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Tilt-Up, Newburyport

Español | Translation Sponsored by TCA

By William Morgan

Newburyport, Massachusetts, an historic Yankee maritime town, north of Boston, seems an unlikely place for a building revolution. Yet, here at the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living, a new village of 48 homes and two acres of edible gardens marks a new approach to sustainable housing. Hillside is employing one of the oldest construction materials in a refreshing new way.

The project developers, David Hall and Keith Moskow, are also the village’s builder and architect, and both are fearless experimenters. The five-acre site is a remediated brownfield, and while the completed project will eventually reach net-zero emissions, Hillside does a lot more than simply address climate change. It will be self-sustaining, affordable, and fabricated with a large-scale commercial construction technique adapted here for residential use.

The first phase of Hillside is complete and fully rented, while a YWCA with 10 single bedrooms, as well as an eight-unit building, are under construction. Completing the village of one-, two-, and three-bedroom homes, will be a common house, a community barn, a greenhouse, and individual growing plots. The units meet passive-house standards and will be certified LEED Platinum. Solar power generated at Hillside exceeds all the energy needs for the village, including power for a community-owned fleet of electric cars. Rainwater from the roofs flows to the cisterns beneath the greenhouse and is pumped back to flush toilets and irrigate crops.

Because of the fully integrated approach—acquisition, permitting, design, construction, ownership, rental, and maintenance—Hall and Moskow were able to make the rentals affordable and yet self-sustaining. But, these climate-affirming goals would not have been possible without the unique system of assembly called “tilt-wall construction.” (Credit is also due to Newburyport building officials who encouraged the unusual project). This prefab system is common with large commercial structures, such as giant warehouses and large office buildings but, as Hall notes, it is rare for residential design. As Moskow says of the challenge of creating Hillside, it is “an exciting project for us us—architecture with a little ‘a.’”

Tilt-up consists of concrete wall panels that are poured in place on engineered EPS foam beds on-site, and then hoisted by a crane into vertical positions to make walls. Steel is used to bind the walls together and joints are sealed with Styrofoam. In short, construction time, and material and transportation costs, are simplified. It is hard to imagine a way to make houses with fewer steps and less equipment. The concrete panels are essentially thermal batteries, making for tremendous savings on heating. Also, having walls made just of concrete and not loaded up with steel allows for repeatable but more complex geometry for openings than traditional framework. Unlike most people’s ideas of concrete as being cold and abrasive, the concrete interior surfaces are plastered. The “board-and-batten” cottage walls on the Hillside homes are attractive—these are houses that most people would want to live in. The townhouses have large “farmer porches” and come with rocking chairs.

Concrete is such a wide-ranging material—you can create extreme beauty or solve humanitarian needs, but it has to be handled carefully. If a builder is lazy with his concrete, he will make buildings that age poorly and everyone except architects will hate. But here, Moskow and Hall have embraced the contradictions of concrete and have built upon its efficiency and practicality to create something handsome and desirable. Tilt-up, as exhibited in Newburyport, is the perfect hybrid of simplicity and modernity. 

The enlisting of Tilt-up in the fight against climate change represents a contradiction and a challenge, in that the making of cement requires burning considerable amounts of fossil fuel, which releases CO2. But Tilt-up may also be the solution, for the developing technology of capturing carbon in the cement is improving dramatically (as demonstrated by Nova Scotia’s Carbon Cure company, for example). Now, as demonstrated by Hillside Center for Sustainable Living, concrete is durable, simple to make, and it can produce remarkable energy savings. As shaped by Hall and Moskow, it is also demonstrably handsome. Hillside is the result of two practical and experienced builders who are not afraid to dream. 

Their small Tilt-up dream is incredibly significant, for in its realization, this New England village is a template for an affordable, incredibly efficient, and easily replicated future.

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TILT-UP TODAY, a publication of the Tilt-Up Concrete Association, is THE source for Tilt-Up industry news, market intelligence, business strategies, technical solutions, product information, and other resources for professionals in the Tilt-Up industry. A subscription to TILT-UP TODAY is included in a TCA membership. Subscriptions for potential TCA members are also available. If you would like to receive a complimentary subscription to the publication, please contact the TCA.