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.

Past is Present

Tom Niemeier, owner at SPACE, LLC in The Grove, has helped a number of prominent St. Louis restaurant owners implement green design practices in existing spaces. Clients include Niche, Pastaria, Franco, Robust Wine Bar, Amigos Cantina , Bar Les Freres and the newly opened Tree House Vegetarian Restaurant.

“Sustainable design applies much the same way for restaurants as it applies to other building projects,” Niemeier says. “We use strong, long-lasting materials and finishes that are often made of recycled materials, such as steel or glass. If our designs hold up well over time and the restaurant prospers, this is the best of all sustainability practices.”

Niemeier notes that new restaurants moving into former restaurant spaces allow business owners to reuse infrastructure, which saves time, energy and materials. His work with steakhouse Prime 1000 in Downtown St. Louis illustrates the proper balance between reuse and redesign.

“Prime 1000 was the old Kitchen K, but it certainly looks different,” he says. “We reused the kitchen and bar die wall and the undulating ribbon that tied the space together. We even reused the existing pendant lights by relocating all of [them] to be above the bar like a cloud, and then we designed and fabricated new lights for the other areas. Everything else about the space looks different, but it is all cosmetic. Prime 1000 is over 5,000 square feet, and it was reworked for about $250,000. That’s a low restaurant construction number, and the space looks great.”

Sustainability as a cost-cutting approach to construction is an important factor that can’t be overlooked. But while restaurant owners sometimes save money by reusing existing fixtures and finishes, they also keep those materials out of landfills. Niemeier points to his client Adam Tilford, co-owner of Mission Taco Joint, Milagro Modern Mexican and Tortillaria, as a prime example of a restaurant owner balancing environmental responsibility with the bottom line.

“At all our restaurants we took over existing restaurant spaces,” Tilford says. “One of the most sustainable things we did was not gutting them and starting from scratch. When possible, we used existing walls, trim, plumbing, fixtures, equipment, etc. While this might not be very exciting, it was very effective at not only reducing waste but also had a large financial impact on our build-out, keeping our opening costs down quite a bit.”

Tilford says the entry foyers at both Milagro and Tortillaria sacrificed valuable square footage but were necessary to help decrease heating and cooling loss when doors open. At Mission Taco Joint, all the windows on the west side of the building were replaced with Low-E tinted windows, which had a tremendous effect on energy loss. Upcycled barn wood was used to accent the interiors of Milagro and material from an old garage was made into seating for Mission.

“At Milagro, my younger brother, Nathan, and I made several trips to a 100-year-old oak barn that had actually blown down near Ste. Genevieve,” Tilford says. “That wood was used to clad several walls and the entry foyer at Milagro. It really brought a lot of warmth to a rather commercial feeling space.”

At Mission Taco Joint, the Tilfords took another approach. “We wanted Mission to have a more urban, industrial feel,” Tilford says. “I found a guy on Craigslist who was selling his old garage near Arsenal and Jamieson. Ten years ago you had to pay someone to come and take down your rotting garage. Now you put it on Craigslist and some idiot restaurateur will pay you, take it down and haul it away. [For] three days last fall, my brother and several of my closest friends dismantled this old garage and brought the wood to the SPACE architects’ workshop. The talented people at SPACE turned this weathered wood, combined with raw steel for frames and bases, into our tables, bar and an awesome custom booth. It’s not just furniture; it is art.”

Rehabbing existing buildings and reusing materials as much as possible is at the heart of many of SPACE’s projects. When Pi opened its location in Downtown St. Louis inside the Mercantile Exchange (MX) building in 2012, it commissioned SPACE to design the existing build-out.

“A huge portion of Pi is made up of wood that has been repurposed from barn wood from New Haven, Mo.,” Niemeier says. “Most of the walls and the ceiling are made of that wood. That restaurant was part of a larger gut renovation of what used to be One City Center. The space itself is all new, with a glass-curtain wall along one side and very high ceilings, but previously it was very rough…concrete floors and dry wall. It was pretty cold and sterile, and nobody wants to eat in a space like that. Our job is to figure out ways to make spaces comfortable, visually and in ambiance in general. You can do a lot of that with lighting and materials. The barn wood has a primitive feel and softens the space, and a lot of the lighting is LED.”

