 to launch Postgreen Homes. "We put our life savings into it," Chad Ludeman said.

Then the U.S. economy crashed.

But the Ludemans soldiered on. They lured first-time home buyers with a rare promise: eco-friendly new construction for less than $300,000.

"When we started, the only green homes being built in Philly were a half million dollars," Courtney Ludeman said. "We're trying to bring well-designed and efficient homes to the masses."

Unlike innumerable businesses that succumbed to the depressed economy, the Ludemans' gamble paid off. Postgreen Homes sold nine houses -- with three more under construction -- at a time when many builders were throwing in the shovel. In 2010, their 100K House -- so named because construction costs totaled $105,000 -- was named the No. 1 LEED home in the country. (The project also made a cameo in the pages of Dwell.)

For 2012, the Ludemans are reaching for the sky. Their plans -- such as a six-unit co-housing project -- promise to be among the company's most innovative work.

Postgreen Homes is smart and forward-looking, said Nate Kredich, vice president of residential market development for the U.S. Green Building Council.

"Everybody wants to live in a home that's energy efficient, doesn't draw too much on non-sustainable resources and will stand the test of time," he said. "It's just good common sense that people should live in homes that don't make them sick and don't drain their wallets."


Tucked away in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood, Memphis Street stands out. The lane isn't noteworthy for its size -- cars can barely squeeze by when others are parked there -- or its surroundings (an auto garage, a funeral home). Instead, it's notable for the four modern, three-story homes built there.

Just as traditional row homes are know for their brick exteriors, stoops and flat roofs, Postgreen houses have a distinctive look. The homes, most smaller than 1,500 square feet, are gray or dark blue or black and without outdoor accoutrements. The design is utilitarian and minimal, often with boxy, flat facades, foot-thick walls and triple-pane Canadian windows, to save on energy costs.

"We focus on the envelope," Chad Ludeman said, to give homes better indoor air quality and lower utility bills.

With one house sold and three in the works, the Avant Garage project on Memphis Street is among Postgreen's most expensive undertakings. (The base price of an Avant Garage house is $355,000.) Each home has a roof deck and a two-car garage. To cater to the neighborhood's artists and professionals, the garage situates vehicles in front of each other, rather than side-by-side, and has a second door opening to the backyard. The idea is to create space suitable for a studio or workshop.

The interiors of Postgreen homes are almost completely plucked from an IKEA catalog. The sleek, contemporary design of the Swedish company's kitchens fits right into the Postgreen look, Chad Ludeman said -- and not only are IKEA kitchens affordable, but they use wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and clean air standards that make them more environmentally-friendly than other brands. IKEA kitchens come standard, but Postgreen Homes offers buyers the option of upgrading cabinet doors.

Other "green" interior elements include low-VOC paints, dual-flush toilets and customizable wardrobes instead of energy-sucking walk-in closets. What doesn't come standard: pricey finishes like a recycled countertop. Though these materials provide a feel-good quality to the project -- and are available as upgrades -- they don't actually create a healthier home, Chad Ludeman said.


Another way Postgreen keeps costs down is by choosing affordable land. So far, all of the company's projects are within walking distance of each other in neighborhoods north of Center City, Philadelphia's downtown district. Once a hotbed for local industry, the area -- which includes the Fishtown and Kensington neighborhoods -- is now dotted with vacant factories. A series of violent crime incidents certainly didn't help, one in 2010 significant enough to be named by local broadcasters: the "Kensington Strangler" murders.

But the area has experienced some recent revitalization. It is home to a thriving art scene and the LEED Platinum Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts. And Kensington is connected to the rest of the city -- including much of Center City -- by an elevated subway line.

"Projects that locate themselves closer to resources, infrastructure and transportation find they're rewarded in the LEED system," Kredich said. "We're seeing a fair amount of urban infill these days, which I think is good for everybody. Postgreen takes advantage of that."

In 2009, the first Postgreen house sold for $278,000. The company's first six sales were all less than $310,000. Just about all Postgreen buyers fit a similar profile: single or coupled, in their 20s or 30s and buying their first home after saving up. Almost all buyers had already been living in Philadelphia.

"The way we described it in the beginning was a young Dwell subscriber," Chad Ludeman said.

"A young, but not rich, Dwell subscriber," Courtney Ludeman added.

The Ludemans were among the first buyers of a Postgreen home, but that wasn't their original plan. Their bank wanted a pre-sale to begin construction, so the Ludemans purchased one of the two 100K House units. (They also pre-sold the other house, to another buyer.) As the Ludemans started getting media attention on their inaugural project, the couple used their own house as a model for inquiring press. The Ludemans lived in the East Kensington two-bedroom for two years, moving out after their second son was born in May.

Courtney Ludeman loved living in the 100K House. "It was the first year Chad and I didn't argue about the heat," she said.

Radiant heat comes through the concrete floors. The standard IKEA cabinets are wrapped in wood trim for a finished look. Storage space is built into the upstairs floors made of birch plywood. The home features passive house air sealing and Solatube daylighting.

"They were really smart about the design elements and the location of the home," the USGBC's Kredich said. "The numbers they came in at helped to prove that you can do LEED on a tight budget... At the time, it was really innovative to build a LEED Platinum home for $100,000."

Since then, the Ludemans have sold about two to three homes a year. They admit the company isn't growing as fast as they'd like -- and blame it on the same economic downturn that also helped them sell their first projects. Though their affordable houses remain attractive to buyers, it is more difficult to get financing for their projects.

"It's a very niche kind of thing," Chad Ludeman said. "It's not a big money maker for us yet." In the meantime, the Ludemans founded Hybrid Construction, which leverages their experience to help others build efficient urban projects.

Still, challenges remain for building affordable, efficient new construction in old American cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, said Alice Kennedy, sustainability coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.

One of the barriers: "Having land to build new construction on in terms of a larger development that makes it cost effective and affordable," Kennedy said. Like Philadelphia, Baltimore's housing stock is also predominantly row houses and brownstones, and focus has been more on rehabilitating old homes than on building new ones, she said.

Another hurdle, though one not necessarily limited to an old city, is finding a suitably trained contractor, Kredich said.

"One of the bigger challenges will always be making sure the sustainability vision is executed during construction," he said. "The good news is there are a large number of contractors that have woken up to the fact that they need to understand this world better."

2012 holds much promise for Postgreen Homes. Despite suboptimal economic conditions, the company plans to construct 16 row houses, two condos and a retail space in a completely new area: South Philadelphia. Plus, Postgreen will try its hand at its first rental project and a six-unit co-housing building.

Chad Ludeman is excited to get the projects underway. "We're just trying to make a living at something we enjoy doing," he said.

Photo courtesy Interface Studio Architects

More from the Built Environment issue:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards