Old North Bikes: Human Powered Revitalization in Old North St. Louis


Old North Bikes: Human Powered Revitalization in Old North St. Louis


Stephen Danielson & Benjamin Kruse
Iowa State University


Ulrike Passe & Kristin Nelson
Iowa State University



This design presents a lively, humble, yet strong community response. It is designed to be a social atmosphere rather than a complex, flashy object. The diagrams and metrics are well done. The interiors are convincing and the simple exterior is successful, however the louver system needs more articulation.


As a mixed use development providing apartment living and the storefront to a bicycle collective in the frayed but resilient neighborhood of Old North St. Louis, our project seeks to engage the fundamental relationships between place, body, and building through the conviction that a bicycle is not only a machine of human power, but of human empowerment. In a marginalized community suffering due to disinvestment and disconnection from the rest of the city, affordable, useful urban transportation can serve as a means of reconnecting the neighborhood with downtown St. Louis, while “bike activism” positions itself as important vehicle for involving the public in local planning and revitalization initiatives. By promoting access to bicycles through an environmentally and socially responsible program that encourages healthy lifestyle, provides a needed public space, and redensifies a neighborhood in need of regeneration and reinvigoration, our project is a small but important part of the effort to reintegrate the community of Old North St. Louis into the larger urban fabric. In addition, as a Net Zero studio our architectural response continues the human-powered aesthetic evinced by the bicycle in creating a dynamic space activated by human use, which acts both as partner to community and environment, where forms are shaped by climate and public need, materials speak to the soul and memory of a place, and where the mechanical is combined with philosophical in order to build a lasting Human environment.

Measure 1:   Design and Innovation
Not so much chasing innovation as developed with a deep curiosity of and sensitivity to place, the design concept was influenced by a number of site pressures and perceptions, particularly those performative parameters necessary to achieve Net Zero (such as passive solar, natural ventilation, and a thermally insular building envelope), as well as the desire to provide affordable, elegant housing for a marginalized population. As such, the wooden solar screen that clads the broad southern façade wraps around the exterior of the (by thermal necessity) introverted concrete building, demonstrating a change in density that acknowledges the performative and programmatic differences of each façade. The southern solar screen becomes a rain and privacy screen for inhabitants on the enclosed northern stair and engages the public street on the west and east faces, matching the proportion, order and scale of its existing neighbors. In contrast to the introverted, heavy presence evinced by the concrete, the bamboo screen adds a volumetric lightness that serves to “ghost” in the shape of the neighborhood’s lost original buildings on the site. The wooden screen is hung on a steel armature that also supports the photovoltaic roof array, articulating a mechanical aesthetic that is further developed by the program housed within.

Measure 2:   Regional/Community Design
Sited on a half-block with one of the few remaining buildings in its area, integral to our project design is the redensification of the Old North St. Louis main street. By placing our project at the “strong corner” across the alley form the building with which we share the block, our design employs a common setback to continue the “storefront ecology” perceived by the pedestrian at street level, breathing life back into an empty and undervalued section of the neighborhood. This placement also allows for a bicycle servicing plaza to be prominently placed at the intersection of two main roads, ensuring its visibility and accessibility to a nascent bike community. In addition, the program housed within the building is not only a bike shop, but a more holistic “earn and learn” initiative that provides parts, tools, and space for neighborhood kids to earn a bike by building one themselves. Despite a lack of bike shops in the neighborhood, Old North is well suited to cycling (wide streets, flat terrain, and conveniently located within the larger urban context), and will soon benefit from a major infrastructural bike project as a proposed Trestle trail will pass through the southern portion of the neighborhood. By promoting access to affordable, useful urban transportation, our project is a small but important part of the effort to reconnect this marginalized neighborhood with the rest of the city.

Measure 3:   Land Use and Site Ecology
Part of any revitalization effort must be the acknowledgement that land within the neighborhood is valuable and should therefore be activated by design. By sizing the building correctly to match a small but thoughtful program, the project is able to minimize its energy need, material use, and overall maintenance, both in first and long term capital costs. Careful orientation and placement ensures that, despite its size, the building is able to engage the full length of the main pedestrian walkway, adding much needed downtown density to the neighborhood and prioritizing and enlivening the street. A small building also means that much of the site is not consumed by building footprint, therefore it was imperative that the “unbuilt” portions of our site were also designed to involve the community and respond to local climactic conditions. The bicycle test track behind the workshop is a hard-packed permeable gravel surface encircling 100% native, drought resistant grasses that help to mitigate storm water run-off and reduce urban heat island effects, while the bicycle service plaza at the corner of 14th and Monroe offers free repair stations and creates a space for public engagement and outreach.

