WALPOLE — The second of three phases of a multi-year affordable housing project is slated for completion this fall, using a construction method the developer touts as cheaper, quicker and better for the environment.
The Residences at Abenaki Springs first opened at 17 Avery Lane with 21 apartments in 2016. Ingram Construction in Swanzey began phase two, another 22 units, in mid-June and is scheduled to wrap up in early November, according to Jack Franks, president and CEO of the Walpole-based Avanru Development Group.
Four and a half months is a far shorter time frame than the 12 to 14 months that would be typical for such a project using conventional construction methods, Franks said.
That’s because most of the work using a modular housing method is done in an off-site factory, in this case at the Ritz-Craft Corp. in Pennsylvania. The manufacturer builds the pieces on an assembly line in a controlled environment, Franks explained, before shipping those components out.
The first phase of Abenaki Springs was constructed in less than seven months using the same method, he said.
“When these modular boxes arrive to the site and are set in place, we are at that point, roughly 75 to 80 percent complete,” he said. “... So it’s engineered and designed to virtually be assembled similar to Legos, though it’s quite a bit more detailed than that.”
Because the work is so much faster, it saves money on labor, as well as interest on loans for the project, he said.
And for the third factor in what Franks calls a win-win-win situation, he noted that the carbon footprint of this modular housing is drastically reduced compared to traditional construction methods.
A 2017 report by Concord-based Resilient Buildings Group Inc. compared 100 buildings in the N.H. Housing Finance Authority’s portfolio by their energy use intensity (EUI) — the measurement of a building’s annual energy consumption relative to its gross square footage — and found that Abenaki Springs ranked the lowest.
The average rate was 78.8, and Abenaki clocked in at 24.2 EUI. For comparison, two of Keene Housing’s buildings for senior residents measured more than twice that amount — 57.2 and 64.6 — and its multifamily complex was 99.6 EUI.
But the Abenaki Springs project hasn’t been all smooth sailing, especially in its early stages.
In 2010, the Walpole Planning Board gave Avanru approval to build a 48-unit condominium complex, but controversy arose as the company changed its proposals several times over the next few years. The company replaced the earlier plan with a 67-unit apartment complex for senior citizens, which the planning board approved in 2012.
A group of Walpole residents sued in court in an unsuccessful attempt to block the project, accusing Avanru of not intending to rent to seniors, and calling it a ruse to foster support from town officials. A judge ruled in favor of the planning board in 2013.
The plan changed again when Franks discovered he could apply for a loan from the N.H. Housing Finance Authority. He did so in 2013, and the project became an affordable housing development.
Franks lauded the state housing authority for allowing Avanru to use modular construction on the first phase of Abenaki Springs a few years ago, marking the first use of the method for a property in the agency’s portfolio.
Rob Dapice, the managing director of management and development at N.H. Housing, said the agency doesn’t promote any particular construction method, focusing on outcomes rather than means.
“... We do encourage energy efficiency, we encourage cost efficiency, and to the extent modular construction helps developers achieve those things, it’s a great thing,” he said.
Because Avanru’s 2016 project in Walpole was the first in the agency’s portfolio using this method, Dapice said there was a learning curve for N.H. Housing. But now there’s a set of protocols specifically for prefabricated construction that includes sending certified inspectors to the factory to ensure New Hampshire codes and standards are met.
Franks said he’s working to encourage more widespread use of the method.
And with a growing need for affordable housing in the state and across the country, he said he hopes to see this become a solution to a community problem.
The need for affordable housing is articulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which defines affordable housing on its website as costing less than 30 percent of a person’s income. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average renter’s wage in New Hampshire is estimated to be $15.63 an hour, affording them $813 per month for rent working full time. Fair market rent — which is calculated annually by HUD and includes essential utilities, such as electric and gas — for a one-bedroom is $942 statewide and $1,208 for a two-bedroom living space.
The numbers are worse for Cheshire County, where renters are estimated to make an average of $12.63 an hour, according to the website, allowing them only $657 for rent. The county’s fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $841 and jumps to $1,096 for a two-bedroom place.
“If we can think our way through this and do it better and faster and less expensive than what we’re currently doing, the end result is more people get a home to live in that’s affordable to them,” Franks said.