ROUNDUP — Old buildings won’t solve all of Montana’s housing crisis, but when architect and developer Randy Hafer is done, they might solve some of them.
Hafer is a Stanford University-trained architect based in Billings who specializes in transforming old, sometimes dilapidated buildings into usable space with state-of-the-art heating, cooling and power equipment.
As Montana’s housing crisis continues to escalate, Hafer quietly proves that some of the future solutions may lie in the buildings of the past. Hafer has purchased two spacious old buildings – one in Lewistown and one in Roundup – which will be converted into affordable apartments. The idea is twofold: first, to save historic and still usable buildings, and second, to help alleviate the crisis by increasing the housing stock.
According to Realtor.com, the median home price was $262,500 and the number of homes grew more than 16% in 2022. Meanwhile, home prices in Roundup rose 45% over the same period, depending on the site.
For nearly 40 years, the Broadway, a brick apartment building in Lewistown, sat vacant. There used to be popular apartments, but the building was literally collapsing, Hafer said. A brick chimney had collapsed into a pile of rubble. Where city leaders saw potential danger, Hafer saw a historic building in need of rehabilitation.
In partnership with Preserve Montana and other organizations, Hafer will transform the building into LEED-Platinum certified apartments using Montana’s Historic Tax Credit Program, which trades tax credits in exchange for financing projects that preserve the historical buildings.
“An interesting thing is that there are five different skylights and each apartment is connected. Originally I think it was part of a ventilation system, but it provides a lot of opportunities for light,” Hafer said. “That’s pretty smart.”
The building will grow from 24 units to 19, making each slightly larger and more spacious.
“It was a really nice apartment building — one of the best in town,” Hafer said.
Some of the interior features, such as doors and trim, as well as casings and plinths can be reused in the new design. It will allow the space, built in 1913, to maintain an original appearance and some old elements while the space is reconfigured and all systems – heating, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing – are updated or rebuilt.
Hafer designs rents at around 80% of the market rate, attracting teachers, professionals and law enforcement officers.
“We’re going to do it without a subsidy because it’s a tax credit,” Hafer said, referring to the model he’s used successfully before. “These units will be affordable for people who want to live in the city.”
He calls the principle “adaptive reuse”.
“It’s not exclusively about preservation,” Hafer explained. “We will not put it back as it was.”
For example, the hallway, exterior and public areas like entrances will look the same, but the interior of the apartments will be different, more practical and efficient.
By using LEED-Platinum designs for heating and cooling, reuse will reduce ownership and maintenance costs, Hafer said. It’s part of his program for Lewistown and Roundup. Not only must it retain the historic look, which is desirable, but it must also be efficient so that rents can stay lower.
For example, by using solar panels and high-efficiency heat pumps, residents can be allocated certain utilities per month. If, at the end of the year, they have contributed to saving energy, it may mean that there is no increase in rent. For those using more, it can mean a raise — something that’s meant to encourage residents to conserve resources on their own by offering incentives.
Hafer first became involved in Roundup as the community was deciding what to do with its antiquated Central School, which had been built from 1911 to 1913. This means the school was built just two years after the incorporation of the town. Looking at the historical record, Hafer discovered that 47 people in the community voted to build a new school, and the vote passed with 100 percent of the vote.
Nearly a century later, nearly everyone in the community had passed through its doors and hallways. However, no local promoter wanted to tackle the redesign of the old school. Hafer likes the building in part because it was designed so there could be additions.
“Now it’s a very different attitude about civic-mindedness,” he said.
The building was used until 2017.
Plans are similar to Lewistown’s, as the building will be transformed into LEED-Platinum certified apartments, which is important for a community struggling to find and retain affordable housing. Using historic tax credits and sitting next to a public park, Hafer envisions a space where the community can admire the redeveloped building and residents will be centrally located next to a park and downtown, which serves seat of the county of Musselshell.