Westlawn Gardens

Location: Milwaukee
Size: 35 acres
Certification: LEED-ND Silver (Stage 3)

Project Team:

Owner/Developer: Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee
Construction Manager/Advisor: Hunzinger Construction Company
Architect: Torti Gallas and Partners Inc.
Local Architect: Kindness Architecture + Planning
Master Planner: Entelechy
Civil Engineer (Utilities): Norris & Associates Inc.
Civil Engineer: R.A. Smith National
Structural Engineer: Arnold and O’Sheridan
Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: IBC Engineering Services Inc.
Landscape Architect: Schreiber Anderson Associates
Geotechnical Engineer: Professional Service Industries Inc.
LEED Consultant: Sustainable Building Solutions 


The northwest side of Milwaukee is currently undergoing a revitalization process. Bit by bit, areas are being transformed. One such area to have undergone this process is now known as Westlawn Gardens.

Westlawn Gardens is the result of a lengthy but necessary process undertaken by the project team of Torti Gallas and Partners of Silver Spring, Md., Milwaukee-based Kindness Architecture + Planning, and Hunzinger Construction Company at the behest of the owner/developer, the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM). The process began with the adoption of a master plan developed through an intensive planning process in 2009, according to HACM’s Warren Jones. Deconstruction of existing buildings began in early 2010 with site work and full-scale construction of new buildings beginning in late 2010. The housing units were completed and fully occupied by December 2012, while the outdoor health amenities, including the community gardens and informal park and sports areas, were completed and put into operation in late spring of 2013. A new phase—the addition of market rate housing—is expected to begin later in 2014.

Varied building designs are intended to give the project a “built over time” appeal. Its 156 single-family homes include12 different building sizes, and each building has up to three different styles utilizing 16 color and material schemes. Two multifamily developments comprise 94 one-bedroom units to offer a total of 250 affordable homes. The housing is complemented by 10,000 square feet of retail presence and 30,000 square feet of space for community gardens in an area sometimes described as a “food desert.”

The need for updating the area was apparent to HACM. The original Westlawn was nearing or at the end of its useful life with consistently escalating maintenance costs for outdated building systems. Additionally, “The sheer size of Westlawn, at 726 dwelling units on 76 acres, made maintenance and management difficult,” says Jones. “The cost versus benefit comparison between renovation and new construction clearly indicated a complete revitalization was necessary. We decided to begin by redeveloping half of the property—35 acres of existing urban development—into what is today Westlawn Gardens.”

Sustainable Venture

HACM began the project intent on helping residents achieve three goals: community, sustainability and healthy living. The group realized early on that implementing a sustainable design would go a long way toward helping residents meet those goals. While creating individual sustainable residences may have offered a solution, the project team instead opted for a more cohesive strategy for the entire neighborhood. Thankfully, the situation offered viable options.

“We looked at both Enterprise Green Communities and at LEED for Neighborhood Development,” says Phil Vetterkind, director of Brookfield, Wis.-based Sustainable Building Solutions. “We were there to help the team wade through the plusses and minuses of each system. There were many similarities, although the cost for LEED was a bit more—but the difference was negligible. One of the reasons the project ended up pursuing LEED-ND was the marketplace’s familiarity with the brand.”

True, the marketplace is familiar with LEED. But familiarity with LEED-ND is not common, even for building professionals.

According to the USGBC, 110 individual projects were certified under the LEED-ND rating system in the pilot phase, six of which achieved multiple stages of certification, which makes for a total of 116 pilot certifications. There are currently nine Stage 1 projects under LEED v2009, 25 Stage 2 projects and two projects in Stage 3, which is official certification—one of which being the now LEED-ND Silver Westlawn Gardens. Since only one other project besides Westlawn Gardens has achieved certification, the project team had a lot of legwork to do.

“We weren’t able to simply log on to a site or do an online search if we had a question about a prerequisite. There was almost zero precedent for what we were doing,” says Vetterkind. “Finding the answer for a question like if dormers were counted for the walkable street height credit wasn’t something we could do individually. Thankfully, the LEED-ND community is a small one. We were able to contact USGBC with our questions and get very prompt responses.”

‘I Hate It When Project Teams Say This’

It’s a phenomenon occurring more and more: Project teams want to develop a LEED project but they don’t bother to go through the certification process, typically citing cost as the reason. For the Westlawn Gardens project team, cost did come into play for certification—but for the individual homes and not the neighborhood.

Vetterkind explains that much of LEED-ND is about the site itself, its access to retail, its walkability, etc. The buildings occupying the site still needed a guideline to help them achieve water savings and energy efficiency goals. The team, therefore, fell back on LEED for Homes. The problem became the cost of certifying each residence on the site. It just wasn’t in the budget. So the team came up with a solution somewhat akin to the LEED Volume Program.

“I hate it when project teams say this when buildings haven’t actually gone for certification, but all of the single-family homes are built to LEED Platinum standards,” Vetterkind says. “One home was built and certified as LEED Platinum. From there, each subsequent unit was treated in the same manner: same design, same construction, everything. Our LEED Rater would then randomly select units to test. While none of them were certified as such, each of the projects tested met the LEED for Homes Platinum criteria.” Vetterkind adds that the testing process was so secretive that the team often wasn’t even aware of which units were to be tested until a few days prior to actual testing. “The team was committed to ensuring that they all tested to the same level,” he says.

Re-creating ‘Oz’

HACM set out to achieve many goals with Westlawn Gardens and succeeded, including creating Milwaukee’s first LEED for Homes Platinum-certified residence. Sustainable and durable construction materials were used throughout, all units feature energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, rainwater was efficiently and effectively managed, and 14 “Healthy Homes”—units designed for individuals who suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses—were built to deal with one of the highest neighborhood asthma rates in Wisconsin.

“The reintegration of a poorly designed 1950’s suburban development to a more dense urban development was incredibly challenging,” Jones says. “Everything from the utilities below grade to the building details required consideration.” Paying attention to those details, though, made the project a success. “Construction details and exacting quality control are very important when designing and building airtight, energy-efficient housing.”

Vetterkind agrees that attention to detail was exhausting but necessary. “I applaud HACM and the architect for the design of the project before my firm came onboard,” he says. “Their attention to detail with an eye toward sustainability made for a much simpler process when the decision was made to pursue LEED certification.”

Paying attention to what the site is and what it offers also makes a difference when pursuing a Neighborhood Development certification. “LEED-ND can be so many different things,” says Vetterkind. “It all depends on what buildings are being put on the site, whether they’re residential or commercial, and what the site offers because there are things you just can’t do much about. You can’t always add jobs or move buildings around to meet LEED-ND requirements. A site sometimes is what it is. That knowledge is important when considering LEED-ND.”

In this case, the site ended up matching HACM’s needs and those of LEED-ND very well. But there was something more, something beyond the sustainable goals that the site offered. “The beauty of the site as the landscaping matures is extremely satisfying,” says Jones. “Aerial photos of the remaining portion of Westlawn and the new Westlawn Gardens are comparable to the black and white portion and the color portion of the Wizard of Oz. It is a stark contrast of color, design and functionality.”