In addition to reclaimed barn wood for the walls and ceiling, the restaurant features a banquette made of reclaimed shipping pallets designed and built by Mwanzi Co., as well as a large vintage clock from the former Rothschild Antiques, where Pi’s sister restaurant Gringo now dwells.

Pi co-founder Chris Sommers says SPACE’s focus on reducing impact through architecture and design aligns with the overarching mission of his restaurants.

“We knew they shared our passion for re-use, reclaimed and industrial chic,” Sommers says. “Five years ago we founded Pi with a green mission – to limit our footprint. We have used reclaimed materials and environmentally conscious design and architecture in every space we’ve built to fulfill part of this mission. It is core to our DNA, so to build anything else would be cheating. Thankfully, these design principles often share an elegance, simplicity and beauty that benefit our restaurants and shouldn’t go out of style anytime soon.”

For Niemeier, the craftsmanship and beauty of historic buildings such as the former One City Center evolving into the MX project demand preservation, and with environmentally friendly renovations, they can be restored to see new life for generations to come.

“The very best sustainable practices are reusing or repurposing buildings,” Niemeier says. “We have an enormous stock of beautiful existing buildings in St. Louis. We’re big proponents of reusing spaces, of using what we’ve got already and giving it new purpose. This has just become our make-up as a firm. It’s just what we do.”

Better Brewing

For many restaurant owners, being a good steward of the environment also means making a long-term commitment to their businesses and the neighborhoods where they reside. Such is the case for Urban Brewing Co.’s co-founders, David Wolfe and Florian Kuplent. Just two years into their brewing business, Urban Chestnut is expanding operations to a second location in The Grove. The 70,000 square foot production brewery, packaging facility, warehouse and indoor/outdoor retail tasting room will be located in the former Renard Paper Co. building, quadrupling the company’s brewing capacity while simultaneously making it the largest craft brewing facility in the area. Projected to open in early 2014, Urban Chestnut has partnered with Green Street St. Louis – a local real estate firm recognized for the sustainable redevelopment of underutilized St. Louis-area commercial properties into LEED- (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings. Green Street owns the building and is developing the project with Urban Chestnut.

“Because this project is a reuse of an existing space and not a new build, we’re working toward the Commercial Interiors LEED certification status,” Wolfe says. “This means green interior finishes, reducing water and energy use, recycling our construction materials, using local materials and artisans for our furniture, and more. These steps are what will make us a good citizen within our neighborhood. But we could do all these things without seeking third-party recognition [from LEED]. We’re becoming certified as a longevity measure. If we invest in geothermal energy and other efficient systems for this building, then they will be in place for future owners. The more people who [make sustainable design decisions] now, the easier it will be for future owners to do, too.”

Green Street St. Louis managing principal Phil Hulse says the company is working with local architects and contractors to design and build the new facility to incorporate high-efficiency lighting and mechanical systems, conservation of water, solar power and using natural and locally produced resources and recycled materials to lessen the building’s long-term impact.

“There are many benefits to incorporating [sustainable] principles into the building,” Hulse says. “One of the most important is that you create a better environment for people to work in and you have less negative impact on the surrounding environment (by minimizing our carbon footprint). Our focus has been to redevelop existing buildings and repurpose them for new uses – this is one of the best ways to incorporate sustainable design into the building.”

Rob Maltby, project manager with Green Street, clearly sees the investment Wolfe and Kuplent are making in their new neighborhood. “This project is reusing a building in a neighborhood that is really unique, diverse and growing,” Maltby says. “This project has the ability to connect with the community around [it], as well as filling a large hole in The Grove. Other projects we have done, while LEED certified, are more functional for the business. I think this project can showcase a green building in a 24/7 neighborhood, and how a lot of the elements of sustainability don’t just come from the building itself, but the impact it has on the surrounding community.”

For Wolfe and Kuplent, creating this kind of project in The Grove just makes sense.

