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Kane Commons: Green Development on Lower East Side

by Jim Loew

Milwaukee developer and longtime east side resident Julilly Kohler has known for a while that she wanted to build her own house. But she didn’t want just a house. “It had to have some meaning,” said Kohler.

With that, Kohler is developing a “green” living development called Kane Commons to be located in the 1100 block of E. Kane Place on Milwaukee’s lower east side. Kohler plans to build her house within this development. “I wanted it (Kane Commons) to be in the city – an urban commercial development.” Kohler’s commitment to the east side stems from having lived there for 30 years. “This is my home,” she said. “I raised my children here; I was here when my friends were afraid to come to this area; I know people here. I think it (the east side) is one of Milwaukee’s ‘true neighborhoods,’” she says.

Kohler hopes to break ground on this project later this year and estimates that it should take about a year to a year and a half to complete. The process, though, is proving to be very tricky, said Kohler. The lot was built on a 100-year-old landfill, so Kohler has hired environmental engineers to handle the clean-up. In fact, bits of protruding cement chunks, which was the industrial fill used in the landfill, can be seen from the hill leading down to the Milwaukee River, according to Kohler. She is also working closely with the DNR. “There are tremendous expenses involved,” said Kohler, “but it’s a work of love, not of profits.”

Many of the expenses stem from the uniqueness of the green plans that Kohler intends to incorporate into Kane Commons. One plan includes green roofs, which are roofs covered with a soil mixture and vegetation such as plants. This provides a number of benefits such as extending the life of the roof by sheltering it from UV rays. It also provides storm water management, extra insulation and provides additional habitat for wildlife.

Kohler also plans to incorporate geothermal heating throughout the buildings, which basically uses heat from the ground. With tubing buried below the ground’s surface, this energy source uses the fairly constant temperature of the soil to provide the heating.

“I’m also putting in cisterns to handle storm water runoff,” said Kohler. These are designed to catch rainwater, which can be used for the buildings’ landscaping needs.

In addition, Kohler plans on using Energy Star appliances, Waste Cap Management (a nonprofit waste management) and tankless water heaters. “With green,” said Kohler, “you always have to make choices. You do the most you can.” She would have liked to have used solar and wind energy, but it would have been expensive and difficult, considering the confines of being in an urban development. With wind energy, open spaces are needed for the turbines.

For Kohler’s house, one of the main components will be the use of straw bale, which is a technique once used on the plains over a hundred years ago. “It’s a terrific insulator,” said Kohler. “It’s fireproof because it’s so tightly compressed, it’s very quiet, and it provides a nice, deep window.”

Myles Saigh, Kohler’s carpenter on this project who will be doing most of the work with the straw bale, agrees. “As a building product, straw bale is extremely substantial,” he said. “It’s much more efficient.” Saigh said that the straw bale is purchased right from local farmers.

Saigh gained experience working with this material when he lived in New Mexico for about five years. “I traveled to New Mexico and was introduced to timber framing and straw bale,” he said. “This sparked my interest and got my passion going.”

Kohler couldn’t imagine Kane Commons anywhere else in Milwaukee. “This neighborhood has what you need to live here,” she said. “I’ve made it a point to work with the churches and schools in the area because I want people to stay here long-term. I want parents’ children to stay here.”

Riverwest Currents online edition – November, 2006