Habitat for Humanity of Metro Louisville, Kentucky

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BackgroundLouisville Snapshot

Settled in the late 18th century near the westernmost navigable point of the Ohio River, Louisville, Ky., became a major shipping and cargo center in the 19th century, and remains the seventh largest inland port in the United States. Although the city has become a center of health care and medical science and retains a sizeable corporate and small business base, the housing crisis of the late 2000s has negatively affected residential districts and led to deterioration and abandonment of some housing stock. Fully a third less populous than it was in 1960, the Louisville metropolitan area is still home to 1.26 million people. 
Rife with historic resources, Louisville is second only to New Orleans in its stock of shotgun houses, and the city has one of the largest Victorian neighborhoods in the United States.  Much of Louisville’s residential West End, a quadrant of the city settled beginning in the late 19th century and containing smaller neighborhoods with a variety of architecture including shotguns and bungalows, faces economic difficulty, physical deterioration, and abandonment. 

The Affiliate

Founded in 1985, Habitat for Humanity of Metro Louisville (HFHML) began its first project—a rehab building in the Russell neighborhood of the West End—in 1986. Since then the affiliate has completed 300 homes. Beginning in 2007 with the help of house donations and sponsorships by local businesses, Habitat has undertaken 20 rehabilitation projects ranging from a 19th-century brick shotgun to craftsman bungalows to a suburban ranch-style house. 

Louisville Habitat Executive Director Rob Locke says that his affiliate does rehab work because his organization recognizes the community-building impact it generates.  “While rehabs are dirty, longer, don’t cost that much less, volunteers don’t like them as much—they’re absolutely the right thing for neighborhoods. It has taken a long time to drive it home, but it’s the right thing to do. When we can make that connection, it’s powerful…we’re protecting investment of existing houses,” he said.  

Site Selection & Acquisition

Most of Louisville Habitat’s rehab properties were donated to the affiliate.  In several cases, it accepted houses through a deed in lieu of foreclosure—a method of recapturing Habitat properties whose owners could no longer pay their mortgage.  Locke, who ran his affiliate’s construction department for 10 years prior to becoming executive director, said that the organization often had opportunities to accept donated houses—as many as 2-3 per year—but it would inevitably turn them down because of the challenge that rehab posed. Said Locke, “I live in an old house and have helped people do work on their own homes. I always knew the opportunity existed to realize value in those donations.” Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy to convince his staff that rehab was possible. “I had credibility in construction…coupled with the reality of boarded up houses in close proximity to our new houses…Right across the street were houses that needed to be fully assessed, more likely torn down or else completely gutted and rebuilt.”  “I knew there was an opportunity, there was value.  The community knew it was the right thing to do…and we could actually do it. ” he said. 

That opportunity came along in 2007 in the form of a mid-century modular home that was partially burned, and that Locke thought the construction team could take on.  “It took all of my credibility with the construction folks to get it done,” noted Locke. 

Three years later, Louisville Habitat has expanded its capacity to acquire and rehabilitate.  “It works on other parts of the organizational model,” said Locke.  “It allows you to take donated property officially.  It allows you to consider deed in lieu of foreclosure.”

Preservation

Since none of Habitat Louisville’s rehabs have been located in historic districts, the affiliate has not had to work with a preservation commission during the design or construction phases. In some cases, this lack of review has led to the loss of exterior siding or the installation of replacement windows. However the rehabs have maintained exterior massing and some character-defining features, including distinctive craftsman porches and tall, narrow Victorian windows.

1702 Prentice Street

One of Habitat’s most dramatically transformed rehab homes is located at 1702 Prentice Street in the California neighborhood of the West End.  A 100-year-old brick camelback shotgun (a one-story front mass connected to a two-story transverse rear wing), the house was a donated property that Habitat gutted, removing fire-damaged timbers and a poorly-constructed dropped ceiling. The Citibank-sponsored project refitted the house with improved insulation, a more stable floor system, new framing and drywall, a vestibule and a multi-glass door from the affiliate’s ReStore.  Outside, the home suffered from deteriorated masonry and deferred maintenance, which the construction team addressed with extensive tuck-pointing and roof and gutter repair.  Today, the brick facade is set off by bright white trim complete with a decorative oval grille in the gable end.  Preservation Louisville recognized the project as a “Top Ten Preservation Success” for 2009.

2508 Howard Street

Typical of Louisville Habitat’s rehabilitation projects is the craftsman bungalow located at 2508 Howard Street, also in the California neighborhood. The local bank, which owned the building, did not want to be a landlord, so it donated the structure to Habitat.  The house features a distinctive projecting porch with a shallow roof pitch and slatted open gable end set on rusticated columns.  Inside, joists were rotten and a large, built-up beam was infested with termites.  Rob Locke estimated that it would have collapsed in as few as five years.