“The Grove is a sustainable neighborhood,” Wolfe says. “It’s close to transit, in a dense community, and is walkable. Reusing the building eliminates massive amounts of building materials and habitat destruction, and it adds to the economic, environmental and social sustainability of the area. We’ll be creating jobs, reducing our carbon footprint and helping the neighborhood – all of these promote a holistic view of sustainability versus solely focusing on environmental factors.”

For Wolfe, that all-encompassing approach to sustainability is what gives this entire project a sense of purpose. “There are a lot of benefits to employing sustainable practices,” he says. “From a marketing stand-point, we’re appealing to people who care about the environment and aligning ourselves with their morals. And we’re investing in long-term cost-savings for our business with the many energy-saving measures we’re taking. But, honestly, the most important element is the cultural impact we’re making. People who work here, who see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it are going to follow suit. They’re going to start living it themselves and become better citizens. And as customers come to expect sustainability to be part of their restaurants, they’ll demand it more and more. It’s like they say, ‘The beach starts with one grain of sand.’ And we really do feel good about what we’re doing on a regular basis.”


Sustainable design in St. Louis continues to grow, with two new projects blossoming this month

Urban Harvest STL’s FOOD ROOF

Located one block away from the Downtown Community Garden, Urban Harvest STL is commencing construction this month on its rooftop farm project, FOOD ROOF. According to Mary Ostafi, founding director of Urban Harvest STL and sustainability strategist at architectural firm HOK, the project is a way to bring farming to usable, available space in otherwise condensed Downtown St. Louis.

“Why on a rooftop? Because leasing a rooftop is more economical than finding land Downtown,” Ostafi says. “We don’t have any vacant Land Reutilization Authority lots Downtown like most neighborhoods do, so rooftops are our neighborhood’s opportunity. Locating a farm on a rooftop also has many environmental benefits such as building energy load reduction, heat island mitigation, storm water management easement and enhanced biodiversity in the city. The FOOD ROOF will be a fully functioning urban farm.”

Ostafi says the project is establishing a community supported agriculture (CSA) program to benefit thousands of Downtown residents, who can join and pick fresh, sustainably grown food at the rooftop during growing season. In addition to the CSA, FOOD ROOF will also donate crops to local food banks. The farm’s first few crops are scheduled to be planted this month, with its first harvest projected for late autumn.

“As with the Downtown Community Garden, we will be growing and donating a portion of the food to locally based charities,” Ostafi says. “Our business model has many environmental and social-based benefits, not the least of which is engaging people and their families in the farming process so they can form a relationship with their urban farmer, learn where their food comes from, and become more empowered to care for their health, the health of the local food ecosystem and the long-term sustainability of our social fabric.”

In addition to increasing the Downtown community’s access to fresh produce, Urban Harvest STL plans to offer classes and community events to increase food education and outreach.

“The FOOD ROOF will be a living demonstration of innovative approaches to urban agriculture, including hydroponics and vertical farming, and will feature an outdoor classroom and gathering space for community events.”

The Centennial Malt House’s Solar Carport

Local culinary entrepreneurs Paul and Wendy Hamilton are working on their newest project at The Centennial Malt House, the building that houses their other businesses, Vin de Set, Moulin Events, PW Pizza and the Malt House Cellar event space. A 25,000-kilowatt photovoltaic system is slated to be installed this month – covering the center of their parking lot – to generate energy to power the building, with excess power purchased by Ameren UE. The Hamiltons are the first restaurant owners in St. Louis to install a solar-carport canopy and expect the investment to pay for itself in fewer than seven years. “This project fits within our core values of operating our businesses in an environmentally sustainable way,” Paul Hamilton says. “It is the right thing to do, and we recognized early on that our employees and customers also shared our commitment. In general it costs more to do business in a sustainable way, but we believe those costs are reduced by positive influences associated with staff retention, guest perception and community awareness.”


A vast number of local eateries employ some degree of environmentally friendly practices, whether recycling and composting, using LED lighting and energy-efficient appliances, or sending leftovers home in eco-friendly packaging. But in the past few years, a new generation of restaurant owners have emerged, eager to incorporate sustainability into the foundation of their businesses.

