Raising the Bar on Sustainable Homes

by Belle Bergner

Have you noticed different styles of residential architecture emerging these days? On the one hand, single or two-family homes built 75 to 125 years ago still make up most of the fabric in Milwaukee’s quilt of residences. Many are being beautifully restored to their original charm. On the other hand, we have boxy, shiny glass or concrete condos or multi-family homes filling in some of the patchwork. Some of these structures have the outward appearance of sustainable design aimed at appealing to the new urban, eco-conscious professional.

But if you look closer, you might find a third type of building: truly sustainable design, greenbuilt homes with a modern yet comfortable aesthetic that’s harmonious with the surrounding neighborhood and provides measurable benefits for owners’ pocket books – and our planet.

In that third category, coming soon to the corner of Pierce and Hadley will be the Elemental Townhomes built by Pragmatic Construction LLC.

According to Nikolai Usack, one of the principals of Pragmatic, Elemental Townhomes will not merely have a green “veneer,” as in our second architectural category. These are the real deal.

“Green homes can actually blend with the current look and feel of a neighborhood very easily,” says Usack, who works with partners Juli Kaufmann and Steve Servais. “There are things you can do to be sustainable that are easy, and can fit into the conventional look of a single or multi-family home,” says Servais.

There is a perception among many homeowners and builders that constructing or renovating homes with ecofriendly concepts is more expensive, complicated, and that they look boxy, ugly, or detached from the rest of the neighborhood.

Pragmatic Construction disproves this myth every day.

With backgrounds in project management, construction, refrigerator repair, finance, and urban environmental history, this crew has the creativity, knowledge, and ambition that Riverwest has come to expect from its thirty-something crowd.

Principals Usack, Kaufmann, and Servais either currently live in Riverwest, nearby in Brewer’s Hill, or did live here for several years, so all have an appreciation and understanding for the neighborhood. Servais lived on the 2700 block of Bremen for years. Walking by the future construction site of Elemental Townhomes every day, he thought, “this is the perfect site for a passive solar house.” Across the street is Pierce Street School, a low-story building that allows maximum southern exposure to the new townhomes for optimum use of passive solar design.

“This site also provided a perfect opportunity for our business model,” says Kaufmann. “We believe in putting together what is perfect for the particular site,” says Servais. Usack adds, “The goal is to blend in with the neighborhood, be sensitive to the design and scale, but make improvements to last 1,000 years.”

Pragmatic’s ideas were well received at the February meeting of the Riverwest Neighborhood Association. Ground breaking at the Pierce and Hadley site is expected in late spring, with occupancy by spring of 2008.

All of the green design aspects that will make the new townhomes eco-friendly also mean that future owners will have lower utility bills. Sustainable elements include overall passive solar design in which roof overhangs shade summer sun but allow winter sunbeams for heat. The materials inside the building are chosen for their heat absorption abilities, which combined with high quality insulation mean a smaller HVAC system is required.

Solar hot water systems and on-demand hot water heaters are more efficient and cheaper than hot water tanks in older homes. Fiberglass composite windows will be used for their durability and energy efficiency.

The green roof installation will capture 80% of all stormwater to stay onsite or will greatly slow the rate of release into storm sewers. Porous pavers on the driveway will last a lot longer than asphalt and also aid in stormwater retention.

If you’re not one of the lucky future owners of an Elemental Townhome, or you’re not quite ready to add an entire photo-voltaic system or solar water heating system which can cost thousands of dollars, you can do a lot toward making your home green without breaking the bank.

“Reuse of an existing building is itself sustainable, or using recycled flooring, improving the energy efficiency of your home, repainting with non- VOC paints and finishes can add great improvements to the indoor environment, and save thousands of dollars over the life of a home,” says Usack.

Pragmatic partners also provide green design retrofitting and restoration services for existing homes. See the “Ask the Ecologist” column in this issue for some green remodeling ideas for your home.

Learn More: Check out the Pragmatic Construction website at

Riverwest Currents online edition – April, 2007