Interview with Jim Maransky, builder of the Ice House Condos, a Sustainable Development in Fishtown

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In late October, I had the chance to speak with Jim Maransky, the president of E-Built, the construction firm behind the new green development project, Ice House Condominiums in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. The website for the Ice House lists it’s green construction aspects as:

  • A large, common area, “Green Roof,” centered between the Condo Units
  • A Rainwater recycling system
  • Recycling / Reuse of building materials from buildings that are being demolished
  • Solar Power System for running common- area electric
  • High Efficiency HVAC systems
  • High Efficiency Appliances
  • Tankless Hot Water Heaters
  • Dual Flush Toilets
  • Hybrid Car Hookups
  • Sustainable Hardwood Flooring

I was interested to find out more about the project, and how green development projects are changing our city, and transforming our neighborhoods.  The Ice House is a prime example of how permaculture design can be profitable. When I spoke with Jim, he wasn’t very familiar with permaculture design principles and ethics, but I think the design of the Ice House has many aspects that are in line with the goals and methods of permaculture.  The holistic design of this development creates a living space for people who want to live a low-impact lifestyle in the heart of the city.  This exemplifies how permaculture design, and systems analysis can create opportunities to live sustainable lives in large cities.

Without intentionally following the permaculture principles, Jim described how he observed and interacted with the community to identify opportunities and threats.  Jim worked to obtain a yield for his business, and for the community by creating a low-impact living opportunity that was not previously available.  The project takes advantage of renewable resources through rain-water catchment and integrates the community through common areas like a rooftop dog park, and an outdoor lounge / kitchen area.  Jim also describes how he creatively responded to changes in the construction industry and took advantage of market opportunities.  Permaculture, and regenerative design are not exclusive to farming or landscaping, and this example proves that business aligned with permaculture principles can be profitable if market niches are identified, and opportunities are seized.  Read on, and find out more about this project.

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Tell us about what makes the Ice House special?

The first two phases both earned LEED Platinum Certification, so the project already met those qualifiers. It’s the first LEED Platinum Multi-Family Low-Rise in Philadelphia History. Low Rise is four stories or less.

What is E-Built, your company?

E-Built is a construction management firm.
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Where did the idea of this project come from? Was it from E-Built, or did someone approach you with the idea?

No, E-Built grew out of this complex actually. I started doing smaller residential projects, re-habbing houses, doing flips, doing all the construction in-house, back in 2003-2004. In 2005-2006, I started to pick up some of the properties that are now part of phase 3 of the project. Over a 3-year span, I assembled all 14 properties that now make up the Ice House. Building phase 1, I used an outside GC firm, which is difficult when you’re trying to build things that are LEED or “Green”. You know, now it’s a bit easier, but back then, LEED Platinum, or building to a high LEED level, or any LEED certification at all, a lot of contractors and subcontractors didn’t understand any of it. So, there was a big learning curve. There was something that we called the “Green Markup,” as soon as you told someone it was a green project or LEED project, they instantly added like 15-20% on their price for the job just for unknowns. It became evident that if we were going to continue to build this way, we were going to have to build our own GC firm to handle it. We did the first phase with another company, but self-performed quite a bit. And the second and third phase we did with our GC company. Starting back in 2007, I formed E-Built, and it started out as a 3-4 man team, and now we’re 20+ employees. So now we build our own projects. We’re doing the Icehouse Project, we’re doing the townhome project across the street, that was my own development project, and we also do construction all around the city. So, we work with other developers and other parties as well. [We’ve got] a couple of restaurants going on right now, 2 other multi-family projects. We build single-families… We found a niche where guys with a mid-size project that are too big and complicated for a standard small-time contractor, like a sole-proprietor working with a couple guys. It jumps from there, up to the next level of firms out there, which are larger construction firms that do 5-10 million dollar jobs. There’s a very small number of GC’s / construction managements that handle projects that are in our sweet spot which is anywhere from a million to ten million dollars. Really, a million to five million dollar range, that’s really our area of expertise, and there’s a shortage in the market for those types of contracts. Especially after the crash, with the crash a ton of people jumped out of the business. And now the building boom is back and there’s a shortage of qualified guys. So I employ four guys in this company with masters degrees, two masters in sustainable design, I have an MBA, and the other guy has a masters in engineering. So, we’re a pretty educated group for builders. We also take on other projects, complicated projects, we have a division of the company that just does rooftop work. So we do big green roofs, roof decks, kind of like a rooftop makeover. Guys that are building, even for other GCs, that are building large projects, and they get up to the roof, then we take it from there. We do the coatings, we do the green roofs, we do the roof decks, we do outdoor kitchens.