Measure 4:   Bioclimatic Design
The project design reflects a well-reasoned, common-sense approach to climactic conditions, with passive solutions dictated by the climate of St. Louis (hot, humid summers and cold winters) and aimed at providing thermal and visual comfort by making use of solar energy and natural ventilation. Building massing was developed to take full advantage of a south-easterly orientation in order to provide passive solar heating to the four apartment buildings above the bike shop and workshop, and all interior spaces were thoughtfully designed to access outdoor patios, plazas, stairs, and public spaces, so inhabitants and visitors can take full advantage of St. Louis’ seasons of moderate weather. All windows in the units are operable, ensuring that building users can take an active role in conditioning their apartments by taking advantage of natural ventilation offered by southerly spring and summer winds. Large light monitors oriented to the north provide natural daylight to the workshop and large, custom-designed doors can louver to take advantage of natural ventilation on warm summer days or fully open in order to fold the street and community into the workshop. These passive solutions enabled the building to dramatically reduce its energy consumption (17 kBTU/sq.ft.), which allows the building to passively operate before relying on active systems powered by an on-site photovoltaic array.

Measure 5:   Light and Air
The shallow floor plate of each apartment, combined with a large amount of glazing on the southern face, ensures that natural daylighting is a significant compositional element in the living spaces. Apartment plans were carefully laid out to position private, “introverted” activities (bedrooms, bathrooms, utility and service rooms) to the north, while the public, “extroverted” activities (kitchen, dining room, living room) take place in a large, open, and brightly lit southern space. Solar heating is an important passive strategy in the project, the solar screen shielding the southern façade is spaced (1.4’ o.c.) to allow light to pass through the louvers between the fall and spring equinox, while scrubbing light of its thermal radiation in the hot summer months before bouncing it into the living units. In addition, the darkly painted concrete floor is massed to absorb just enough heat to re-radiate warmth in the winter and purge heat in the summer. Highly efficient ductless mini splits provide additional conditioning to indoor spaces. A single roof-mounted compressor can serve multiple rooms, providing precision temperature control for different rooms, allowing users to “tune” their thermal zone according to individual preferences.

Measure 6:   Water Cycle
In addition to landscaping composed of permeable surfaces and native, drought resistant grasses that help to mitigate storm water run-off, improve water quality, and protect the nearby Mississippi river, 100% of the rainwater captured from the building’s roof and can be used both for the drip irrigation of landscaping on site and as potable water for the apartment units via a reverse osmosis filtration system and cistern sized to accommodate the maximum runoff (per roof square footage) of a 24 hour 2-year storm event.

Measure 7:   Energy Flows and Energy Future
The combination of massing, orientation, passive strategies, and high efficiency active systems reduces the buildings energy consumption to a yearly kBTU/sq.ft. (17) that is easily managed (and in fact exceeded) by an onsite photovoltaic array.  Also important in our design was the use of affordable and durable materials with a low embodied energy value (primarily concrete and local cedar) in order to lessen the carbon debt incurred by the construction of the building. By considering the entire life cycle of the building, from raw material to adaptive reuse, the goal was to manage energy consumption in all aspects of the construction process and develop a logic of sustainability that exists within the material expression of the building.

Measure 8:   Materials and Construction
In addition to relatively low embodied energy, poured in place concrete provides an affordable structural and thermally insular system, an important consideration in designing housing to service a low-income neighborhood. Concrete sandwich panels (concrete, insulation, concrete) can be easily assembled and poured onsite layer by layer, saving time and money by combining both structure and insulation into a single unit. Using this concrete sandwich panel system, three layers of rigid insulation compose R-42 walls that provide a continuous thermal break, which, along with thermally broken, low-e insulated glazing, creates a high-performance envelope that efficiently protects the interior from harsh winter and summer conditions, thus requiring less energy to maintain a comfortably conditioned space. Aware of the material investment in forming poured in place concrete walls, the board formwork is saved and, after being refinished, it is given new life within the apartment unit as a wood accent wall that warms the living area. A material expressive of a straightforward, functionalist aesthetic, concrete clearly fits within the blue-collar ethos of a neighborhood predominated by 19th century brick buildings, also built with cost, use, and durability in mind.

Measure 9:   Long Life, Loose Fit
Through proper sizing, material durability, high-quality detailing, and flexible public space, our hope is that the building will continue to perform exceptionally for decades before requiring major maintenance renovations. Well considered passive strategies provide an inherent performative framework upon which more efficient technologies can be applied over time. Designed with abundant natural light, ventilation, and an understanding of how people inhabit and use space, the goal is that apartment units become well liked and therefore well cared for, with occupants that take on an active role in tuning the building to serve their needs. Similarly, the bike shop on the ground level provides an environmentally and socially responsible program that promotes healthy lifestyle as well as fulfilling a needed community role, thereby situating itself as an important institution within the neighborhood. Because the spaces housing the bike shop are open and flexible, with a large storefront that engages the street, the ground floor of the project can be transitioned to nearly any business, encouraging the continued vitality of the building’s public spaces.

Measure 10: Collective Wisdom and Feedback Loops
As stated earlier, this project was developed with a curiosity of and sensitivity to place, and therefore the most intelligent and impactful design strategy was one of thorough, holistic consideration, from materiality to program to site to orientation. From this design perspective, green design is not an end in itself, but rather a tool for the creation of authentic, tactile, and responsible architecture grounded in the deep understanding of “place-ness,” used to respond to the landscape and community in a meaningful way and to engage the intimate relationships between place, body, and building.