In urban construction, every second, every square inch, and every dime is precious. In an industry traditionally slow to embrace change, Virginia-based Ellisdale Construction is championing a radical new construction method to cut both costs and building time.
Thanks to an unprecedented collaboration, the company is using light gauge bearing metal to build workforce housing on a scale never before seen in the Washington D.C. area.
We last spoke with Ellisdale’s co-founder and President, Kevin Ash, last year when the company was beginning to bring this new construction method to both the Eastern Seaboard and large-scale high rise projects.
Since the founding of their company in 2004, Ash and his partners have faced a challenge unique to the D.C. Metro area: the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which limits maximum building heights to a mere 130 feet (approximately 40 meters). But seeing these strict regulations as a challenge rather than a limitation, Ash has skillfully maneuvered Ellisdale into a unique niche in the area.
While the company initially specialized in wooden podium-style construction, Ellisdale soon adapted to metal and found it could advantageously work the material into high-rise construction. This innovation has contributed to the consistent growth of the company over its sixteen-year history, with increasingly larger projects drawing the attention of the construction world.
The Aspen, one of Ellisdale’s more recent constructions and considered a jewel in its crown, is a 110-foot, 133-unit apartment building in Northwest D.C. Completed in September 2016 in only ten months, the work earned Ellisdale national attention when it was purchased by prestigious national developer Greystar. Ellisdale’s growing prestige subsequently earned the company contracts with such national developers as Toll Brothers, Penzance, Peterson, and others.
Changing the game
But the true game-changer came not locally but out of the Midwest, in the form of the advanced construction technique of light gauge metal framing. Rather than traditional cast-in-place concrete and steel rebar, or familiar wood framing, this newer method utilizes multiple standardized horizontal truss wall panels, saving weight and time and lowering costs by up to 10 percent.
“Foundation systems become less involved and faster to install, along with the erection of the building itself,” says Ash, observing that this allows ‘rough-ins’ to begin at an earlier phase in construction than with comparable methods. Enthusiastic about the advantages of the method, Ash and his company have used it in numerous projects across the area: “Ellisdale has built 15 light gauge bearing metal projects in the district over the past 12 years.”
In addition to the metal’s weight advantages, standardization of the metal panels means they can be prefabricated offsite, brought to a work site, and assembled – a necessity in urban construction. “Rather than forming concrete and pouring concrete, which is a very slow and labor-intensive process,” Ash says, “we’re able to bring that factory ‘assembly line’ approach to building high-rises with wall panels.”
All told, the advantages of light gauge metal speak for themselves. “Metal construction, in lieu of high-rise cast-in-place, is between ten and fifteen percent less expensive for the same type of product,” Ash confirms with the voice of experience. Using metal, he says, can reduce construction times by an average of three months; the more expansive the project, the more time is saved. “As you start looking at larger projects, it becomes four and five months.”
Spreading the word
Though Ellisdale and its clients are firm believers in light gauge metal, their peers in the design & build sector have not been as easily convinced. In addition to publicity around its impressive building achievements, Ellisdale had held weekly ‘lunch and learns’ with area firms, helping educate architects and builders about the new method.
“We had as many as fifty architects in a room, listening to our speech about light gauge bearing metal as a methodology,” Ash recalls. Although the seminars have been curtailed due to the coronavirus, Ash and his colleagues remain determined to bring light gauge metal construction to the East Coast.
The best way is by example, and currently there’s no better example than the Sursum Corda project, Ellisdale’s largest project to date. It’s also the company’s largest proof-of-concept of light-gauge metal as a viable and cost-effective construction method.
Once completed in 2022, the development is sure to bring additional positive attention to Ellisdale and its revolutionary techniques. Ash is confident the word is spreading, and this project will bring light gauge metal to national attention.
“I think more people are taking notice,” he says. “I think we’re really gaining some good traction in the market.”
Building a better society
Located in the heart of NoMa (or ‘North of Massachusetts Avenue’) in Northeast Washington, the Sursum Corda area represents a new future for a tragically troubled area. Its namesake Sursum Corda Co-operative Apartments was first built as low-income housing, but later fell victim to urban crime.
In 2008, Pennsylvania-based Toll Brothers took an interest in redeveloping the Sursum Corda area. A longtime admirer of Ellisdale’s efforts to utilize and promote the advantages of light-gauge metal, this national developer picked the smaller firm to lead the building efforts. A grand total of 551 units are currently under construction, all using light gauge metal.
But Ellisdale’s leadership knew it couldn’t work this massive project alone. So Ash reached out to his friend and colleague Kevin Rogge, who has served as president at Harvey-Cleary since 2018. In Ash’s view, it was a logical choice, given Harvey-Cleary’s breadth of experience on large-scale projects and “a great depth of knowledge in foundations and site utilities.”
For his own part, Rogge and his staff had also seen the value of light gauge metal, but also realized that Ellisdale had more experience with the method. Furthermore, they understood its economic value in large projects.
“As we continued discussions, it made more sense for us to join forces rather than to try and figure it out, because it essentially allowed us to do these projects with reduced staff,” Rogge says. “Leaning on Ellisdale’s expertise with light gauge metal framing allowed us to bring to our clients certain service.”
Work on Sursum Corda has continued mostly unaffected by the pandemic, as residential construction – always in short supply in Washington – has been deemed Essential Work.
Employees and work crews remain socially distanced in open office environments, and employees’ temperatures are taken every day. Such diligence may be tedious, but ensures that construction proceeds on schedule. As with light gauge metal, Ellisdale is again pioneering new methods in construction, this time in worksite safety.
Light metal in the spotlight
With the successful completion of Sursum Corda, Ash and Rogge both hope to bring the method of light gauge metal framing into the national spotlight. Washington’s strict building codes have, until now, placed strict limits on construction styles: “If it’s five stories or below, it’s wood,” Ash says of typical regional developments, “and if it’s seven stories or higher, it’s cast-in-place.” But with light gauge metal, he hopes to turn that around.
“The last 75 years, [Washington] has been either a wood or a concrete town,” he says, “and being able to expose the design community and development community to other means and methods to execute housing and hospitality is our challenge.”
When completed in 2022, the full Sursum Corda project will offer affordable housing to complement other new amenities in the area including a playground, a youth tutoring facility and a computer training center. A few blocks from Washington’s bustling Union Station, it promises to provide central and reasonable housing for workers and their families in America’s capital.
Finally, Ellisdale’s central involvement in this massive project will certainly have other firms sit up and take notice: light gauge metal is here to stay.
Partners for good
Once Sursum Corda is finally completed, both Ash and Rogge are quietly confident that this will mark the beginning of a new regional partnership. “We’re hopeful that there’s going to be more to come,” Ash says, noting how the pace of residential construction never quite keeps up with demand.
With the good synergy between Ellisdale’s knowledge of light gauge metal and Harvey-Cleary’s expertise on larger projects, the two companies are bringing the best of both worlds together.
As Ellisdale looks to its future, Ash and his colleagues not only remain secure in urban construction but in the doctrine of light gauge metal. In his view, both Harvey-Clearly and his own company will, in the time to come, consistently attract more business than they can handle, leading to a happy state of plentiful projects.
“Harvey Cleary and Ellisdale have positioned themselves well to take advantage of a market that doesn’t really see much correction or volatility in the foreseeable future,” Ash says. As Ellisdale drives its mission to bring light gauge metal to national awareness, the limit for this construction company is out of sight.