By Thomas Vogel
In many ways, the newly built two-story house at 7736 Monroe St., with its neatly landscaped front lawn, large front porch and bevy of exterior windows, resembles the rest of the houses that line the quiet stretch of residential block it occupies just south of Madison Street.
But as Rick Thompson of BrightLeaf Homes explained, the house represents a few significant achievements. He noted that it is "the most energy efficient new construction home ever built in Forest Park."
It is the community's first Zero Energy Ready Home, a distinction awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy, and the first residence built to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, a ratings system established by a Washington D.C. nonprofit in the 1990s to certify "green" buildings.
"We are not just trying to slap up a structure that looks pretty — it has to perform," Thompson added.
Founded in 2008 by Scott Sanders, one of Thompson's business partners, BrightLeaf is a Chicago-area construction company focused on building "high-performance, sustainable" residences. According to their website, BrightLeaf has managed the construction of over 100 homes and retrofitted an additional 100 residents to improve energy efficiency.
When searching for construction sites, BrightLeaf favors proximity to nearby shopping, transportation and dining centers. In addition to the home's energy efficiency, easy access to a variety of amenities helps homeowners reduce their carbon footprint, which fits with BrightLeaf's mission to decrease human impact on the environment.
"Walkability is a huge factor in deciding where we build," Thompson said.
BrightLeaf identified Forest Park, with its CTA transportation hubs, Madison Street business district and closeness to downtown Chicago, as similar to communities where it has developed properties in the past, so they decided to expand their operations.
The buildings boast low maintenance costs and reduced utility bills compared to traditional residences, and often attract a variety of prospective homeowners, including "empty-nesters" as well as young families and single professionals.
"[Our homes are] versatile so they can suit many different family sizes and living arrangements," Thompson added.
BrightLeaf, and its subcontracting partners, built the 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom Monroe Street house in about 90 days. Construction concluded in the first week of August. The home features a carefully designed open floor plan, which, according to Thompson, helps the nearly 2,000-square-foot abode feel much larger.
"We believe houses need to be built smarter, not larger." Thompson told the Review in an email.
BrightLeaf typically collaborates with the same subcontractors on each project and uses the same basic floor plan and home design for each new home, albeit with a few variations, which allows for the accelerated construction timeline.
Thompson said 7736 Monroe St is the fifth project on which BrightLeaf has used the same home design.
"We tweak the floor plan based on feedback from past buyers," he noted, adding that BrightLeaf altered the Monroe Street design to include a second-floor laundry room and also switched the location of one doorway on the first floor.
"We continuously ask ourselves, 'How can we make this better?'" Thompson said.
The BrightLeaf team consists of Thompson, who handles marketing, real-estate dealings and client management, Thompson's brother Alex, who is the company's "on-site" construction manager and Sanders who handles scheduling, subcontractor relations and site planning.
The trio began collaborating several years ago, often exchanging industry knowledge. At the time, Sanders operated BrightLeaf independently and the Thompson brothers worked on their own, rehabbing and flipping houses. About 18 months ago, however, the working relationship became official and the Thompsons joined BrightLeaf.
"We saw eye to eye on a lot of things and had a lot of the same philosophies, so it is a continuation of Scott's philosophy with BrightLeaf. Everything is the same except we now have a larger, stronger team," said Thompson, pointing to the trio's commitment to improving efficiency.
"Green" techniques and materials used in building the house at 7736, include 100% CFL and LED lighting, a staggered 2 x 4 stud system (which improves insulation), and triple-pane exterior windows. One of Sanders' roles is to keep up with the "green" industry's continued development.
BrightLeaf constructs its houses to allow for easy solar panel installation, but the company leaves the final decision up to homeowners.
"The majority of people who buy these homes definitely appreciate the energy efficiency but they also appreciate the affordability. ... People are not necessarily looking for solar, not yet." Thompson explained.
Because BrightLeaf operates in various municipalities, they have to consider and comply with each community's specific ordinances, building codes and regulations. Sometimes this can lead to complications, as some codes do not allow for the latest in "green" construction innovations. However, Thompson described Forest Park's building codes as "progressive."
"We had a very positive experience working with them," he said, referring to village officials.
They hope that experience also extends to their customers.
"We take great pride in considering ourselves a customer-focused company," Thompson said. They boast open lines of communication and also use a cloud-based system that allows clients easy access to information, updates and documents throughout the construction process.
Thompson said it is unlikely that 7736 Monroe St. will remain the only BrightLeaf-built house in Forest Park. This one sold on Aug. 3 for $450,000.
"I currently have buyers who have explicitly told us they would like to have a BrightLeaf Home built for them near the Madison Street downtown. Our only current limitation is finding the lots for them. ... We have been actively searching for more properties in this area to build on."