Green and Lean

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Architect Chris Benedict got her first energy-efficient affordable homes built–the first in New York City, actually–by being sneaky. The bank that was going to help finance the deal wanted contractors to bid on two sets of renderings for the rehab job: traditional plans and ones with the green details in place. “They called them the plain vanilla and the pistachio,” Benedict recalls.

She suspected that the construction companies would jack up the price on the extra work, and that would be the end of the story on including energy efficiency. So she convinced the bank to pull a bait-and-switch: They would bid out just the plain plans. Only after they had a lowest contractor estimate would they unveil the green blueprints.

It worked. The additional costs ended up adding just a bit more than 1 percent to the $4.3 million deal for 18 multifamily homes–very little by energy-efficiency standards. But Benedict is certain she can do better. “People have a fear of change, and they hang their hat on cost,” she says. “I wanted to bring that $54,000 down to zero. I didn’t want this project stigmatized.”

When Benedict starts talking about energy, her eyes glow with an evangelist’s fervor behind her stylish glasses, and she reels off nuts-and-bolts details to prove that buildings can be built smarter. If it takes some subterfuge to get past preconcieved notions, so be it.

Every winter, New Yorkers are reminded of the chinks in their homes’ armor. A crack in a window seal that is imperceptible in October makes a nearby favorite chair too cold to sit in by January. Or the place is burning up because the super’s apartment is on the first floor, and he’s freezing. These construction defects are more than annoying; they’re expensive and wasteful. For poor families, the extra cost of turning the heat up or a space heater on can mean a choice between heat or rent or food.

Homes that use energy more wisely have been around for a while, but they have a rep for being expensive. That’s fine for a market-rate home, where the buyer is making a decision to invest in infrastructure now for lower utility bills in the future. But there’s only so much money to go around for subsidized housing these days, and spending more up front means fewer affordable homes. The fact that lower energy costs can help residents save enough to pay the monthly mortgage bill never gets factored in.

Benedict and her partner Henry Gifford say they’ve hit on the energy-efficiency grail: green housing that doesn’t cost any more to build than comparable units. They’ve invested a lot of time and thought into the set of rehabbed row houses and tenement buildings that have been built around Brooklyn in the last year. Now they just have to convince the city to give them another chance.

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After getting her architecture degree at Cooper Union, Benedict apprenticed at four different firms, finally striking out on her own in 1995. For years she had been interested in mixing architecture with her environmental sensibilities–in sixth grade she wrote a poem about pollution–but wasn’t sure where to start.

Her break came from her first client, the NY/Enterprise CityHome Housing Development Fund Corporation. CityHome hired Benedict as one of a handful or architects overseeing their middle-income home-ownership program, which had already rehabbed more than 100 buildings in Brooklyn and the South Bronx. “Chris came highly recommended,” says Rylona Watson, director of the program.

For Benedict’s first project–plans to gut-rehab 13 buildings in Crown Heights–she wasn’t able to make any headway on green architecture. But she asked Watson if she could add in energy efficiency for her next contract, a hodgepodge of 18 two-, three- and four-family houses in Bushwick and Ocean Hill. When Watson agreed, all Benedict had to do was figure out how.

She began attending energy efficiency conferences, “to talk with anyone who would talk with me,” she says, “anyone who knew anything about environmentally sound construction.” At one such confab, in Boston, she met Henry Gifford.

“In the middle of class Henry raised his hand to ask the instructor a question, and the teacher deflected the question and didn’t answer. Then Henry raises his hand and asks the same question again,” Benedict recalls with a laugh. “I looked at him and thought, ‘This guy must be a psycho.”

Gifford isn’t a psycho; he’s just enthusiastic. He has self-published a guide to sizing pipes and pumps for homes and is working on a coffee-table book of boiler rooms. “He is the finest boiler mechanic in the world,” says Andy Padian at the Center for Energy Affordablity. “But he has probably already told you that himself.”

Gifford is the rare individual who not only understands the theory of heating a building but also knows how to put boilers together and take them apart. With Gifford’s unique comprehension of how a building’s heating system works, Benedict was ready to create her dream house-one that conserved construction funds by using scaled-down heating equipment, then spent those savings on extra weatherization to keep the house warm.

