The success story of the 26-home development on School Street has been unfolding over the past two years in Libertyville. Developer John McLinden and his team have transformed the street into an urban, walkable community where front porches hug the sidewalks and residents are connected to their neighborhood.
Now, SchoolStreet, where energy efficiency has been part of every home’s design, is taking green building to the next level by building a U.S. Department of Energy Challenge Home.
“You’ve got to be an ENERGY STAR 3.0 just to be talking about it,” McLinden says of the energy rating a home needs to have to be considered for the Challenge Home project. “We’re cranking it up in a big way. This is the future of housing.”
“In a quick explanation, what Challenge Home does is it takes the proven innovation coming out of world-class research at the Department of Energy’s Building America program and it integrates it into its specifications,” explains Sam Rashkin, chief architect at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Program. “So what you know you’re getting with the Challenge Home is effectively the best practices coming out of the most significant hub of innovation for the housing industry.”
SchoolStreet Hits the Mark
Rashkin helped found the government’s Energy Star and LEED programs and has been traveling across the country for the last two years promoting the Challenge Home projects. His book, Retooling the U.S. Housing Industry: How It Got Here, Why It’s Broken, and How to Fix It, addresses five components of the building industry that he looks for in new projects: sustainable development, good design, high-performance homes, quality construction and effective sales.
“I can count on one hand the number of builders and developers that do all five pieces well,” Rashkin explains. “When I got there and saw what [McLinden] was doing, it just blew my mind. It was almost like a validation. Here’s someone doing everything that I understand to be where we have to go and it felt great.”
The Challenge Home will be built with insulation levels higher than code, advanced water distribution systems that will reduce yearly wasted water by up to 6,000 gallons, a Unico HVAC system that uses high pressure air circulation, and advanced appliances and lighting, including the use of mostly LED lighting fixtures.
The House Will Be a Home
Future owners of the house are South Africa natives Quintin and Megan McGrath. The couple is downsizing from their Vernon Hills home. While planning an environmentally-friendly home on School Street with McLinden, he approached them with the Challenge Home concept.
“We were on board right away,” Megan says. “They’ve made a real effort to explain each of the features of the home. How it works. Why it works. Why they do it that way. They aren’t just building the house for us, they’re teaching us how it works.”
Megan and Quintin, who worked with the architects and developers to design every space the way they wanted it, stress that the greenness of their home goes beyond the energy efficiency.
“The dining room was designed around our dining room table,” Megan explains. “Part of being environmentally-friendly is not throwing things away. Every single space is something we wanted.”
“It’s really a green, smart house,” Quintin adds. “It’s designed as something that’s going to work for us, and not just be green for the sake of being green.”
Restoring a Piece of History
While the Challenge Home is expected to close in late winter to early spring, McLinden is also focusing his strength on the restoration of the historic Central School. The SchoolStreet team is currently transforming the school into 15 residential lofts.
From the beginning, McLinden has assured that careful attention is brought to every detail of every home on SchoolStreet, reworking floor plans, or making changes suggested by the buyers.
“It’s really the quality of the layout, and the sense of the light, and how the rooms are positioned. That’s the magic of doing this,” McLinden says. “We have one particular corner unit of the school building that we probably designed at least three different times. It just didn’t feel right. That’s what you do to get it right.”
So far, five of the lofts have sold. One buyer, Chris Curry, believes that the attention to space and design carries over to the lofts. He and his fiancee were drawn to how McLinden and his team retained the historic school’s character and worked with them to design the space they wanted.
“He started walking around the unit with us and he was sketching over his floor plan,” says Curry. “We were walking through the unit laying out walls and floors as we go. I don’t think people get that opportunity very often. “
Like all of SchoolStreet, the school lofts will maintain a high level of energy efficiency with high performance windows, mechanical systems, and spray foam insulation. McLinden, whose passion for the project is evident, believes that the repurposing of the school is the ultimate in sustainability.
“The care in which we’re doing this, it’s not b.s.,” he says. “I think about it every day. We’re concerned that we’re doing this thing right.”
The Future of Building
McLinden says he and Rashkin have discussed how the future of housing and building will need to incorporate the building science into creating special places.
“It’s about the quality of how people live,” McLinden says. “We’re in a different world right now, and somebody’s going to figure this out. It’s about great design in great locations with sustainability just embedded into the homes. It’s not an option.”