Thrive Michiana

Sustainability through Innovation


The Accidental Developer

A couple of years ago I started working with Dwayne Borkholder of New Energy Homes. He had created a new building system using a post-frame structure to stop energy loss through conduction, convection and radiance.  Post-frame allows a 10-inch wall pocket with a 3HT insulation board on the outside, six-inch compact insulation in the middle and a two-inch gap on either side of the insulation. It is 50% more energy efficient than a standard stick-built frame but costs the same per square foot, and can go up to three stories high for residential, mixed use and commercial buildings. With high efficiency appliances and HVAC we can see 70% in savings. When we glue solar-thin film to our metal roofs we can become net zero on the building, producing as much energy as it uses. The problem is as a new innovation, builders do not know how to build it, appraisers do not know how to appraise it, bankers do not know how to lend to it and realtors do not know how to sell it. So, I agreed to help Dwayne demonstrate the system and disseminate results with a pilot,  "Let’s build one house."


I began to look for lots in the Near Northwest Neighborhood (NNN) in South Bend, Indiana. The NNN Inc, our local CDC and neighborhood organization informed me they had three lots on a triangle that they would transfer to us for the cost of $900. We jumped at the chance, but now we were committed to building three homes not one. Then we found out Habitat for Humanity owned four lots on the other end of what we are calling Shetterley Triangle. They asked us if we wanted to purchase the land or if we wanted them to build on the triangle. We preferred they build, but we would share our high-performance designs with them and Dwayne would sell Habitat the materials at a discount so Habitat families could the enjoy same energy saving benefits as our market rate buyers. We now had six homes on the docket. Ground breaking on the first five was Friday April 27.


This whole saga began about two years ago. Not too long after we started this journey I met a guy, David, in our local weekend community cafe, The Local Cup, which is just across the street from Shetterley Triangle. Dave said he had the old flower shop, Frepans, half a block south of us at 909 Portage, which he had originally sold a few months before on land contract. The new owner had already missed payments and turned it into a junk shop, illegal flop house and general neighborhood nuisance. The price was $26,000. We couldn't resist. Besides, who was ever going to buy our new houses with this kind of junk "on the farm." We just finished renovation of the 909 Commons and have a verbal buyer.  However, we are unlikely to make more than 5% margin not counting hundreds of hours of unpaid sweat equity.


Of course the building just south of us was a near-abandoned wreck, and another $21,000. Then the tax sales started. We had to protect ourselves. So through three rounds over the next 18 months we purchased another 14 vacant lots. All within 1 1/2 blocks of 909 Commons. Then a three-car cinder block garage three lots over came up at 821 Cushing for $14,500.


End of story, I now find myself the proud co-owner of 4 structures (one renovated, 3 to go) and 14 lots. But, I have only just begun to learn what I am doing. I had 1 beat up building and 7 lots before I even attended my first Incremental Development Alliance workshop and learned just how ignorant I was. My accountant, Marge, “tore me a new one” at the end of my first year, 2016, and taught me whole lot more about what I did not know. I cannot even create a spreadsheet and can only barely fill in existing ones.   At least this year I did not get fined for failing to send out 1099s, as I had in 2017.


And yet, over the last 18 months, our project has morphed into a sustainable triple-bottom-line neighborhood development demonstration, Portage Midtown. Working with Opticos Design, a B-Corp out of Berkeley, CA, we plan to build a variety of prototypes of "Missing Middle Housing" using our net zero New Energy Homes building system. This will include a duplex, four-plex, manor house, bungalow courtyard, three-story mixed use, and our own addition, tiny houses on permanent foundations, over the next 3-5 years.  At the Incremental Development Alliance Boot Camp in Albequerque last weekend, I asked my newfound friends and mentors if there is a 12-step program for any of this.  It is addictive. And, if I do not learn what I am doing pretty soon, I am going to lose my ass. By accident, I have become a developer.