Summey takes hands-on approach to affordable housing

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey inspects the first-floor entrance to the small apartment building he had built off East Montague Avenue.

The new two-story apartment building at 1056 Stones Alley in North Charleston isn’t particularly interesting architecturally.

The tan stucco building looks like an oversize shoebox, complete with a belt course, decorative quoins and white bull’s-eye details around its doors and windows.

In fact, the building wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the designer — and the larger goal he hopes it achieves.

The designer is not an architect.

It’s North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who got the idea for the building while visiting a local business, Titan Atlas Manufacturing, which also worked with him to put wind turbines atop City Hall.

Titan Atlas also has shipped kits to about 20 countries overseas to create small structures made of blown concrete. Summey wondered: Why not build one of them here?

He already owned a narrow plot of land behind an East Montague law office, so he commissioned a two-story, 1,900-square-foot building with one apartment on each floor.

What’s unique is the sprayed-concrete construction, which Summey says is durable and cheap, an excellent combination for affordable housing.

“The only wood in the entire building is on the kitchen cabinet and the bathroom cabinets,” he says. “It’s flood resistent — just let the water run out.

“And if a tenant gets mad and wants to put their fist through the wall, they’re going to have to go to the hospital,” Summey says.

He notes the construction cost him only $90,000, and he was so confident of the apartments’ energy efficiency that he included the power bill in the rent. The power bill runs about $70 a month per unit.

The kit includes a mix of wire mesh and Styrofoam that interlocks and is blown with concrete.

The floors, walls and roof are concrete, though the floors are stamped to resemble something else.

Summey says there’s no damage if pets aren’t properly house trained. He tackled the project as a test to encourage others to use this low-cost construction technique.

His only regret is that he sprung for a wind turbine before realizing that the neighboring new CPM Credit Union building would add a third floor — a change that blocks the breeze across his roof.

Summey says time will tell whether the building is a first — or the last — of its kind.

Until there’s more demand, no one may develop the expertise locally to construct the kits. Titan Atlas’ website says the buildings can be built in as little as a few weeks; Summey’s took about five months.

“I wouldn’t mind building some more,” he says. “I think it is something for the future for rental property and owner-occupied property.”

But Summey says he has had no problem keeping the apartments rented out, which partly reflects the growing demand to live near the area that the mayor calls “the only real downtown we have.”

In any case, the small apartment is yet another innovative twist in an increasingly revitalized East Montague Avenue, where a new restaurant or mural seems to appear every week.

And even if it’s not replicated, Summey has no regrets.

“I get no complaints out of the tenants,” Summey says. “Now that’s how I view if it’s successful or not.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.