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Feast Magazine: Low Impact, High Design

Brandi Wills
August 30, 2013

Photography: Demond Meek

Thinking Inside The Box

On Thurs., Dec. 6, 2012, John Burse, principal at Mackey Mitchell Architects, got a call from his friend and local landscape architect and planner, Jim Fetterman, that went something like this:

Fetterman: Have you heard about the Washington University Sustainable Land Lab competition? They’re looking for sustainable design projects to be built on vacant lots in Old North St. Louis. Winners get $5,000 in seed money and a two-year land lease to implement the projects. So what are you submitting?

Burse: I don’t know. When’s the deadline?

Fetterman: Monday.

Burse: Well, then, we better get to work.

Four days later, Burse and Fetterman submitted their original plans for Bistro Box, a café and culinary incubator to be built with used shipping containers. Bistro Box was one of four winners chosen in April 2013 from 48 proposed Sustainable Land Lab projects. The concept is now on its way to becoming a reality.

The restaurant, planned for the vacant lot at 1303 Montgomery St. in Old North, will be built using five 8-by-40-foot cast-off shipping containers: one for the kitchen; one for the entryway, bar and restrooms; and three for the dining area.

“There are countless shipping containers piling up, in part, because it’s more expensive to ship them back to Asia than to build new containers in their respective countries of origin,” Burse says about his building material of choice. “The containers offer a strong, durable, available and potentially low-energy building material. While there are certainly complexities involved in using them, we think repurposing them offers a unique opportunity to make a creative and memorable destination.”

Creating this project from scratch allows the builders to make significant, sustainable building decisions, especially in the area of energy use. Once constructed, the facility will utilize a combination of geothermal energy and heat recycling for heating and cooling of the space and hot water.

“Geothermal, or ground source, is a heating and cooling system that pumps heat to or from the ground,” Burse says. “In the summer, the system uses the Earth as a heat sink, and in the winter as a heat source. While such systems are a little more expensive to implement, we are intrigued with geothermal’s efficiency, cleanliness and operating costs. We are interested in heat recovery systems because the technology uses a counter-flow heat exchanger to harvest heat from our exhaust ventilation from within the space to temper fresh air coming into Bistro Box. So the system would help to introduce fresh air, improve thermal comfort and promote efficient energy use. Essentially, we are using the heat from our exhaust air to warm the building. Pretty cool.”

Additionally, the kitchen will be outfitted with high-rated Energy Star appliances and the dining room will be furnished with custom-designed, repurposed tables donated by local furniture design firm Mwanzi Co., and nontoxic finishes and green cleaning products will be used for improved air quality.

But the project isn’t just about creating a sustainably built restaurant. Its significance reaches much farther. “Restaurants are gateways to the community, and this project will have an impact throughout the surrounding area,” Burse says. “The land [where Bistro Box will be located] is underused and fallow, and it needs to be returned to economic vitality.”

The team behind Bistro Box hopes to improve the economy of the neighborhood by partnering with nearby businesses to source materials and ingredients and elevating the profile of Old North through word-of-mouth and collaborations.

“Partnerships are very important to this project,” Burse says. “We want to [start] a dialogue about where our food comes from and how it shapes our lives. There is a neighboring urban farm that we hope to source produce from. And we’re cultivating a relationship with The Haven of Grace, a residential facility for young pregnant women, through which we hope to provide jobs and training to the residents that will help them work toward a better future.”

Bistro Box is currently recruiting investors and amassing donated materials and in-kind donations from architecture and design firms. When the project reaches 75 percent of its needed funding, it will launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the remaining funds. Burse says the current goal is for a spring 2014 opening.

Solar-Lit Skyline

The New Moon Room, a 2,100-square-foot bar and event space, recently opened atop the eighth-floor roof of the Moonrise Hotel in The Loop. The newest addition to the popular nightlife spot offers bottle service, small plates and incredible views of St. Louis. But what makes this particular venue unique is the solar-panel roof that covers it.

“This is the first restaurant, or normally occupied public space, we know of in the country that has an active solar-panel roof,” says Marc Lopata, president and principal engineer at Microgrid Solar, the contractor responsible for designing and building the roof. “This is not solar panels mounted on the roof. The solar panels are the roof. These all-glass, frameless solar panels are a fairly new technology. The semi-transparent solar panels allow light to pass through them, so the roof creates very distinct, natural lighting for The New Moon Room, whether that is sunlight or moonlight. This technique hasn’t been duplicated in any other restaurant space in the country.”

Microgrid has collaborated with Moonrise Hotel owner Joe Edwards on a number of solar projects since 2010, but this is by far the most forward thinking.

“Joe Edwards is a believer in advanced design, sustainability and cost-effective solutions,” Lopata says. “The solar roof fits with Joe’s goals of being an industry leader and creating fun and exciting places for people to visit and meet.”

For Joe Edwards, integrating solar power into his properties is an investment in responsible energy use, plain and simple.

“It looks good and it really works,” Edwards says. “It was marvelous to see the amount of energy going into the grid. Solar really is the future, but it’s just one way to make a difference. It all adds up.”

The solar-panel roof complements the sleek, modern design of the room, which is filled with space-age furnishings and is given shape by glass walls and sliding doors that lead to the hotel’s existing Rooftop Terrace Bar. Aesthetics aside, its primary purpose is energy production.

“The solar array sustains the electricity needs of the two rooftop spaces,” Lopata says. “They power all the rooftop equipment and needs for the spaces, plus the rooms on the seventh floor of the building when the restaurant isn’t open for business. That includes the lighting, cooling, computers, sound systems, bar equipment and the rotating moon. The hotel will reduce its electrical expense by about $4,500 per year, which will increase yearly as electricity rates increase.”

In addition to Microgrid’s work with Edwards, the company has installed solar panels atop a handful of local restaurants, including Frazer’s in Benton Park and Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood.

Lopata estimates that it will take The Moonrise less than five years for the roof to pay for itself in cost savings, but sustainability is a long-term investment in terms of financial and environmental gain.

Source: Feast Magazine