Aug 13 – I didn’t get to 200 block commons and was expecting to like a shower.
After all, the Joplin city center site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has a lot going on inside and out. This became apparent when you followed Jeff and Carolina Neal, the dynamic duo behind Neal Group Construction, through the restored edifice that now serves as their headquarters.
The House of Commons is located in the Hurlbut Building, which housed the Hurlbut Undertaking Company – the mortuary and ambulance service in Joplin at the beginning of the 20th century. The ground floor is a maze of intricate tilework, century-old fireplaces, and stained-glass windows. The second floor resembles an urban loft with exposed brick walls and large windows overlooking the north side of downtown.
The structure, which also houses a church and other local businesses, is a history buff or an interior designer’s dream. Each space is decorated with antique signs, salvaged architectural elements, and framed newspaper clips – conversation pieces carefully selected by Nils themselves.
So when I came across a simple shower stall downstairs, I knew it couldn’t be there by chance.
“To be an environmentally friendly building, you must provide a shower so that employees can clean up after walking or cycling to work, which reduces their carbon footprint,” Carolina explains.
Suddenly, a different series of details struck me. Each room is illuminated by sensor LED lighting powered by solar panels. The constant buzzing of the faltering air conditioner isn’t heard due to the building’s white reflective rooftop and high-efficiency windows. The landscape outside is lush and green thanks to an irrigation system that uses recycled rainwater. Even the parking lot has a free charging station for electric cars.
The Hurlbut building is an environmentalist’s dream, too – complete with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
This certification requires that the building’s overall environmental impact be taken into account, including how easily it can be accessed by non-car occupants.
The Neals, recipients of the 2018 McReynolds Award for Historic Preservation, are proud of what this site and other downtown projects stand for.
And that must be because their current successes have been so challenging.
When the Neals moved to Joplin in 2004—homecoming to Jeff, a 13-year-old US Air Force Academy graduate and veteran, and new chapter to Carolina, a Costa Rican attorney with experience in the academic, private and public sectors—their interest was to obtain a loan to purchase and renovate one building. In the city center.
“We had a solid year building business plan after business plan. But eight banks rejected us. They didn’t think anything would work downtown,” explains Jeff.
When they found a banker who believed in their vision, their first project was to preserve the Columbian Building, 418-420 S. Main Street.
After the restoration, while Carolina was pursuing a master’s degree in global affairs, one of her professors identified the important and positive environmental impact of their work.
“It takes 100 years to build a building like this for the earth to recover from,” she explains. “It takes a lot of energy and a lot of carbon dioxide.”
She added that restoring the 100-year-old buildings means working with materials that have already paid off their environmental debts.
While considering this fact and researching in depth, Neals decided that the recovery environment was an important message that should be incorporated into their brand.
“I’ve always been a conservationist,” Jeff says. “How that turned into being a conservationist was not something I had ever thought about.”
The pair are quick to point out the logic and economic benefits of saving for customers and other developers. At a time of rising material costs and supply shortages, restoring historic buildings means working with 60% of the building materials already in place.
While adding solar panels and other energy-efficient resources can be costly up front, the lower energy consumption and bills shows how these investments pay off over time.
“We have a business model that shows what can be done,” Jeff explains. “This is a masterpiece. You can incorporate certain elements here in your building, without getting certified, and you can still reap the benefits.”
It is these benefits and victories that speak the loudest.
Neil Group Construction has successfully completed over a hundred projects – the vast majority of which are in Joplin’s downtown and Main Street. And the hype surrounding their current work at sites like the Olivia Building, the Cleveland Apartments, the Bennington Pharmaceutical Company and the Christman Building should be a signal to future property owners, conservatives — and even banks — that the original risk they took was a downtown investment worth the reward.
It is a sign for all of us. As someone who invests in downtown Joplin by frequenting local businesses (and writing a column), it’s encouraging to know that my actions have a broader impact. It turns out that preserving and restoring my favorite neighborhood isn’t just about aesthetics or trans trends, but is in line with my environmental values and belief in the future of our community.
Whether you buy, rent, or even buy a cup of coffee from a restored historic building downtown, we embody the motto of Think Global while working locally.
Are you ready to save the planet? I’ll see you downtown.
Kimberly Zirkl, a writer, recently returned to Joplin after a decade in Paris and lived a number of years in San Francisco. Contact her at email@example.com.