Habitat pitched the rehabilitation project to Brown-Forman—a multinational distiller headquartered in the neighborhood and famous for the Jack Daniel’s brand—as a volunteer opportunity for employees. The company sponsored the rehabilitation, sending volunteers to the site one day a week for 16 weeks. According to Locke, the employees, who were working on company time, “got to meet neighbors on the street, then see the impact at the end of the day of what their money and time did to transform an abandoned, dilapidated house into a beacon of hope.”

Infill

Rob Locke noted that the rehab process has taught his affiliate to pay more attention to the design of the infill buildings it produces, especially the massing of the houses when viewed from the street. He tries to make sure that the Habitat house being built fits in with the other houses on the street.  For infill projects in the Smoketown and Portland neighborhoods of Louisville, where houses were part of a Hope VI project (a federal public housing program) and land was controlled by the municipality, Habitat’s designs were subject to more than the usual scrutiny. In addition to adding a sunburst detail to one gable end and scalloped shingles to another, the construction team opted to use raised heel trusses in the roof—a framing element that both extends the height of the main mass of the house and makes attic insulation easier to install. The taller building mass more closely matches the profile of other houses in the neighborhood. 

Partnership

In 2009 Louisville Habitat and Preservation Louisville (a citywide preservation nonprofit) created a poster depicting a “hierarchy of preservation and reuse.”  In order to convey the best possible treatment of historic resources, the poster illustrates, in order of decreasing preference, examples of “Adaptive Preservation and Reuse,” “Renovation and Rehab,” “Deconstruction, Salvage and Reuse,” and “Demolition.”  Simple in concept and execution, the poster is a useful tool to teach people about the goals, benefits, and methods of preservation.  It also recognizes that for those homes that are too deteriorated to rehabilitate, it is possible to salvage and resell individual components. This creates a revenue stream for Habitat and a source of architectural details for interested renovators.   

Lead Paint Abatement

Staff from Louisville Habitat’s ReStore have been certified in lead paint abatement so they can prepare rehab interiors for construction. Locke explained that his affiliate rewrote its internal policies with the Renovation, Repair and Painting rule, and EPA policy requiring contractors to be certified in lead abatement, in mind.  Although the organization has a long-range plan to simplify the testing process, when dealing with older buildings, construction staff now assumes everything has lead paint on it, even if that isn’t necessarily the case. To prepare a rehab house for interior construction work, a special construction team first strips the house’s interior back to the studs. According to Locke, “Our regular volunteer force, when they see a rehab, it’s already gutted.  They know how to respond to a framed house.”  Such adjustments have eased the affiliate’s transition toward a project pipeline with more rehabs. 

Finding Balance

Asked to provide advice for other Habitat affiliates considering rehab work, Locke said “[m]ake sure you gut the houses. Don’t try to band-aid with your rehab.  Don’t do a partial or low-end rehab. You’re going to end up with more problems in the long haul. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve found termite and rot damage.”

Locke cited the recent rehab of a modified shotgun house that had an ornate foyer with turned columns and a matching fireplace. While the initial plan was to replace only a single plaster wall, the demolition process revealed that the studs of the exterior wall were eaten by termites, so the whole room had to be stripped back. According to Locke, if the house hadn’t been framed with an adjacent interior wall about four feet away—and the ceiling joists not spanned the whole width of the house—the roof could’ve failed. In the end, the columns were saved but the bases had themselves succumbed to termites. “The challenge is the balance between preservation and doing right by the house and the homeowner.  You have to feel that you’re turning over, to the best extent possible, something similar in quality to what we’d build new.”

In another rehab home, 13.5-foot ceilings challenged the construction team’s heating and cooling assumptions because there was so much more air space than with a typical 8 foot ceiling. The affiliate has improved efficiency in high-ceiling spaces by using better ventilation returns and ceiling fans, but another solution is also working: In private spaces upstairs—bedrooms in particular—it installs lower ceilings. It leaves public spaces with original ceiling heights because, as Locke says, “that’s an investment in the feel of the house.”  “In private spaces, where fewer people go, it’s more about functionality and the performance of the building.”

Impact

“Building houses is what we do, but not why we do it,” said Locke.  “We do it to change lives.  We do it for sustainability and the contribution to a healthy neighborhood. That’s absolutely crucial…If there’s some guiding element, it’s ‘building community, one block at a time.’”  Through its rehabilitation work, Habitat for Humanity of Metro Louisville has created affordable housing in existing neighborhoods while ameliorating blight and inspiring neighbors.
Habitat’s efforts have been contagious. At the same time the Prentice Street house was dedicated, the New Directions Housing Corp. began preparing the renovation of an apartment building right across the street. Louisville’s Courier-Journal reported that a couple of blocks from these projects, another Habitat home on Maple Street had catalyzed efforts as well—neighbors had begun planting flowers and adding new siding to their own homes.

Photos courtesy of Habitat for Humanity of Metro Louisville.