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Milwaukee's East Side Home To Extremely Green Apartments

S Bence

Any day now, the 'Sage on Jackson' apartment complex is expected to be dubbed LEED Platinum Certified Building by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Michael O'Connor and Christopher Adams own and manage over 200 units in Milwaukee - most located on the city's east side. Sage on Jackson is their first new construction. 

“This will be the first LEED Platinum market-rate multifamily ever built in the state of Wisconsin,” O’Connor says.

The first time the men raised a hammer together was 1996 when they bought their first duplexes. 

Credit S Bence
Christopher Adams and Michael O'Connor

“In about 2000, we formed the company, Dominion, and we started buying real estate in Riverwest,” Adams says. 

They did everything – repair, remodeling – the works.

“We started with one property and just grew. In about 2003, we shifted the portfolio down to Bay View, where we owned a number of multifamilies," Adams says.

They didn't set out to go into business together. The two met at Marquette University. Adams worked as a civil engineer with the department of transportation. O'Connor ended up in mortgage banking. They say opportunity threw them together.

Christopher Adams says they sold off their accumulated properties in Bay View and poised to jump into their next target market – Milwaukee’s east side. “We were purchasing properties, they might have been physically distressed or there was a bankruptcy, that kind of thing," he says. "We sold everything and concentrated on the east side."

Building the ultra-green unit, Sage on Jackson, was Adams idea. "This is something he always wanted to do," O'Connor says. "He had to drag me kicking and screaming, but I’m really glad he did, because I’ve really caught the bug and am excited about what we made here.”

Just inside, on the ground floor is a shared meeting room space - with an imposing seven-foot repurposed element.

“The door is reclaimed from a 1930s bungalow that we found; all we did was clean it and put some Liquid Gold on it,” Adams says.

Soothing toned non-toxic paint coats the walls.

The team aims to give tenants what they are looking for in sustainable living – including easy access to a green laundry service. Tenants simply place their articles in a large closet on the building's main floor; a couple of days later it is returned clean.

Credit S Bence

O’Connor is particularly proud of the eight-inch thick walls – that not only insulate but block potentially pesky noise a neighbor might produce. “They’re much thicker than normal and they’re filled with this stuff called mineral wool," he says. "It’s a natural product, basically dug out of the earth, fluffed up and put in the walls. It requires very little energy to make it.”

Adams says every element of the construction was carefully selected – from the pipes that deliver water to each unit, to their choice of brick – manufactured just south of Milwaukee.”Those are Calstar bricks; they are made from fly ash," he says. "They’re about one-third the energy to make compared to a regular brick.”

Above our heads solar panels are soaking up sun – beneath which sedum stands ready to soak up rainwater and snow. Adams says the panels create about one third of the building’s energy needs.”The only reason why they don’t offset more is that we didn’t have roofspace to put any more,” he says.

The building's extensive geothermal system requires little electricity to heat and cool the building.

“The heart of the green of this building is the 18 geothermal wells we have underneath the property," O'Connor says. "They go down 320 feet deep and they supply the interface with all of the heat pumps in each of the units."

Christopher Adams adds, “Everything is just a step up from the standard.”

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Realtors who have toured the Sage have urged them to sell the units as condos. The partners would not dream of it.

“Once you make a building and you sell a building, it’s gone,” says O’Connor. “We’re creating something that’s more long-lived than just a building. We’re creating a brand of sustainable living and that’s what’s most important to us."

For Adams, it’s a matter of blood, sweat and tears. "There’s a lot of us in this building,” he says.

And, he’s out to prove you can build sustainably and still turn a profit. "This has just about every sustainable element you could possible think of in it," Adams says. "And we did it to prove it’s a positive financial venture. It’s not like we’re feeding this building money to do green."

O'Connor and Adams don’t plan to rest on those laurels. They’re on the brink of launching to new projects – one an adaptive reuse and the other is the restoration of a mansion. Both are located on Prospect Avenue. Both – they add – adhering to the Sage brand.

This week, the partners are being recognized as "Green Masters" at the 7th annual Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council conference.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.