Youthful Vision Taking Shape in Fayetteville's Eco Modern Flats

Where some might see an aging structure ripe for demolition, a group of young architects and designers sees the future.

Their youthful vision of a hip, urban environment that's also earth friendly and affordable is taking shape near downtown Fayetteville as Eco Modern Flats, a renovated apartment complex off Center Street.

Modus Studio is the creative force behind Eco Modern Flats. The high-profile project is a coup for the fledgling firm, founded in 2008 by two Fay Jones School of Architecture grads.

Pals Josh Siebert and Chris Baribeau started the business with a single project, the Green Forest Middle School, and initially worked out of their homes. Eventually, another former classmate, Jason Wright, joined them.

As students, the three had joked about one day starting their own firm. Wright graduated in 2002, Baribeau in 2003 and Siebert in 2004.

Now boasting a staff of six, Modus operates from a fifth-floor office in the Ball Building in downtown Fayetteville and has a fabrication shop on Wedington Drive.

The firm recently completed a terminal at the Carroll County Airport in Berryville, and is building an elementary school in Heber Springs. It also takes on residential projects, from renovations to new construction.

"We really touch on a wide range of scales of projects," said Baribeau, the firm's principal architect. "That's actually a very important thing to us, to continually be jumping and thinking of different scales. It keeps you fresh and energetic."

And helps avoid falling into a rut, Wright added.

"A lot of times you see firms that become so specialized they sort of lose creativity," he said. "This idea of continually exploring different project types helps to curb that tendency to become passive about design."

Baribeau said Eco Modern Flats fit perfectly with the firm's design aesthetic.

Eco Modern Flats was formerly the Glendale Apartments, built 40 years ago. Just south of the University of Arkansas campus, the complex had long been a home to students and others who enjoyed living near Dickson Street and nearby amenities.

Project managers Jeremy Hudson and Seth Mims, partners in Springdale-based MC3 Multifamily, saw the rundown property as an opportunity to create modern, stylish rental space incorporating features that were healthy for people and the planet.

They interviewed several local architects to find the right team for the project and felt the people at Modus Studio "really had the combination of the design sense and an understanding of who our target market would be, not just students but young professionals," Hudson said.

"They're all younger guys; they had adequate experience in architecture and had a great potential to bring the modern design to transform the building from an eyesore to a desirable place to live."

Baribeau wasn't fazed by the challenges posed by the Eco Modern Flats project, seeing only its potential.

"I was just excited from Day One for the opportunity to take something like that that has such a big impact - 96 units right there in that part of town is a big deal," he said.


Facelift in Fayetteville

Siebert said of the Hill Avenue complex, "It had great bones. You just peel the dirt back."

The "bones" were the concrete block construction and the boxy, mid-century design. The buildings had no insulation and were an energy-sucking nightmare.

Inside, the units were cramped, dated and dingy, and at least one vacated apartment reeked of pet urine. 

The renovation involves gutting the buildings down to their "bones," then installing new mechanical systems, soy-based insulation, rooftop solar panels and a ductless heat and air-conditioning system.

The apartments have polished concrete floors and countertops, and are finished out with no-VOC paint, locally crafted wood cabinets and Energy Star appliances.

The project's four buildings are in various stages of construction, although Hudson said they would be finished by the time students return to the UA campus in August.

Eco 1 is completed, with two of its 24 units outfitted as model units for prospective tenants to view. Eco 2 will be completed in the next few weeks, and Eco 3 is being readied for construction.

Work hasn't yet begun on Eco 4, and many of its tenants have chosen to remain there throughout the revamping process. In fact, a number of longtime tenants have already opted to move into the refurbished units.

The three-story buildings have eight units on each floor, and while all units are 600 SF, most offer some degree of outdoor space as well, and the prices vary accordingly.

Rates start at $725 for an interior flat with 100 SF of shared balcony space, and go up to $880 for third-floor flats with a 185-SF private balcony and 286-SF partially covered private rooftop terrace.

The rent is all-inclusive, covering water, sewer, trash, recycling, gas, electricity, high-speed Internet and basic


‘Eco' Economics

Hudson said he and Mims had been wanting to create an apartment complex in Fayetteville "that would fit the market the most, with modern design and modern architecture. That's something people in my generation like, but it's not very common in our area, especially in apartments."

The existing architecture of the complex lent itself to that modern design, he said, and the "green" aspect evolved as work progressed.

"As we renovated that project, one of the most obvious things that needed to be done was to update the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems to make them more energy efficient," Hudson said.

"So as we went down that path, through our construction practices we wanted to have as little negative impact on the environment as possible, things you can do that don't cost any more or cost little more to have a better building with a lower impact on the environment and a healthier place to live."

Hudson didn't want to say how much the entire project would cost since it was still under construction and some of the costs were yet to be determined. But on April 4, Eco Flats LLC, of which Hudson is the registered agent, took out a $4.6 million construction loan with U.S. Bank, according to Washington County property records.

Robert Dant of Portland, Ore., bought the property for $1.15 million from the RPM Realty Fund in May 2010. RPM Realty Fund is an Arkansas limited partnership whose general partner is Rector Phillips Morse Inc.

In November, Dant deeded the property to Eco Flats LLC.

A couple of building permits issued earlier this year for Building No. 4 totaled $716,000. One building permit valued at $626,000 was issued to Eco Flats LLC on Feb. 15, and another for $90,000 was issued March 28.


Taking the LEED

Mark Cloud, chairman of the western branch of the U.S. Green Building Council's Arkansas chapter, said Eco Modern Flats received a few points more than are necessary for platinum-level LEED certification, which means the project will be only the fourth in the state to achieve that level. Eco Modern Flats also will be the state's first LEED-certified multifamily project.

LEED  - Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design - is a certification process the USGBC uses to ensure buildings conform to its standards in areas such as water and energy use, materials and resources, and design innovation.

Arkansas ranked eighth on the USGBC's 2010 list of top 10 states for LEED-certified space per capita, with 2.9 SF per person. The council's website shows 52 projects in the state were LEED certified as of Wednesday. At least 16 of those - almost a third - were in Benton and Washington counties.

Cloud, who also is director of business development at HP Engineering Inc. in Fayetteville, said several factors had put Arkansas, and northwest Arkansas in particular, at the forefront of the green-building movement.

One of these is Fayetteville's commitment to sustainability, evidenced by its participation in the Sustainable Cities Institute's Pilot City Program, the creation of a city sustainability director position and numerous initiatives at the University of Arkansas.

Another factor was Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s announcement about five years ago that it was going to adopt more sustainable practices.

"I think that got the attention of a lot of people," he said. "Wal-Mart wouldn't do it if it didn't help boost profits."

LEED certification adds value to a project, Cloud said. It means the client is getting what he's paying for, and the person renting or moving into the building can be reassured that things were done properly.

"I think Eco Modern Flats is a perfect example of how they took an existing building that was rundown and teetering in the wind and repurposed it, and made it into something desirable and LEED certified," Cloud said.

Green building is not only the right thing to do but also the profitable thing to do, he said, "and they've made a real example of that."