Two soon-to-be homeowners stood beside Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) and neighborhood leaders Wednesday morning to break ground at the project site of a small home in Dignowity Hill.
(This story has been updated with details from the ceremony.)
One single family residence might not seem like a lot to celebrate in a city searching for more density in its urban housing stock, but for Warrick and local company Rising Barn it's one more step toward filling the city's vacant lots with affordable, sustainable housing.
The new home's design, Warrick said, "meets the same contextual and architectural values" that his historic childhood home just blocks away has and represents the kind of thoughtful juxtaposition of new and old architecture he'd like to see more of in the Eastside.
Rising Barn's growing list of projects in the pipeline – it estimates about 12 projects worth at least $3.1 million – illustrates a broader shift in many a home buyer's philosophy of how homes should be designed.
This home is unlike others in the Eastside historic district, and not because of its modern design or the tiny, separate guest unit. The difference is the patented micro-unit "building kit" that's constructed with flexibility of use and the denizen's carbon footprint in mind. It's the first Rising Barn structure in San Antonio, second only to a unit outside of Austin.
For Devin Verdon and Suzie Hogan, smaller is better. Their new home on Dawson Street will be about 800 sq. ft., not as small or as affordable as the 500 sq. ft. "tiny homes" featured in documentaries and television shows of late, but still quite small (see rendering above).
Verdon and Hogan are engaged to be married this spring. It won't be the first time either of them exchange vows, but the new home represents a fresh start, Verdon said.
"We're kind of becoming minimalists," Verdon said. "I just had a shake up and asked myself: What am I doing and how much stuff do I really need?
"I was living in Stone Oak in a 3,000 square-foot house," he recalled. After his divorce and other hardships, he quit his job at a corporate gym of 22 years to start his own physical fitness and training business, D-N-A Fit.
While the size and eco-friendly materials used for construction were big selling points for Verdon, it was the price that was the most compelling factor.
He estimates that the 1,541 sq. ft. house, which includes a garage and a 250 sq. ft. guest room they call "the pod," will cost about $144,000. That works out to about $93 per sq. ft. For perspective, the median home price – new or pre-owned – in San Antonio surpassed $200,000 in 2015, though the typical size is likely much larger.
"We want to pay this house off in five years and be able to travel,” Verdon said.
While Rising Barn is advertised as DIY, he opted for the company's "turnkey" option to have them do it all for him; from foundation to fixtures. Devon and Hogan are expected to move in by the end of April, in 8-12 weeks – during or after their honeymoon.
New construction is a common sight in Dignowity Hill these days as developers and new neighbors seek to become part of the neighborhood's revitalization – some for profit, others for the opportunities that the neighborhood provides. Residents looking for a more urbanized neighborhood benefit from Dignowity Hill's growing, tight-knit community with a wealth of historic homes within walking distance from downtown. While it has some of the highest crime rates in the city and tensions between homeless shelters and services are high, the neighborhood's ample vacant lots are being snatched up.
"It's a feeding frenzy over here," Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association member Liz Franklin said during the ground breaking ceremony. Franklin sits on the neighborhood's Architectural Review Committee.
While the multi-family housing projects popping up all over the neighborhood are good for density, she said it was good to see a single-family home go up. "It's good to build different options."
The vacant lot cost $45,000, Verdon said. He placed bids on at least three other lots in the neighborhood and was repeatedly out-bid by developers and saw some lot prices triple in less than a year.
"We didn't really know what we were getting into at first," Verdon said. "We just knew we wanted to be part of a community we could give back to."
At the ground breaking ceremony, he said his "experience so far in the community has been warm."
Where the 'Barn' Came From
Rising Barn CEO and founder Pegy Brimhall officially started the company in February 2015, but the idea was percolating long before. With a background in architecture and finance she initially thought she would start with large structures, then work down to micro-units – hence the "barn" in the name. She moved from New York to Texas to live closer to her sister and to take advantage of its open space, physically and economically.
"I wanted to do something in my industry, but over there, everything was already built. To do anything new in New York City you would need an immense capital infusion," Brimhall said. "I didn’t want to do anything huge like that ... I wanted to do something for the individual, not for institution."
Research performed while she took part in Texas Venture Labs startup accelerator, revealed that the demand for smaller structures is higher and almost "infinitely scalable."
Though much of the design is proprietary, the "secret" to Rising Barn's formula is flexibility. The units, sold according to different sizes and packages, are largely composed of structural insulated panels (SIPs) for walls and flooring that are vastly less complicated than conventional framing methods. They come pre-cut to accommodate for electrical, plumbing, windows, and doors. Customers can choose from various sizes, finishes, metal roof types/design, and layout. All wood is cut from rapid-growth tree farms and the insulation foam is non-toxic, Brimhall said.
