Schoolhouse chic: Montague Center project pays homage to its roots

  • The former Montague Center School has been renovated into 22 “green” apartments by Mark and Barbara Zaccheo, seen here in one of their tenant’s apartments. October 19, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The former Montague Center School has been renovated into 22 “green” apartments by Mark and Barbara Zaccheo, seen here in one of their tenant’s apartments. October 19, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Mark Zaccheo with high-efficiency propane modulating gas condensing boiler used as backup for solar hot water and common area heating in the former Montague Center School apartment building. Richie Davis photo

  • Mark Zaccheo with high-efficiency propane modulating gas condensing boiler used as backup for solar hot water and common area heating in the former Montague Center School apartment building. Richie Davis photo

Recorder Staff
Monday, January 22, 2018

MONTAGUE CENTER — It’s back to school as tenants hunker down in their zero-net-energy home.

Walking up the new granite steps and into the building that houses the 22 new apartments at 15 School St. is a throwback to when this was a centerpiece of this little village. The signs are still there — literally — in the case of an original 1949 plaque displayed in the vestibule, honoring Arthur E. Burke, superintendent of schools, along with Harry DeWolf and other original building committee members.

But along with the homage to the old in this schoolhouse that closed a decade ago, there’s plenty of new technology in the conversion by Olive Street Development LLC. Completed last fall, the renovation includes 300 solar thermal tubes on the roof and a 100-kilowatt photovoltaic system on the carports and mini split heat pumps that provide heating and air conditioning to apartments that occupy former classrooms as well as auditorium and lunchroom.

“I saw the value of this awesome school,” says developer Mark Zaccheo, looking back on a project that was marked by delays, conflicts with the town, and a court challenge by neighbors.

Ultimately, though, “We were able to turn an old building into a net-zero building. That would have been extremely difficult to do 10 years ago. But new technologies like LED lighting and really efficient air-source heat pumps has made all the difference. These small heat pumps will heat an entire apartment even on these negative-10-degree days with no issues, which is pretty awesome.”

“Awesome” may not have been a description used by the tenants of this 28,000-square-foot building, the last of whom rented in December. But it comes close.

Gabriel Bump, who moved in mid-August from an apartment in Florence with his wife, Halie, said “It’s nice to wake up in morning, get your tea or coffee and sit in the living room looking out on the meadow. It’s amazing and gorgeous,” but it’s also great that the high-efficiency mini-split keeps their two-story, two-bedroom apartment warmer than their older apartment.

“They do a good job keeping everything toasty,” said Bump, whose apartment on the building’s north end is one of two that incorporates the school auditorium stage, rising a few feet from the kitchen to the living room.

“Within a couple of days of moving in, I told my wife, ‘I don’t ever feel like moving,’” he said. “The property is gorgeous. … And it’s a three-minute walk from the Book Mill.”

Emily Streeter, who moved from Belchertown to a one-bedroom corner apartment on the building’s south end — the same space that served as the kindergarten room for both of her older sisters when they lived in Turners Falls — says she used to play across the street in the playground while visiting her aunt, who still lives nearby.

“It’s kind of cool,” said Streeter,” adding that her apartment has “gorgeous windows” that look out on the meadow behind the school and “beautiful light … Even when the blinds are closed, there’s still a lot of natural light coming in.”

In planning to convert what had operated most recently as a townwide school for kindergarten through Grade 3, Mark and Barbara Zaccheo were following up on two successful renovations in Greenfield, where they relocated in 2002 from the Washington, D.C., area: the former Mix n’ Match building at Olive and Hope streets and the former 12,000-square-foot Allen Street School into a dozen green-energy apartments.

Unlike the Allen Street job, which Zaccheo says was approved by Greenfield in a matter of a month, the Montague project dragged on for five years, beginning in 2011 with the developer’s bid to buy the building for $50,000 and a disagreement over his call for the town to remove an in-ground oil tank that he feared might become a liability.

Originally opposed by neighbors, who feared the impact of traffic and multi-family housing on the quiet residential neighborhood, the project was held up in clearing a zoning variance, an abutters’ lawsuit, which was dismissed in 2013, and finally what Zaccheo — who wound up offering $1 for the property — said was a year’s delay in having the photovoltaic system hooked up by Eversource.

“In the future, when a positive development comes through,” Zaccheo says he’s learned, “support is critical,” adding that the delays added hundreds of thousands of dollars onto the project’s cost and “almost crushed the development” as a result of added borrowing costs and lost incentives.

“People have a distrust of multifamily housing in general, especially in this community,” compared to what he’s found in Greenfield. “It wasn’t all the community’s fault. When you’re a developer and working on a project, you’re either ready to start or you have to move on to something else. I was reticent just because people didn’t want it. It demoralizes you and sort of disincentivizes you.”

Zaccheo said he moved on to work on his other properties, which include the Reed Apartments on Greenfield’s Franklin Street. (His latest project, now in the design phase, is converting the former Dakor Center on Greenfield’s Davis Street into 11 apartments.)

The Montague project had both the advantage and disadvantage of starting with an extremely solid building — with brick and mortar that were in excellent shape, but with concrete floors and ceiling that were hard to cut through, and concrete and ledge that had to be removed to create space for utility rooms in the ground level.

In some areas, 10-foot-wide hallways had to be narrowed to add space to apartments, yet because a ground-level entrance provides handicapped access to six apartments, there wasn’t the need for the kind of expensive ramp that was built into the Allen Street renovation.

Among the building’s amenities maintaining the character of the schoolhouse are its cupola, a hallway skylight, new granite entrance steps and iron railings, as well as a fountain area that was left intact in an alcove.

The Energy Star-certified building includes one- and two-bedroom open floor plan apartments — some loft-style with spiral staircases — between 540 and 1,340 square feet and featuring granite counters tops, cherry cabinets and Pergo and tile floors as well as tiled showers and wooden window blinds. Rents range from $1,060 to $1,950 including all utilities.

With roughly a quarter-million dollars of federal and state incentives, including tax credits and deductions, green features include: solar hot water, a high-efficiency backup propane boiler for common area heating, a carport supporting a photovoltaic array to provide electricity for high-efficiency mini-split heating and air conditioning, triple pane windows, soy-based closed cell spray foam and cellulose insulation on exterior brick and roof, low-flow shower heads and faucets, dual flush toilets and water-conserving landscaping.

The roof now has 20 inches of blown-in cellulose insulation, and there’s 5 inches of soy-based spray foam insulation for the exterior brick walls — a sharp contrast with what Zaccheo says was originally just 2 inches of fiberglass in the attic that had been the only insulation on the school.

An innovative drain-water heat recovery system collects hot shower drainage to preheat additional shower water.

The project, which sits on a little under 3 acres, includes a pond and there are plans for compost collection, a vegetable garden and an electric-vehicle charger.

Zaccheo also hopes to encourage artwork that can be loaned for exhibit as well as photographs taken in the school to decorate interior walls.

Reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269