IMG_8784   Greenroof-final

 Why did you want to work on sustainable development projects?

I got out of college, and my first job was working for an energy company. I worked for Atlantic Electric, outside of Atlantic City, which is now Connectiv Power. My specialty, or what I did, was bulk power marketing and best-case scenario analysis on the most efficient way to run power plants. Energy companies can buy bulk power from one another instead of running their own plants. All the companies have all these different power plants that run off on different fuels, so there’s gas plants, coal plants, different plants, and they all have different costs to operate. So if you have a high load energy day, like say it’s a 100 degree day in the summer, and everyone’s running their AC, well almost every power plant that they have is running, and they gotta go into emergency power, nuclear plants, other high cost plants… So my job was to analyze these days and figure out the most efficient way, and take that as a learning tool, and when it came up again and we were going to have another high load day, then we’d go and buy bulk power through another group, like through an Enron, or something like that, so we could buy bulk power instead of producing our own.
So, I started out as an employee working for them, and then I left for grad school, and stayed on as a consultant, and eventually they outsourced the department to me. But the work was deadline-based, so I would have really intensive work weeks, and then there’d be a lull for 2-3 weeks, you know, it was deadline based every month. And so I had to start filling in the gaps, so I started filling in the gaps with buying real estate, flipping houses, and things like that. The two just kind of intertwined when I started learning more about developing, and doing bigger projects I was really intrigued by the energy efficiency aspects, the LEED certification, the green roofs, and it was just a natural fit.
Then it came to the first phase, we said we were just going to make it a green project. It started as a regular project with some green attributes, and then it grew into the green roofs, and getting in the stormwater management. And then we were looking at it, we pulled the permit, and we were ready to get going, and the GC I hired, one of the guys said, “This is really close, you could probably get this LEED certified just with what you have it in now.” So then we hired a consultant, and we looked at it, and we were right there at the LEED Silver level, and then as we went on, we kept adding more and more amenities and green features, which built up our points, and at the end we ended up with LEED Platinum, which became the goal for the following phases. So this phase got all LEED Platinum, and now we’re on the third phase and the goal is to hit platinum on that as well. We’ll be somewhere in Gold-Platinum, we’re right on the borderline.

What are the different elements of the project have a focus on sustainability?

Stormwater management. We were under the 15,000 square foot threshold here that requires stormwater management, so everything that we’ve done, we’ve done voluntarily. So we have all the green roofs in the project, but even then, everything even after it drains out of the green roofs, it goes down, and we have 3 cisterns in the basement, and a whole rainwater recycling system, and it gets pumped back up. So, all these pipes that you can see are painted black and hidden around, they run all around so it runs an irrigation system up here, runs irrigation on the rest of the green roofs, re-fills the Koi ponds, it does all of the wash-down and stuff outside, all of our maintenance watering, cleaning sidewalks, cleaning the garage, all that stuff re-uses the rain water. So, we do a lot with the stormwater management and rain water recycling. Efficiency is huge. Everything we put in, we over-insulate. We require an R-factor of whatever is required by code plus 5%. We do all exposed spiral duct work, so any of the air leaking out of the ducts is already in the conditioned space. We use 98% efficient tankless water heaters, all EnergyStar appliances, EnergyStar lighting, recessed lights are EnergyStar, we use LED lights wherever we can, 95% efficient HVAC systems. So everything we do is really built from an efficiency position. Like, on a 90 degree day, you’ll go into a unit, and it’s 70 in the unit without the air on. Maybe the air is on for like 15 minutes in an hour, where in another house, the air would be on constantly. Everybody that’s lived here is pretty happy with the energy efficiency. Electric bills are low, gas bills are low.

