Drive by 2718 Grand Avenue S. in Minneapolis now and you’ll see an unremarkable single-family home built in 1981 with vinyl siding, poor insulation and a gas furnace. 

But by next summer, owner/developer Jay Rajaratnam hopes you’d do a double-take. He and architect Adam Bradley Jonas are replacing the house with a 12-unit apartment building that will showcase green building techniques such as using all electric energy and sustainable-living elements such as gardens and fruit trees. 

“We want to have a positive environmental impact and a positive community impact,” Jonas said. “We can’t solve everything by making a building, but we can definitely do better.” 

The construction techniques and materials the team are using aren’t rocket science, said Richard Graves, director and associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research. They’re solid, sustainable practices that few market-rate developers are using here. 

“This, to me, looks like the kind of design that’s getting the most out of your budget in terms of energy efficiency, with high quality, good design and construction,” he said after reviewing the plans. “If we’re going to meet our climate-change goals, we have to build everything this way so we’re taking advantage of the grid getting greener. It’s forward-thinking. …and it’s not that complicated. You can teach builders how to do it.”

Just a handful of city-funded projects build to similar standards in St. Paul, Graves said, along with a few architects who focus on zero-carbon footprints with single-family homes, including one aimed at affordable housing. The number of apartment complexes being built to such high environmental standards are few and far between in the Twin Cities – and they’re not always welcomed by neighbors. Rajaratnam and Jonas want their project to raise awareness about green building practices.  

“We want to be very public about what we’re doing to show how this is done so more people will do it,” Rajaratnam said. “We both have young kids, and we want Minneapolis to be a thriving place.”

Existing home photo and proposed project rendering by Awaken Architecture. Map credit: Whittier Alliance.

Developer: ‘It helped me realize how fast things change’

Rajaratnam grew up in a small fishing village in Sri Lanka, three miles from a dirt road. His village didn’t have running water, and the only electricity came from the battery of his uncle’s cargo truck. The battery powered one light and a small black-and-white TV the whole neighborhood used. 

“It was such a different way of living to where I am today,” he said. “It helped me realize how fast things change.”

He pointed to a series of photographs of the disappearing ice cap at the North Pole to stress the urgency of addressing climate change. 

The former project manager for Xcel Energy realized he could use his energy knowledge to help the building sector embrace green building practices. When he met Jonas through their children’s preschool, they decided to collaborate. 

Jonas, who grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, realized he could draw on his agricultural background to solve environmental problems. 

“We’re trying to make environmental action easy,” he said. “How can we make green choices become part of our everyday experience?” For example, he said, rolling a bike inside is just as easy, if not easier, than parking in an underground garage and taking the elevator to an apartment.  

How can we make green choices become part of our everyday experience?

architect adam bradley jonas

A project like no other

The city of Minneapolis approved the project for rezoning this spring. In a letter of support, the neighborhood association, the Whittier Alliance, praised the project for the “intention and creativity with which the applicant is pursuing sustainability elements in the building design, landscaping, and amenities for residents.” 

The block contains other apartment complexes, but this one will stand out in both visible and invisible ways.  

With corrugated metal siding and minimalist design, the building will feature a flat roof ideal for solar panels and sedum planters that can capture rain and direct it to storage tanks and gardens.

Each unit will have a patio or balcony. There will be bike parking indoors and out, an electric cargo bike to share, apple trees in front, perhaps a mural on one side of the building or poetry etched into the sidewalk, and – eventually, if they can get city approval – an electric-vehicle charger. 

“There are subtle but effective ways of encouraging strangers to become neighbors to become friends by providing the environment to do so,” Jonas said. “It’s admittedly idealistic, but without the foundation to have those serendipitous encounters, there’s no chance of it. We want to provide not only healthy living, but also healthy community.”

The mostly invisible differences will include extra insulation, triple-pane windows and LED lighting. Each unit will feature southern exposure to soak up as much winter sunlight as possible, providing an “extra blanket,” Jonas said. Energy for heat and appliances will all come from electricity, not fossil fuels. The complex also will offer easy access to bike lanes and bus transit. Rajaratnam even said he hopes that his preschool-age kids won’t need or want to own cars in the Twin Cities by the time they’re adults.

Rajaratnam and Jonas hope to offer at least 20 percent of the units at an affordable rate under the city’s 4d Affordable Housing program. 

Deconstruction of the current structure will begin slowly in order to reuse and recycle the existing appliances, HVAC system, doors and windows, as per Hennepin County’s building reuse grant program

“Quite frankly, it’s kind of what I wish everyone had to build,” Graves said. “This is what I think the code should be.”

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...