"It's a no-brainer that things are sustainable," she said, considering their target demographic is likely the check-the-label type of conscientious consumer.
"But just like we want the off-the-grid cabin guy, we also want the creative class to be pumped about do-it-yourself, too," she added, "to fill in those weird infill, back alley lots."
She admits the carbon footprint of metal isn't ideal, but the return on investment in terms of carbon and cost for metal roofs still outpace other options.
"Everyone in Texas loves metal roofs,” she said. "And they last a lifetime."
Depending on the finishes the customers pick and the level of DIY they want, projects typically cost between $75 and $125 per sq. ft. for materials only, Brimhall said. Turnkey projects, by partnering with local contractors familiar with Rising Barn materials, are typically in the $100-200 range.
Part of Rising Barn's proprietary design is that the units are flexible enough to be moved. If Verdon wants to – or could get permission from the city to – add another unit to the side or on top of an existing unit, that's entirely possible.
So, kind of like Legos?
"Essentially, yes," she laughed.
This adaptability of use, design, and space is one of the many aspects of Rising Barn that caught local real estate developer and entrepreneur Peter French's attention. He joined the company as president in December 2015. It's the latest of a long list of titles he holds including co-founder of the new San Antonio Entrepreneurial Center downtown where Rising Barn currently offices, founder of Free-Flow Research, and owner of Loomis Burton real estate, and director of operations for the Plum Creek development in Kyle, Texas.
Rising Barn combines elements from all these interests, French said, including urban design, startups, real estate, and technology.
The 2,200 acre mixed-use Plum Creek neighborhood is billed as a kind of pedestrian wonderland, with walkable and safe streets, co-located housing and employment centers, and a de-emphasis on cars. It's the kind of development he said Rising Barn could help proliferate in the long-run.
"New urbanism is really old urbanism," said French, former president of small business/startup development center Café Commerce. "(Historically, we had) walkable, mixed-use, public space that was designed for people because not everybody had a car.”
Cars became a symbol of freedom and people pivoted to accommodate them, he said. Land uses began to be separated into residential and commercial – because, why not? We can just drive there.
“We’ve erased a whole spectrum of what used to be possible for where we can live," he said. Apartments above garages or businesses, which used to be commonplace, are rare.
As the needs of the property owner or neighborhood shift, a Rising Barn home could hypothetically become a commercial space with the right design. And commercial space could start small with 500 square feet and grow (like Legos) once it's able to at a more affordable rate. Rather than spending money on "overhead" costs, families, businesses, communities alike could scale up.
Changing Policies and Technologies
While the city has infill development programs for builders in the urban core to incentivize housing projects, it also has a permitting and design process that, especially in an historic neighborhood, can be intimidating to the point of surrender for many homeowners and developers.
While Brimhall has handled a lot of day-to-day as part of Rising Barn's first project, Verdon found the process of working with City staff and the Historic and Design Review Commission frustrating. They had to change several key parts of the design, including the exterior materials, roof pitch and number of front windows, before receiving approval in December.
"When it comes down to it; again, it’s just stuff,” Verdon said, glad that the process is over.
"Accessory dwelling units," like any other housing structure, are strictly regulated by City code and come with restrictions that limit size, number of units, and capacity.
While French acknowledges that such rules are in place to prevent overcrowding and strain on infrastructure, he wonders if there should be some amendments and has been working with City staff to identify possible clarification and modifications of outdated code.
The City code itself states the importance of urban density and affordability options for "elderly, single-person households, students, and other needy populations."
"There a lot of customers who get confused by the process,” Brimhall said."We can’t guarantee our customers swift and speedy process without surprises” until the code is fully on board.
In order to streamline the process on the design side, Rising Barn is also partnering with r26D, backed by Rackspace co-founders Dirk and Brett Elmendorf, to develop better software that will simplify the way blueprints and digital schematics are read by the machines that cut building materials to order.
"We hope to programmatically compress the steps between design and construction,” Brimhall said.
Currently, there are a dozen steps and expensive technology between drawing blueprints and cutting materials, she said, creating a cost and skill barrier for someone interested in building their own home.
r26D is already experimenting with new software on small-scale models that were on display during the ground breaking ceremony on Wednesday.
"There's no reason why your dwelling has to be this static thing that you dump concrete into a hole for and now you're stuck,” Brimhall said of advancements in technology and engineering associated with building a home. "More is known about the earth now … you can make an elegant solution out of it."
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*Top image: Rising Barn's cabin and "accessory dwelling unit" in Dignowity Hill. Rendering courtesy of Rising Barn.