Whisk: A Sustainable Bakeshop

Kaylen Wissinger, owner of Whisk: a Sustainable Bakeshop, says it best: “As cheesy as it sounds, we only have one Earth. Why would I not utilize as much sustainable design as possible?” When she opened shop on Cherokee Street in 2012, a good portion of the decor came from found and repurposed objects and the interiors were done using zero-VOC paints, varnishes and finishes. At Whisk, Wissinger recycles, composts and does the shop’s laundry in-house to save gas. All of the bakery’s carry-out containers are made from at least 90 percent post-consumer material and are compostable. Wissinger even reuses her product. “We turn day-old cupcakes into cake balls, brownies into bread pudding and cookies into pie crust,” she says.

2201 Cherokee St., Cherokee Business District, 314.932.5166,

Green Bean

In November 2011, Green Bean opened in the Central West End. Construction reused many of the existing materials from the former retail space, creating an almost one-for-one exchange of materials. Serving wares are made from corn and are 100 percent compostable. Waste management is clean and green, with all refuse from the restaurant either composted or recycled. And ingredients are sourced on a “local when possible” basis, looking outside the region only when necessary. According to owner Sarah Haselkorn, creating an environmentally friendly eatery was intentional from day one. “We wanted sustainability to be embedded within the entire operation of Green Bean,” Haselkorn says. “The business was born out of that concept. Instead of saying ‘We want to sell salads, so maybe we should make them sustainably,’ we said, ‘We want to create a sustainable and healthy concept that people feel good eating at.’ The sustainable element definitely makes marketing more fun and colorful, and creates a stronger bond between us and our consumers. That’s not why we did it, but it’s certainly part of why we are glad we did.”

232 N. Euclid Ave., Central West End, 314.361.4444,

Tree House Vegetarian Restaurant

“Sustainable design is important to me because I passionately believe in sustainable living,” says Bay Tran, owner of Tree House Vegetarian Restaurant. “I want those ideals to be represented in every aspect of my business and for my customers and my community to see what Tree House is trying to accomplish. We want to be a successful restaurant, but we want to leave as small a carbon footprint as possible.”

Tree House employs many sustainability measures such as renewable bamboo flooring, repurposed furniture from Mwanzi Co. and a rooftop garden.

Tom Niemeier, owner at SPACE, LLC in The Grove, which designed Tree House, describes the restaurant as an opportunity to restore a historic St. Louis building to its past vibrancy – but this time, using low impact materials.

“With almost every project we do we’re trying to select materials that are environmentally sensitive, whether it is bamboo flooring, 100 percent recycled carpet or low-VOC paint. With Tree House, the building was in a bad state…one wall had to be fully rebuilt. We took a building that was deteriorating, and through Missouri tax credits for historic rehabilitation, we were able to rebuild it for generations to come.”

3177 S. Grand Blvd., South Grand, 314.696.2100,

Frida’s Deli

When Natasha Kwan opened Frida’s Deli in University City in July 2012, she wanted to offer customers healthy food in an eco-friendly environment. The restaurant uses compostable and recyclable to-go containers and bags made with sustainable materials, as well as to-go boxes made with post-consumer recycled products. It offers water in glasses rather than bottles and uses paper straws rather than plastic. And each customer with a to-go order is asked if they want utensils and a bag instead of being automatically offered these potentially unnecessary items. “I feel an obligation to recycle and compost,” Kwan says. “While it is more expensive to purchase those items and to pay for the service, I could not live with myself if things were going in the trash. We recycle and compost everything that can be in the restaurant and we are only left with a small bag each day.”

Frida’s is currently adding an indoor hydroponic garden to grow leafy greens and herbs for its kitchen. Windows separate the restaurant and garden, giving diners a first-hand glimpse of the farm-to-fork process. Kwan says the garden will provide superbly fresh ingredients to her customers, while completely eliminating the transportation impact of those items.

622 North and South Road, University City, 314.727.6500,

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