“Choose a boiler size large enough to heat the house,” reads the typical architect’s specification for home heating. American builders usually overestimate to avoid angry calls from cold owners. But by taking the time to plan very carefully how the heating systems would work, Benedict and Gifford were able to use small, sealed-combustion boilers, eliminating the need for a boiler room and chimney–and saving more than $3,500 per building.

Benedict also re-envisioned the ventilation systems. Any New York City building without a window in the bathroom or kitchen is required to bring in fresh air, which is typically accomplished by drawing the air upward through a ceiling vent. While effective, this method connects each unit to the one above it and punches a hole in the roof, both of which allow heat to escape.

Benedict’s design seals each unit as tightly as possible, keeping heated air in the apartment. A constantly running fan connecting the bathroom and kitchen pulls in air through “trickle vents” above each bedroom window and pushes it out of side vents. It costs about $40 a year to run the fan, but the savings from controlling the amount of heat that leaves the apartments are much greater. Plus, each unit is quieter, since sounds don’t travel from apartment to apartment via the ducts, and the sealant helps deter insects and rodents.

The money that Benedict saved by nixing chimneys and roof fans was plowed into materials like thermal windows and cellulose insulation. But the biggest expense was the cost of completely sealing each unit. Labor is where greenbacks threaten to do in Benedict’s green vision.

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To guarantee the units would be adequately sealed, Benedict decided to change the typical working arrangement for low-income projects. Home construction leaves a lot of leeway for contractors, such as the specs for boilers. “Designs are typically done first by architects, then [go] to the mechanical engineer for heating, then to constrution,” says John Spears, president of the Sustainable Design Group in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “There is hardly any feedback between them.”

With Gifford, Benedict was already working much more closely with a mechanical engineer than most architects do, and she thought it only made sense that the two of them would work closely with the construction crew as well. “During the job I was out at the job site three or four times a week,” Benedict says. “I’d go in with our drawings and if there is a four-foot piece of ductwork, I look for it and then check it off.”

“Chris was the most thorough architect we have ever worked with,” says John Frezza, whose Strategic Construction in Brooklyn was the general contractor on this project. “She was on top of the job from start to finish, and that raised our costs a lot.”

The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development agreed to pay $28,000 of the $54,000 Frezza’s company required for the extra work, and CityHome obtained a grant from the Joyce Mertz Gilmore Foundation for the remaining cost. But Frezza maintains he will raise his bid in the future. “From an engineering perspective, it is the ideal way to build a home, but the additional work raises my labor costs further,” he says. “These are ‘lost cost’ projects and the savings need to come from somewhere.”

There are ways around the labor-cost problem. In North Carolina, more than a hundred energy-efficient affordable homes have gone up in the last four years, built by Habitat for Humanity–but of course, that manpower was donated. Another route is tapping into federal Department of Energy funds earmarked for weatherizing existing housing.

Spears secured waivers that allowed the money to be used for new construction, buying him $1,500 per unit for a Maryland project.

Benedict argues that with the work that has already gone into her plans, the cost for future projects will go down, not up. “Once we get a couple contractors bidding against each other, I’m sure we can keep the price down,” she says.

She may not get the chance soon. Although she is currently working on a 19-building project for CityHome, Benedict is back to “the dumb way of doing things,” as she puts it. The city is waiting to see some fuel bills before it gives the green light to funding another round of energy-efficient CityHomes.

“If these homes really do save residents as much as Chris has predicted that they do, and I fully expect that they will, then I really think that we have a model for the future,” Watson says. “We need to document the cost savings that these homes provide and then see about building more.”

So for now, Benedict settles for helping the families that have recently moved into her green homes learn how to make them work to peak capacity. To ensure the residents get the hundreds of dollars a year in fuel bill savings, she’s even given them her home phone number, in case they have a question at an odd hour.

“More and more people need to see the demonstrations,” says Spears, who’s been working in the field for 25 years. “It’s just that old habits are hard to kick.”