MaineHousing and Elm Terrace: The Parapet With No Purpose

Elm Terrace rendering - courtesy of CWS Architects
Elm Terrace rendering - courtesy of CWS Architects

by Terrilyn Simpson

Elm Terrace, the housing project that catapulted the Maine State Housing Authority and Director Dale McCormick into media and governmental scrutiny for the exorbitant projected cost of its construction, continues to harbor strange and costly secrets. And a source close to the project, who has asked to remain anonymous at present, has revealed yet another — the parapet on the roof.

The revelation of this strange construction detail calls into question the oft repeated explanation of the MSHA director that rehabbing old and historic buildings is just  routinely a more expensive process. There is apparently little routine about the parapet.

Attention was first focused on the low-income Elm Terrace housing project in Portland by newly appointed Maine Housing commissioners in the fall of 2011. Having discovered that MSHA was not factoring in cost containment in awarding contracts for the building of low-income housing units, the commissioners went on to look at past prices and projected costs of
housing projects underway. Elm Terrace shot to the head of the list with a projected cost of $309,000 to $314,000 per 1100 square foot unit.

While the cost of the project was eventually whittled down to $265,000 per unit, with a significant financial hit for the project developer, Community Housing of Maine, McCormick has continued to insist that the cost of rehabbing historic buildings is a process misunderstood by critics because of the unique problems of redoing old buildings. But the discussion has not included the demands made by MSHA for the superfluous re-design of the roof of the 102-year-old building — at considerable cost to the developer.

According to the project-related information source, Maine Housing mandated the installation of solar panels on the roof of the building to power solar hot water heaters. While MSHA had a record of costly and unsuccessful solar installations elsewhere, that problem was minor compared to what followed in the design process.

A review revealed the solar panels, when installed, would be seen from the street. Because state and federal historic tax credits were involved in rehabbing the building, a stipulation that “solar panels could not be visible from a public way on a historic building” had to be adhered to. Given the nature of that historic building, the only way you could put solar panels on it — which were required by the Maine State Housing Authority — was to design a brick parapet to hide the solar panels — which, it was determined, would cause a rooftop “bathtub….prone to snow drifting…” which would require structural upgrades.

And the bathtub effect was not the only problem. “The other thing was, you have a wind loading effect because of these panels — you don’t just stick a bunch of these panels on a roof and not impact the design of the roof structure.”

The whole creation caused a weight problem — so steel supports had to be designed, to be embedded in the building to handle the extra weight on the roof.

Then when the cost had to be reduced, “the solar panels went away.” MSHA just eliminated the solar panel requirement. Though this was all still in the design phase, the design had already been completed to meet the original MSHA mandate. And that design had to be paid for by the developer — at great cost. Then when MSHA eliminated the solar panels, the developer had to pay for new design plans.

But that created another problem. Though there was no longer a need for a parapet to hide the solar panels from view by passersby, the parapet had been included in the design that had been presented at a bevy of permitting meetings — 34 in Portland alone. The alternative was to go back to an 18-month permitting process to try to get the building approved without the parapet. Starting the permit process all over and delaying the project for another 18 months was not possible.

The parapet “was part of the architecture of the building that was subject to much discussion and review…..” Permits all included a parapet on the roof and a steel reinforcement to support the parapet.

“And at the end of the construction, that’s when they come and look and say….yeah, you get your money.” Payment is contingent upon adhering to the approved design.

So the Elm Terrace housing project will include a heavy brick parapet on the roof and a pricey steel structured support for the parapet — at significant added cost — for no reason.

But, said the source, “there is a reason — MSHA’s foolishness. But yes, it serves no purpose.”

Construction on the rehab of Elm Terrace began on January 2, 2012. The completion date is set for January of 2013.