Jesuit, former student team up to create affordable housing in Omaha
Br. Mike Wilmot, SJ, trudges up a path to a structure-in-progress in Omaha. In its current stage it resembles a two-story bunker. A gifted carpenter, Br. Mike has been a Jesuit since 1959. He's also worked as a teacher, coach, and administrator at the high school and middle school levels. In the mid 1990s he spent time doing refugee work in eastern Africa. While there, he helped design and build a library.
But today he passes through a makeshift plywood door and is greeted inside this roofless two-story building by another carpenter, Roger Buck. They discuss a minor problem with setting floor joists, agree on a solution, and resume work. Br. Jerry Peltz, SJ, joins them later, and Br. Mike and Roger update him on the project, a new home on Lafayette Street, being built primarily by this trio.
The Jesuit tradition is rich with the efforts of men who took ideas, from AIDS orphanages to job training programs and everything in between, and developed exciting, new ministries. With help from a former student, Br. Mike is heading down a similar path on Omaha's north side.
Any new construction in this area of Omaha would draw attention. Not many people build in neighborhoods in transition. This towering residence-to-be, however, draws gawkers not only for where it is being built but also how it is being built--a little-used method known as tilt-up construction said to originate with Thomas Edison.
Design involves fifteen pre-poured concrete panels, each 9 inches thick, 9 feet wide, and 21 feet tall. Panels are poured flat on the ground in two reinforced layers with insulation in between. A large crane lifts the panels and tilts them in place--thus the term tilt-up construction. The result is a house that would make that third little pig green with envy--stronger than brick and almost seamless.
If Br. Mike and builder Philip McKeone, a former student of his, have their way, houses like this, lots of them, will be popping up on Omaha's inner-city landscape, leading the way to an affordable housing renaissance. They have become part of the ongoing battle against urban decline faced by cities everywhere.
"This is the prototype," says Br. Mike.
"It's research and development," adds Phil, president of Daedalus Construction, an Omaha company specializing in concrete construction. "Once we get the wrinkles ironed out, we can figure out a way to build them quicker and cheaper. Who knows where it will go after that?"
Their vision has a simple plan at its roots. Build one house and recoup expenses. Build another, then another, and another. Maybe get Housing and Urban Development involved. Think grand, work hard, and pray for success.
As they work on the first unit they take notes on how to improve the next. For example, they might attach the garage so that its poured concrete roof can double as a patio.
Br. Mike and Phil go back more than 30 years. "Brother was at Creighton Prep when I was there causing a lot of trouble. He was in a position of authority when I was bucking authority. They probably never should have let me get out of that school," says Phil, his words fading into laughter.
After attending Creighton University, Phil went into the building business. His path crossed Br. Mike's around a series of construction projects. His company did some work at Creighton Prep and built an addition to the Jesuit Middle School of Omaha and another one at Mulumba House, a nearby Jesuit residence.
The success of those projects got Br. Mike wondering if tilt-up construction might be adapted to produce affordable housing. They agreed to experiment with one house on a lot that Phil owned.
"Concrete is as old as the Romans and very versatile," Phil says. "You can make it look like fancy marble, pour it into tunnels, make skyscrapers. I always liked it. We don't know how practical it is for housing, but it is easy to manufacture and readily made. And it doesn't burn." That is a feature they hope will help reduce insurance costs.
"If there's a fire, we clean out the shell and replace everything else, but the basic structure will still be there," Br. Mike says. The walls are firm, energy efficient, and quiet. Winds can howl outside a tilt-up construction house, but inside it will be quieter than a Rolls Royce on a new highway.
Their intent, however, is not toward luxury but getting a durable, no-frills, 2,600-square-foot house onto the market in the $100,000 range. No public money is involved. Phil is willing to front financing and materials and "spin that hundred thousand just as many times and as hard as we can to see what happens. It's kind of like bread on the water."
As the project progressed through spring and into summer, Br. Mike, overseeing construction, was keeping it on as fast a track as possible. Their hope was to complete the first house before summer, because by early spring they already had an interested buyer. Despite setbacks in their schedule, the buyer remained interested and closed on the first house in early August for $115,000.
That closing boosted their optimism and is fueling bigger dreams that take flight as they envision building on an open area of cleared lots. They need the space to position the crane that raises wall sections into position.
"We may have made mistakes along the way, but we didn't make the same one twice, and we learned from them. That's what research and development is all about," Phil says.
That knowledge and experience goes back to work again very soon. The city has deeded a second lot to the program just 80 feet away from the first house. "
We plan to use a smaller crane for the second house that will give us better maneuverability and still allow us to precisely pour and position the different sections of wall," Phil says.
Precision and a minimum of mistakes are important because every detail, while not carved in stone, is cast in concrete. Every window must be the right size and in the right place. Every outlet hole along the interior walls must be in exact position, along with passages for wiring.
"Wiring and plumbing are both preset, with everything running up and down, rather than horizontal," Br. Mike says.
Phil Nero, communications director for the Wisconsin Province, wrote "Ten Days in Africa" in our Winter 2000/2001 issue.
When Thomas Edison experimented with tilt-up construction he didn't have to worry about as many details. Outlets weren't important; he hadn't yet invented the light bulb.
Unlike Edison, Br. Mike and Phil aren't looking to invent anything new. However, they wouldn't mind reinventing a way to make good housing affordable to more people, raising with every section of wall a little hope for the classic American dream of home ownership.