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All in for green


May 2014

In property development, sustainability has become the industry buzzword. Many developers are claiming to be eco-friendly, but not all can back up their words with brick and mortar. Sage, a building soon to be completed at 1509 N. Jackson St., is pushing the limits of sustainability and marking the trail for others to follow.

Sage is the brainchild of Milwaukee-based residential real estate and management company Dominion Properties. Launched in 2000 by Michael O’Connor and Christopher Adams, Dominion prides itself on its history in the area of sustainable living.

"Whenever we buy a building we always add high-efficiency boilers and insulation, but there is only so much you can do with a 1920s building," says Adams. "Since it is a new build, Sage gives us a chance to see how far we could go. We looked around and saw that every developer was calling itself green, but most were just doing what is known as green washing — only taking steps if they were convenient."

O’Connor says they chose the name Sage for two reasons. "Sage is a green natural plant and it’s also a wise person. We want the name to convey the idea of smart green living. Once complete, 1509 Jackson will be the greenest market rate, multifamily building ever made in the state of Wisconsin. We are expecting a LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified platinum rating for a multifamily building, which would be first in the state."

Designed by Stiegel Agacki Studio, Sage on Jackson is really a demonstration project. Dominion wants to show how far it can take sustainability and still have a viable investment, even though the costs of construction will be anywhere from 10 to 15 percent higher than conventional building.

O’Connor admits there is a premium for building green. "It’s a bit more expensive, but we are confident we can find enough socially conscious tenants who are willing to pay just a little more to lead a sustainable lifestyle."

According to Adams, if a building is going after a LEED certification it will have an 82 percent pre-leased occupancy. "Studies also show that the renter will be willing to pay $100 to $125 more per unit if they know they are in a truly sustainable building. So there is definitely a market for it," he says.

So what makes Sage on Jackson so sustainable? A quick list includes charging points for electric cars in the garage, LED lighting in the parking and common areas, a rainwater retention system, 2 by 8 exterior walls filled with mineral wool insulation, a green roof and solar panels. "Of course we use locally sourced, sustainably produced materials in the construction process. Since the entire building has geothermal heating and cooling, we only need one small gas boiler that is used only for hot water and heating the parking area. Each of the 20 units has electric appliances and electric fireplaces so there will be almost no carbon admissions coming from the building," Adams says.

Sage includes 12 two-bedroom apartments that will rent for about $2,000, seven one-bedroom apartments starting at $1,700, and one studio. Dominion hopes to have full occupancy by September when it is completed. After that O’Connor and Adams plan to grow the Sage brand in Milwaukee. Their next large-scale project is restoring the Goll mansion on North Prospect Avenue and building and environmentally friendly apartment building next door called Sage on the Lake.

Q&A: Striegel Agacki Studio

Joel Agacki
Photo by Dan Kabara

Michael Striegel and Joel Agacki first met as students of the Graduate School of Architecture and Planning at Columbia University. Years later, after having worked with firms in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, the two decided to open a studio together. Well, almost together. In reality they opened two offices, one in Los Angeles and the other in Milwaukee. Although they are divided by half a continent, the two have put together an impressive portfolio of work that includes everything from a beach-front home in Malibu to cutting edge, eco-friendly multifamily buildings in Milwaukee. Their work has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens, Elle Decor and Metropolitan Home. Currently they have teamed up with Dominion Properties and are in the building process of Sage, a multifamily residence on Jackson Street that is being heralded as Milwaukee’s most sustainable building.

M: Your studio has worked on single-family homes, multifamily residences and even a Buddhist temple. Do you have an ideal project?

JA: Michael and I are always proudest of buildings that are a marriage of our ideas with someone else’s. I don’t have an ideal project. Sure, I would love to do a tall building, but I would only want to do it with someone who wants to do it with me. I think the best projects are those where the architect and the owner can see eye-to-eye and create something that fits both of their ideals. Some buildings look like they were designed just to be photographed. We don’t work that way. In an ideal project the building looks the way it does because it has to. The aesthetic needs to be a result of a spatial idea.

Michael Striegel
Photo by Dan Kabara

M: Your firm has been involved in many sustainable projects, which can cost up to 15 percent more than conventional building methods. Does sustainable building make good business sense?

JA: Sustainable building is tough. If you talk to people in our profession nearly all of them will tell you that no one wants to pay for it. I think it can be a good business model. Working on Sage on Jackson with Dominion Properties is our first chance to prove that it can be done. Not only is it the right thing to do, but we are working to show it is possible. It all comes down to being smart about the decisions you make. There are ways of designing that are inherently efficient in terms of space planning and consequent energy use. The apartments we are designing for Jackson Street are 100 percent efficient. There is no lost space for corridors. In terms of actual living space, most comparable units need to be 10 percent larger and so they are less efficient to build and maintain.

M: Who knows more the architect or the client?

JA: There is a craft in taking someone’s lemons and making lemonade. A good architect needs to listen to the client. We are not here to provide service architecture and do anything they want, but to help them see their ideas from our perspective. I know it sounds a little condescending, but if you can educate a client and then work together on a single vision, that is the best part of our profession. The root of our profession is really all about creative problem-solving. When you can put everyone’s ideas together and come up with something that still has your hand in it, then it is a win-win situation.

M: What buildings do you consider essential architectural pieces in Milwaukee?

JA: Of course you have to see the Calatrava, but honestly I like the Saarinen building (War Memorial) better. I would say that building is definitely worth seeing. I also really like the Educator’s Credit Union on Prospect Avenue. In general, though, I don’t think Milwaukee is about a single piece of architecture. It’s the scale of the city that is appealing. I think Downer Avenue, the Third Ward and the East Side all have great scale. It is the fabric of this city that is so nice.

— Guy Fiorita



This story ran in the May 2014 issue of: