The front of The Sundial apartment building in Kingfield looks like so many of the other multi-family apartments that dot South Minneapolis. That’s part of the point.
But when you really get into the building’s guts, you’ll find something that hasn’t really been done here before. If we’re serious about climate change, buildings like The Sundial might one day become the norm.
The building, located at 15 West 37th Street, directly behind Butter Bakery Cafe, will bring 12 new housing units to the neighborhood. It's also powered entirely by electricity and was built without a single gas line.
The project is the dream of a couple that lives in Kingfield. Faith Cable Kumon and her husband Jim Kumon put together their backgrounds in housing (she works for Project for Pride in Living, and has been working on another project in the neighborhood at 3030 Nicollet Ave S.) and urban development (he formerly served as the Executive Director of Strong Towns, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Incremental Development Alliance, and the Chair of the Kingfield Redevelopment Board) to build an apartment complex that they thought really fit with the character of the neighborhood.
“We wanted to build a building that fit with the neighborhood and is also high performance,” said Jim, referring to the low energy usage and costs that come from the building’s design. “At our core, we’re urbanists. We thought three stories fit the neighborhood well. We wanted a handsome, all-electric, striving building. We want people from the neighborhood to live here.”
A real estate developer building buildings in their own neighborhood is uncommon. But in the end, there isn’t really anything ordinary about this building at all.
”We didn’t want to build something that was horribly trendy but would be out of style faster than the stuff at H&M this week,” Faith added.
The site, which was formerly an vacant lot, had a purchase price of $350,000. They had planned a purchase agreement in February 2020 when the pandemic hit, which delayed their plans, but eventually got it under contract that summer. Jim estimates that they saved $36,000 on the building’s construction by skipping the addition of gas in the building. One of the secrets to the project is their partner, Eric Langerman who plays a double role as minority owner and contractor. “I don’t think we could have pulled this off if we didn’t have someone playing both of those roles,” said Faith.
Beyond the direct partners on the project, the building is a perfect example of why projects like this can sometimes only happen when many levels of government are involved. The team is utilizing energy efficiency and solar grants from the City of Minneapolis, energy grants from Xcel Energy, a Mississippi Watershed Management Organization's grant to the Kingfield Neighborhood Association for the outdoor portion of their stormwater capture system, and a grant from Hennepin County that will help pay for the indoor portion.
Sustainability is baked in
The list of technical elements in the building can make your head spin, so if technical stuff isn’t your thing, we’ll pack as much as possible into this section. The roof was constructed to pack in as many solar panels as could physically fit. The building uses insulation that’s 30% more efficient than the city’s code requires. The building will capture hot air from kitchens and dryers that will be pulled in, cleaned, and used to help heat the building. The roof has a small eave, under which you’ll find boxes of air compressors that power the mini split system, and the triangular design created a surface for angled south-facing solar panels. Every unit will also have highly insulated triple pane casement windows. There are also stormwater capture systems and a pollinator garden on the outside.
Jim is sure to mention they didn’t go all the way on maximizing their energy savings, making a couple small sacrifices for livability reasons. “We think you should be able to open a frickin’ window."
As you can already tell, these are two people that are very passionate about this work. Conversing with them at the construction site and later by email, I quickly got the feeling that not only could these two talk about this all day, there’s almost nothing they’d rather do. Wide-ranging answers included philosophical essays on electrical usage, physics lessons, the lack of control developers have over energy used by things like toasters, and why building housing for people that already live in the neighborhood is so important.
At the end of the day, Jim is realistic that while their team has done everything they can to cut energy usage – ultimately, a lot of it comes down to what the tenants themselves actually do.
“So this is an experiment in both building science, but more so in human behavior,” Jim said. “We hope Sundial attracts people who really, really want to take advantage of all the features and amenities it has that are completely unique in the rental apartment market place.”
No gas lines?
The lack of gas lines into the building is rare, but is becoming more common. New York, for example, is considering a ban on gas hookups in new construction. Jim thinks that this past winter and the high bills faced by Minnesotans might accelerate the trend.
“Minnesotans are literally paying for harm caused by irresponsible Texas utilities who didn't winterize their equipment despite repeated warnings,” Jim said. “So if it happened once, and very little has been done to prevent it happening again, the only thing you can do to protect yourself is to cut loose of the pipe connecting you to the craziness. Welcome to the brave new world of energy volatility.”
What does all of this mean for the building’s energy savings? Jim says you can’t really know, because building things to this level hasn’t really been done before here.
“There are almost no all electric buildings with super insulated exteriors, modern HVAC and high efficiency appliances, systems to compare against in Minnesota,” Jim said, “There's no data set for like units in a recent construction, multi-family building setting.”
When thinking about the climate impact of a building like this one, it can be easy to get sucked into the energy efficiency from the walls and windows, the energy produced from the solar panels on the roof, the high-end heat exchangers, and more. But that may not be the biggest way that a building like this is good for the planet.
27% of carbon emissions in the U.S. come from transportation – and more than half of those come from cars. Dense, urban communities that allow people to walk, bike, or take public transit instead of driving themselves can make a major impact in reducing those emissions.
Source: The Environmental Protection Agency https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions
At scale, cities that embrace neighborhood buildings that can host 12 people on a lot that could’ve gone to a single-family home (or, in this case, a vacant lot) are doing more to fight climate change than basically any other policy mechanism that municipalities have available to them. Yes, The Sundial’s solar panels will help fight climate change. But its 12 units of housing right next to walkable amenities, bikeable routes to school, work, and play, and adjacent transit lines will in all likelihood be even more impactful.
The time horizon that Faith and Jim are looking at with this project is a very long one. Jim returns to expounding on the philosophical nature of the built environment of our cities when considering what he hopes The Sundial can be.
“An heirloom's value stems from the linkage between an object and the collective experiences of the humans whose hands pass it from generation to generation,” Jim said. “At first, a small group of people build a building. But its ultimate value comes from if and how it positively shapes the lives of the people who come in contact with it… First we shape the building, but then, it shapes us. “
They’re aiming to have people move in by June 1. This week, they’ve started hosting open houses to show off the new space, including one on Saturday, March 4, from 1 - 3 p.m. Snacks and drinks from Butter Bakery will be provided.
The Sundial Building is located at 15 West 37th Street. See complete information about the building's features, unit plans and leasing info at sundialbuilding.com. Rents range from $1,150 to $2,175.