Everything about Steven Lewis’ mixed-use project suggested this was the right idea, time, and place. The stars were aligned for this 9,570-square-foot, three-story downtown addition to historic Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Just one hitch: traffic noise. Lots of traffic noise. An estimated 60,000 18-wheelers, motorcycles, and cars pass close by the location each day. To offer the kind of interior tranquility a Class A building renter expects, Lewis had to keep that incessant clamor out.

Newburyport is a meticulously preserved, 250-year-old seaport town about 40 miles north of Boston. Lewis’ mixed-use development includes five luxury apartments with ground floor retail. Four of the five units are pre-leased, and Lewis has a letter of intent for retail. The building is expected to deliver later this summer.

Vehicle Noise

Managing traffic noise has long been a concern for multifamily developers. Today the issue has taken on new urgency because of a growing reliance on infill and less-desired parcels due to land scarcity. For example, a major elevated highway is located just 50 feet from the second floor of Lewis’ building. “Interior silence is crucial to project success,” says the veteran property developer and Harvard MBA.

For that, Lewis turned to insulated concrete forms (ICFs). ICF is a highly evolved structural system that uses Lego-like foam blocks to create cast-in-place steel-reinforced concrete walls. The walls have a Sound Transmission Class rating of 55+. Loud outside commotion is scarcely audible inside.

Sound control was just the first in a series of project requirements ICFs are uniquely engineered to solve, including:

  • Reduced Energy Use. “Energy costs in Massachusetts almost doubled this past year,” Lewis reports. “The thermal profile of concrete massing drastically cuts cooling and heating requirements. Energy costs are a big focal point for commercial and residential tenants.”
  • Minimal Staging. “The parcel is extremely tight, bounded by roadways and neighboring buildings. There’s no staging area for materials like lumber,” he says. The no-storage component played directly to a major ICF strength, which requires little or no staging.
  • Design Friendly. Another key to winning the city’s blessing was the historic character of the design. Though ICF construction was new to the architect, it didn’t impede his team from matching the town’s carefully crafted centuries-old look. The envelope doesn’t have a single right angle, for example. Stucco is the cladding material.
  • Predictable Budgeting. “Concrete is readily available and predictably priced, which is fantastic for development purposes,” explains Lewis. “You can confidently plan construction costs on a two- to four-year project.”

Lewis routinely sells his projects on completion. This project is different. It’s personal. So much so, he christened it The Lewis Building. “This is my legacy project. I’m keeping and managing it. This is my baby,” he says.

Looking ahead, Lewis is now considering an even more ambitious ICF project. “This is a structural system that solves problems standard building methodologies can’t.”

Learn more about how an ICF building system can help solve multifamily development challenges.