The former Central School in Roundup, Montana, built in 1911. It’s now being transformed into housing (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).
ROUNDUP — Old buildings won’t solve all of Montana’s housing crisis, but when architect and developer Randy Hafer is done, they might solve some.
Hafer is a Stanford University trained, Billings-based architect who specializes in taking old, sometimes run-down buildings and transforming them into usable space with state-of-the-art amenities for heating, cooling and energy.
As Montana’s housing crisis continues to escalate, Hafer is quietly proving that some of the future solutions may lie in the buildings of the past. Hafer has bought two spacious old building – one in Lewistown and one in Roundup – that will be converted to affordable apartments. The idea is two-fold: First, to save historic and still usable buildings, and second, to help ease the crisis by adding to the housing inventory.
According to Realtor.com, the median housing price was $262,500 and there has been an increase in housing of more than 16% in 2022. Meanwhile, housing prices in Roundup have increased 45% in the same time period, the site said.
For nearly 40 years, the Broadway, a brick apartment building in Lewistown has sat vacant. Once popular apartments had existed there, but the building was literally falling apart, Hafer explained. A brick chimney had crumbled into a pile of rubble. Where city leaders saw a potential hazard, Hafer saw a historical building in need of rehabilitation.
Partnering with Preserve Montana and other organizations, Hafer will transform the building into LEED-Platinum certified apartments using Montana’s historical tax credit program, which trades tax credits in exchange for financing projects that preserve historic buildings.
“One interesting thing is that there are five different light wells, and every apartment is connected. Originally, I think it was part of a ventilation system, but it provides a lot of opportunity for light,” Hafer said. “It’s pretty dang clever.”
The building will transform from 24 units to 19, making each slightly bigger and more roomy.
“This was a really nice apartment building – one of the best in town,” Hafer said.
Some of the interior features, like doors and trim, and the casings and the baseboards can be repurposed in the new design. It will allow the space, built in 1913, to keep an original look and some old elements while the space is reconfigured and all the systems – heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing – are updated or rebuilt.
Hafer is designing the rents to be at around 80% of the market rate, appealing to teachers, professionals and law enforcement officers.
“We’re going to do it without subsidy because it’s a tax credit,” Hafer said, referencing the model he’s used successfully previously. “These units will be affordable to the people who want to live in town.”
He calls the principle “adaptive re-use.”
“It’s not about preservation exclusively,” Hafer explained. “We’re not putting it back together the way it was.”
For example, the hallway, exterior and public spaces like entryways will look the same, but the inside of the apartments will be different, more convenient and more efficient.
By using LEED-Platinum designs for heating and cooling, the reuse will drive down the cost of ownership and maintenance, Hafer said. That’s part of his program for both Lewistown and Roundup. Not only does it have to maintain the historic feel, which is desirable, it also needs to be efficient so that rents can stay lower.
For example by using high-performance solar panels and heat pumps, residents may be allotted certain utilities per month. If, at the end of the year, they’ve helped conserve energy, it may mean no increases in rent. For those who use more, it may mean an increase – something meant to help encourage residents to conserve resources on their own by providing incentives.
Hafer originally got involved in Roundup as the community was deciding what to do with its antiquated Central School, which had been built in 1911 through 1913. That means the school was constructed just two years after the town was incorporated. Looking back at the historical record, Hafer discovered that 47 people in the community had voted to construct a new school, and the ballot issue passed with 100 percent of the vote.
Nearly a century later, almost everyone in the community had passed through its doors and hallways. Yet no local developers wanted to tackle revamping the old school. Hafer loves the building in part because it was designed so that there could be additions.
“Now that’s a very different attitude about civic-mindedness,” he said.
The building was in use until 2017.
The plans are similar to ones in Lewistown as the building will be transformed into LEED-Platinum certified apartments, something important for a community that is struggling to find and keep affordable housing. Using historic tax credits and sitting adjacent to a public park, Hafer envisions a space where the community can admire the repurposed building and residents will be centrally located next to a park and the center of town, which serves as the Musselshell County seat.
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