|Contractor: Greater Dayton Building & Remodeling , Beavercreek, Ohio
Project: The Brooks House/41 E. 1st St., Dayton, Ohio.
Scope: An almost 200-year-old home (with attached townhouse and carriage house in the rear) becomes three condominiums with office space on the lower level.
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Get in the game with a spec job
Built in the early 1800s, Brooks House was one of Dayton's first private residences and a cornerstone of the downtown area. It even was added to the National Register of Historic Homes in 1973. The home had seen various occupants, styles and uses over the years. Walt Hibner, vice president of development at Greater Dayton Building & Remodeling, had his school portraits taken there when a photography studio rented the space.
After the photography studio moved out, the city of Dayton prepared to auction the property, and Hibner's remodeling firm set its sights on purchasing Brooks House, converting it into condominiums, and selling the units on a speculative basis.
Roughly ten percent of the $750,000 project cost (which includes the $138,000 paid to acquire the property) was covered by a grant from a city economic development program designed to encourage more people to live downtown. The initiative is part of CitiPlan 20/20, in which the Dayton City Commission set forth a plan to add 500-plus units of new market-rate housing to the city's urban core between 1996 and 2003.
Greg Thompson, president of Greater Dayton Building & Remodeling, thought the Brooks House project could help fulfill this mission while gaining positive publicity for the firm because of the home's high profile.
It would require great time and attention to detail to pull off. Granted this was not Greater Dayton's first spec job, nor its first foray into rehabbing historic properties. The firm's 10 years of experience doing similar jobs through the city's Rehabarama program also meant that Greater Dayton knew many of the right people who could ensure the Brooks House project's success.
"The most important part, and primary challenge, of doing downtown development projects is building a relationship with the city," Hibner says. He recommends that general contractors have a contact in every relevant city department, from economic development to building and zoning. Greater Dayton encourages all company officials and project managers to sit on boards and committees that pertain to develop-ment issues.
"Cities are large bureaucracies, and the better you can negotiate that, the easier the process," he says. "After a while, the more projects you do, the bigger your reputation and the more work you get."
After a two-month-long review process with the city's landmarks commission - which mandated that every window in the structure be replaced, among other things - the company started work in early 2002. The first phase, which consisted of three condo units, was completed in August 2003. Greater Dayton finished the office space in January 2005.
Hibner believes that a design/build approach is imperative not only when dealing with historic requirements but also with handling the inevitable "surprises" of working with older structures.
"A design/build approach in downtown projects makes things smoother," he says. "You need to be able to adjust to conditions: A landmarks commission is only going to be concerned with the exterior and individual elements, but design/build helps you more in the interior, like if you have to move walls."
Greater Dayton has sold two of the three condominium units for $450,000 collectively, but is looking for a buyer for the third and a lessee for the office space. While the company hasn't yet fully recouped its investment, Hibner believes that in this case, the risk of doing a spec job was far outweighed by the benefits.
"The exposure from 41 E. 1st St. has earned us more business, which in the long run means more to the company," he says. Hibner attributes at least four of the company's new and current projects to its work on Brooks House. Additionally, the project received a great deal of media exposure and is included in ongoing downtown home tours sponsored by the Downtown Dayton Partnership.
"Right now there's a lot of focus, and refocus, on urban areas, and we're right in the middle of that," Hibner says. "We wanted to be a part of the trend to bring people downtown. We are constantly looking for new opportunities."
Meghan Haynes is a freelance writer living in Chicago.