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Firefly: A Neighborly Approach to Net Zero Living

The exterior of an apartment building.

by Amanda Theisen

On Grand Avenue in south Minneapolis, you’ll find a brand-new apartment building that stands out among the mid- and late-century single family homes that line the block. It’s modern with clean lines, corrugated metal siding and sleek windows. And it will be a certified Department of Energy Zero Ready Home (DOE ZERH) when tenants move in this summer, meaning the building is so energy efficient that it has the potential to generate as much energy as it consumes through renewable energy.

Two men standing with a bike in front of an apartment construction site.

Firefly, located at 2716 Grand Ave. S, is the first fully sustainable building that architect and developer, Adam Bradley Jonas (left in photo) and developer Jay Rajaratnam (right in photo) have worked on together. The team, which started collaborating in 2018, relied on a variety of building techniques and features to make the building as energy efficient and connected to its surroundings as possible. This includes large, well-insulated windows, Energy Recovery Ventilation, HVAC systems with the latest air source heat pump technology, all-electric, energy star appliances, extra insulation, low-flow water fixtures, a flat roof for solar panels, and edible landscaping watered by captured rainwater.

Sunrise Banks provided a $1.75 million net zero construction loan for the Firefly project. The team also received a $100,000 4D Green Cost Share Energy Grant from the City of Minneapolis.

“We believe that 10 years from now, these types of buildings will become the standard,” says Rajaratnam. “So, why not build them now and realize all the social and environmental benefits right away?”

An ecosystem of synergy

Jonas says the design of the building, along with the layout of each apartment, will make it more efficient and enjoyable. All the units will have southern-facing windows to capture light and heat, which is especially valuable in the winter. Most apartments are designed with a hallway running through the center of the building and apartments on either side. Instead, Firefly has one stairwell on the north side of the building, so all apartments can have more south-facing windows.   

“We’re elevating the experience of energy-efficient living so tenants can enjoy their space and maximize livability while minimizing the amount of square footage needed,” says Jonas.

Tenants can also take advantage of a shared e-cargo bike, and shared outdoor space, including a patio and gardens.

The complex is also close to major thoroughfares, including Nicollet Ave., Lyndale Ave. and Lake Street, and the Midtown Greenway, meaning residents will be able to walk and bike to nearby businesses. They can also use public transit with discounted passes.

Jonas says building Firefly close to nearby businesses – such as fitness centers, restaurants, entertainment venues, and coffee shops — will help add to the vitality of the neighborhood. “We’re building a community around sharing resources,” Jonas says.

Solutions to net zero challenges

Jonas and Rajaratnam decided early in their partnership that they would focus on net zero building projects. But figuring out the best ways to achieve those goals wasn’t always easy. At the time, the number of developers that knew the ins and outs of net zero building was limited. So, the two worked to create the Sustainable Development Collaborative. This group of smaller developers meets once a month to network, bring in presenters, and share resources and expertise.

The members have all created projects at or above this level of energy efficiency or are working towards that, explains Rajaratnam. “What we want to do is figure out how to share this knowledge with other developers. That way, as more of these buildings are built, people that want to do sustainable projects know where to go if they need ideas or help solving a problem.”

Financing net zero projects can also be a challenge. Jonas and Rajaratnam say they found a supportive partner with Sunrise Banks, which specializes in providing financing for sustainable building projects.

“Adam and Jay have been awesome to work with,” says Andy Carlson, a vice president and commercial lender at Sunrise Banks. “They have not only created what will be a vibrant and sustainable community at Firefly, but they’re also sharing what they have learned with others who are also interested in net-zero building projects.”

“A lot of banks say they support sustainable buildings, but Sunrise Banks actually puts the money into these projects,” says Rajaratnam. “They don’t greenwash. They walk the talk, which is really refreshing.”

“Being at the leading edge of high-performance buildings is challenging,” adds Jonas. “If the bank gets it, that makes a big difference.”

What’s next?

Firefly will be ready for tenants starting in July. Then, Jonas and Rajaratnam will look for their next net zero project. They have an interest in developing “aging in place” multigenerational, multi-family home concepts so that people can stay in their current neighborhoods as they get older, instead of moving to assisted living facilities or senior housing complexes.

“We’re interested in bringing leading-edge energy-efficiency to spaces designed to build community for all and enhance well-being, which increases livability on both global, neighborhood, and individual levels,” says Jonas.

Jonas and Rajaratnam are also one of the first participants in the new Net Zero Deposits program at Sunrise Banks. Business banking customers can choose to have money from their deposit accounts, such as checking, savings and CDs, support projects that work to reduce or avoid net zero carbon emissions.

To learn more about the Sunrise Banks Net Zero Deposits visit sunrisebanks.com/net-zero-deposit-fund.

Amanda Theisen is the communications manager at Sunrise Banks.

Member FDIC. Sunrise Banks is an Equal Housing Lender.