Sister Tract

In Denver, a convent becomes the locus of an unconventional community development.

ARCHITECTS: Michelle Kaufmann Studio

PROJECT: Aria Denver


After seeing a steady decline in their numbers, the Sisters of St. Francis, in Denver, decided in 2005 to sell their convent and the 20 acres surrounding it. Fifty nuns had once lived together, but they were now down to seven, in a rambling 1950s building on a former orchard on the outskirts of the city. The story might have ended in the manner of many such tales: a developer dividing the land into a dozen or so lots and building single-family homes. But that is where Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology, may have intervened—by bringing a group of ambitious sustainability advocates into the picture.

In 2007, a small local developer called Urban Ventures, led by Susan Powers, signed a contract to purchase the property. The former head of Denver’s redevelopment agency, Powers was interested in creating better city neighborhoods by building high-density, mixed-income infill housing. She brought in the California architect and prefab expert Michelle Kaufmann to design modern, sustainable housing and tapped Peter Calthorpe, a champion of New Urbanism, to develop the master plan for the $80 million, 386-unit community.

With the sale, the Sisters were able to save a small parcel and build a new convent on it. Powers introduced them to Kaufmann, and the architect came up with a set of eight modular townhomes that would serve as a model for the whole development. Architecturally, it doesn’t break new ground in the way Moshe Safdie’s prefab Habitat did, but the complex incorporates some of the latest thinking in sustainable design. The sloping site was minimally graded, and decks, swales, and rainwater gardens allow all precipitation to filter into the ground naturally. Solar panels, which the Sisters insisted on, produce more electricity than the occupants use. And while the average new tract home is 2,400 square feet, each of the two-bedroom units is 1,050–1,400 square feet. The units face each other across a shared courtyard, and garages are grouped together separately. “There’s a beautiful sense of being connected across the courtyard,” says Sister Patty Podhaisky. “It’s such a Sisterly way to live.”

The first phase calls for 72 apartment units and 13 townhomes of sustainable design and modest proportions; in the second phase, the old convent will be renovated into a senior cohousing center with a large common kitchen and gathering area, and a large communal garden will be established. The complete build-out has been stalled because of the economic downturn, but Powers is being patient. “The people who are attracted to our vision—whether it’s compact, energy-efficient living, the Michelle Kaufmann architecture, or the site’s history as a spiritual center—are going to make a very interesting community,” she says. “So it’s important that we’re stubborn and take our time to build this out the way we’ve planned to.”

Recent Programs