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By J. Patrick O’Leary

Last month Fruitdale School Lofts earned the distinction of being the first solar-powered historic landmark in Wheat Ridge. 

However, it still looks like the Temple Buell-designed Fruitdale School, only with an array of solar panels planted in the property’s backyard. The rest of the new technology is hidden on the roof, in the walls, and in the residences.

With rough framing complete and mechanical systems installed, work crews are installing drywall in the interior and restoring the exterior brickwork and windows, in time for residents to move in this fall.

On May 16 the building’s 124-kilowatt solar power system was providing 100 percent of the power for the remaining renovation efforts, according to Sara Spaulding, Wheat Ridge public information officer. It will provide approximately 80 percent of the energy needs of the future residents of the property’s 16 affordable apartments, reducing their cost of living.

“As a Solar*Rewards program participant, Fruitdale School Partners will receive production-based incentive payments each month from Xcel Energy for all the production generated by the solar system for 20 years,” according to Kristin Gaspar, Xcel Energy solar programs manager. “These incentive payments will be used to help residents reduce their utility costs.”

But that’s four or five months away.

By late May the smell of framing lumber filled the air as the “rough-in” stage came to a close. Framers had installed the wooden skeletons of new walls, doorways and ceilings. Electricians had snaked wire to outlets, fixtures and switches. The heating and cooling systems were installed, as were new fire sprinkler systems, now hidden in the ceilings. Finish work remains, and graffiti still adorns the existing hallways; it will be gone before completion, set for September or October.

Drywalling was expected to take another month, followed by installation of cabinets, countertops, toilets, flooring and the myriad fixtures and finishes to make schoolrooms into homes.

The integration of the renewable energy system with the 19th-century landmark on the National Register of Historic Places required a coordinated team effort between Xcel Energy, Sunsense Solar, Palace Construction, Fruitdale School Partners and the National Park Service, said Spaulding. 

The balancing act is to incorporate new features – including a charging station for electric vehicles – while preserving historic interior features, such as huge operable windows, high ceilings, chalkboards and basketball hoops from the prior school. The appearance from the road won’t change much, but the roof, backyard and interior will.

Josh Jones of Team Heating and Air Conditioning pointed out the hardware installed in the rough-framed rooms: compact heating and cooling units wedged between walls and ceilings, with metal piping circulating coolant between them and the rooftop units.

“These are more efficient heating and cooling units, all electric,” said Jones. “It took a lot of coordinating with the other trades.” Chilling engineers had to work out airflow, equipment had to be moved into the building, and additional bracing was needed for the rooftop units. 

Solar-generated electricity powers rooftop pumps and condensers, which cools or heats fluid and sends it through piping to each room’s heating and cooling fixtures.

However, Jones explained, the rooftop condensers will not work below zero, so electric baseboard heaters are installed in each room to provide auxiliary heat on cold days.

“We’re almost done with rough-in, and we’ll be back for start-up, balancing airflow and final work the last few weeks in August,” said Jones. “We should be able to run entirely off solar.”

Traditional forced-air heating and cooling has been installed in the corridors; although its rooftop air conditioning units will be electric, its furnace will use gas.

There’s more to it than just adding high-tech, solar and green. Denver’s Building Restoration Specialties, Inc. (BRS) is tasked with the brick-by-brick restoration of the landmark’s masonry, as well as the two original entrance signs.

BRS President Rhonda Maas said the original signs had been painted over, and holes for anchor bolts had been drilled through them, and patching and paint removal lies ahead for proper restoration.

Most of the brickwork on the exterior east wall has been restored by BRS, whose previous restoration projects include Wheat Ridge’s Baugh House and Richards-Hart Estate historic properties. “We had to cut out [damaged] brick units and replace with like kind,” said Maas. “Modern brick won’t fit – it’s smaller,” so BRS is using the bricks it salvaged from the new passages it cut through old interior walls. New mortar is used, tested to match the existing color.

She said brickwork restoration will take a couple of months, and must be complete before the original windows are restored, a task delegated to Lyons Historic Window of Denver. The State Historical Fund is providing financial assistance for masonry and window restoration.

Financing took advantage of developer equity, tax credit investments, a construction loan from Citywide Bank, loans from the City of Wheat Ridge, Wheat Ridge Housing Authority and Jefferson County Community Development, and solar power production credits from Xcel Energy.

Rents will be “affordable” but the lofts are not Section 8 subsidized housing, said Jim Hartman, manager of Fruitdale School Partners. The affordable rents are made possible by an up-front grant from Jefferson County’s HOME Investments Partnership Program.

“Our lower-income residents will soon be able to enjoy the benefits of affordable power, while living in creative new space within master-architect Temple Buell’s oldest surviving school building.”

Prospective tenants can add their name to a wait list by clicking a link found on the Fruitdale School page of the developer’s website (www.hartmanelyinvestments.com, below “Development” on the top menu bar); the selection process will not likely start until the fall.