How many units are filled and how many are open?

Everything is filled. Well, we have one unit for sale. In phase 1, there was 13 units, and we sold 10 out of the 13. I kept those 3 and rented them out. So, I still have those 3. We moved into the larger unit, for our office. Every unit in phase 2 sold, 9 out of 9. There were 14 in phase 3, and they’ll finish in January or February.

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Why did you choose Fishtown for this project?

I moved to Philly right after college. I grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania, Lebanon. So Philly’s the big town, the big city. I grew up halfway between Hershey and Reading. I went to school and college in Reading. Then after college, I went down the shore, found a job for the summer, and the guys I lived with down there were coming back here, and I actually lived in Northern Liberties. So then, for a number of summers, I was back and forth, where I had that job down the shore. So I worked down there, and came up here to Philly, and was back and forth. Then I started buying flips and rehabs, I bought a couple in New Jersey, and a couple down in Delaware County, and then I started looking in Philly, to try to get into new construction and development. I was just riding all around town looking for places, and came through here. A friend of mine lived down around the corner and would talk highly of Fishtown. And we found the first one, which was this bar called the Ice House down on the corner. Dooley’s Ice house was an infamous bar back in the day. It was basically a bar, but it was mostly take-out. It was shut down for 10-15 years by the time I bought it. It was boarded up, there were 6 houses in a row that were all boarded up here. I thought the field was gorgeous, and the block was gorgeous, and I was like, “Wow, this is really a shame.” But it was 6 or 7 properties in a row with all individual owners, and all boarded up. You know, title issues, leans, taxes, defaulted mortgages.

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So the bar shuddered, and the guy owned the bar and like 3 houses down. So he closed up the bar, and shuddered his house, and the next one fell into disrepair, and they shuddered it. So it was 140 feet, where you see the end of Phase 1 now, and it was just shuddered buildings. On the corner was Dooley’s Ice House. And back in the day, this field was all intermurals and leagues. This was, demographically, a Caucasian blue-collar neighborhood. And supposedly, the story was that they field went 7 days a week after work. They played softball, football, baseball, any type of intramural or league sports. The field was packed every night. They drank on the field, they’d come over to Dooley’s Ice House, get six packs to take out, and go back over to the field. You know, guys are coming in to play sports, and get their beer at the bar, and some guys were drinking at the bar, and some were taking it back to the field. And it was back and forth, back and forth.

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Well, the field was owned by the school district. So at a certain point they shut it down and gave it back to the school. They shut down all the intramurals, and it basically killed the business for the bar. And the bar went out of business, and that started the chain reaction. I had the opportunity to buy the corner, and I was like, I can get the corner, and I can get the number three, but now I gotta track down these other guys. So I hired a private investigator to track these guys down. It took me 2 years to track everything down, and basically pay them to take the property with all the liens and everything in place. Then I had to go settle the taxes, and the defaulted mortgages. In one case, I bought the defaulted mortgage from the bank because I couldn’t find the guy. I went in the back way. But I was able to get the 140 feet of street frontage, which is valuable, and behind it was a Fishtown Auto Repair Facility, and the rear door was this alley way that came out the back. And I was able to get those, and the guy that owned a house right here, I agreed to trade him one of the finished condos for the house, and I put the whole thing together and started working on a comprehensive design. We turned this thing 100 ways from sideways. We tried to do single families along the street, but all those houses were only 30 feet deep, and bordering commercial properties, so then there wasn’t any rear windows in the houses, so that wasn’t comfortable. So things just kept growing out of necessity to try and make it a bigger kind of project. So that’s basically where we ended up.

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Any plans for future projects?

Well, I’m looking. It’s tough now. It’s good that our name’s out there but there’s all of the large parcels in this area are taken and prices are high. It’s good for the neighborhood, it’s going to drive up sale prices. So, were finishing this last phase of The Icehouse and the townhomes across the street. And then we have other projects around the city. So the construction company’s really busy. I’m in constant search for something new.

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