Housing: The Next Generation / Green and Lean

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Behind a cluttered desk in his central Harlem office, Carlton Brown is rapping his knuckles against a piece of material that has characteristics similar to those of high-end oak flooring, but it’s even harder and smoother, and only about one-third the price. It’s also much more environmentally friendly than wood, because the plant that produces it grows four inches a day.

“You cannot stick a pin in it and you cannot dent it. I wouldn’t mind having that on the floor in my townhouse,” Brown says, sitting back with a satisfied chuckle. The material is bamboo, and it is an example of the atypical building materials and mechanical systems that Brown is using in his revolutionary condominium development under construction in Harlem.

When it opens this fall at 116th Street and Fifth Avenue, the 128-unit project, which also includes 30,000 square feet of retail space, will be New York City’s first “high-performance” green affordable housing development. Brown’s company, Full Spectrum, will sell one-third of the condos at market rate, but the rest will be restricted to buyers with household incomes between $50,000 and $101,000, and sell for between $150,000 and $225,000.

Residents also stand to save dramatically on their utility bills. The building, “1400 on Fifth,” will be 35 percent more energy efficient than New York State energy codes require and about 70 percent more energy efficient than a typical New York City apartment building.

But the most striking aspect of Brown’s new development is that he is building an energy-efficient building with luxury amenities–including a video conferencing center, computer room and broadband access–for approximately $200 per square foot, about the same cost as the run-of-the-mill affordable housing that is being built throughout the city.

“This will be a historic building,” says Gelvin Stevenson, executive director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Partnership (CEEP), a nonprofit group of academics and building industry experts seeking to encourage more ecologically sensitive development. “It’s a dramatic demonstration of the fact that affordability and environmental efficiency can coexist in quality housing.”

Brown’s building is one of two demonstration projects in the High Performance Building Program, a joint initiative of the New York City Housing Partnership and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), funded by a $300,000 grant from Deutsche Bank. The Partnership is paying close attention to Brown’s project, with an eye to replicating his innovations. “We are planning on incorporating green building technologies where possible in our future housing projects,” says Patty Noonan, vice president for research and planning at the Partnership. “Education is a part of what we’ve been doing–sharing with other builders what Carlton is doing.”

Brown “is definitely a leader in this field,” adds Noonan. “As we started doing research, we saw that Carlton was already well down the road.”

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In the development business, there are still a lot of misconceptions about the affordability of high-performance building technologies. “When I talk to other builders,” says Brown, “the first notion is that to build green costs more.”

There is no textbook for building high-performance affordable housing. Brown says that he put his project together by doing a vast amount of research, making him a self-taught expert on green technologies. It costs money to be a groundbreaker; Brown says his company spent about $700,000 on research.

Brown also has a good background for developing futuristic ideas into affordable and life-enhancing applications. Before becoming a developer, Brown, a Princeton graduate, worked for 10 years at Bell Labs, where he focused on bringing new ideas and technologies out of the laboratory and into the marketplace.

But even though there was interest from the Partnership, Brown had difficulty convincing financial institutions to put their money behind his project. “It was difficult for him, because he was a small developer with less assets and less experience,” says Sandra Acosta, vice president of the Housing Partnership.

Brown and his Full Spectrum partners put in approximately $3 million of their own money. They got subsidies from HPD and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, plus about $11 million in loans from those government agencies and the Partnership. Private-sector loans arranged through Fannie Mae and Fleet Bank totaled approximately $25 million. And this winter, Brown’s building was awarded a New York State Green Building tax credit, worth $1.7 million.

While Brown was still struggling to line up the financing for his own project, Full Spectrum was hired as the environmental technology coordinator for a luxury green high-rise being built by the Albanese Development Corporation in Battery Park City. “They had heard about what we were trying to do in Harlem, and they asked us to work with them in Battery Park City,” says Brown. “At the time, they

didn’t really have a grasp of what was involved in high-performance building.”

Meanwhile, it took six years for Brown to finally see his own affordable project realized. “The real estate industry tends to do what other people do, and not do their own analysis. I think that if you have a few successful projects that work, the financial institutions will start to lean that way,” Brown says. “When we started with Fleet Bank on this, they had some skepticism, but they sat with our architects and engineers and looked at calculations and said, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right–this does work.'”

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Brown is able to install high-end features in affordable housing through “value engineering”–finding ways to economize and then reinvesting the savings into relatively expensive special features. One place Brown saves a lot of money is in wall construction. A typical contemporary New York City apartment building is built out of cement block and brick, and those walls must provide structural support and prevent energy leakage. Brown builds his out of steel, which is just as structurally sound but about 20 percent cheaper. That allows Brown to put the money that he saves into making his walls about 50 percent more energy efficient.

The savings from the building’s superstructure also allow Brown to put more money into environmentally friendly mechanical systems and furnishings like cabinets and building materials, which he says cost about 20 percent more than in a typical apartment building. The energy savings are accomplished through features such as low-heat glazed windows, which help keep rooms temperate. Groundwater pumps use geo-thermal energy to heat and cool the building. The pumps, which run on electricity, circulate water in the ground. They extract heat for winter use. In the summer, they use the earth like a cooling tower–discharging the building’s heat into the ground. Another system will recover heat from the building’s wastewater.

Brown’s building might sound futuristic and experimental, but most of the technologies he’s using have been around for decades. Many are used outside New York City; others, extensively in Europe.

A major reason that New York City is so far behind, says Brown, is that it’s the most expensive place in the country in which to build, and that makes developers particularly loath to take risks with new technologies. “It’s like, Pop did it that way and Uncle Bob did it this way–tradition mitigates against high-performance technologies,” he says, “Given the risk, developers ask, why should they change?”

Brown says he also faced resistance from city officials. “One of their things was, ‘If this is such a good idea, how come everyone else isn’t doing it?'” Like geothermal heating and cooling: “The city said, ‘Oh no, we’ve never heard of that. Why aren’t you putting a boiler in the building?'”

It takes perseverance for New York City developers to build with high performance technologies, says Alan Zerkin, project director for CEEP’s own High Performance Building Initiative. There is a lot of uncertainty about both getting approvals for and using nonstandard technologies, he notes–developers don’t know what they are going to encounter at the Buildings Department, nor at the trade unions, which tend to be very particular about which jobs are in which of their jurisdictions. “There could be a squabble–a delay,” Zerkin says, “All of these things add to the uncertainty. And if a job gets delayed, it costs money.”

But Brown sees the research that his company has done as an investment that will pay off in future projects. He is also concerned about a lot more than just turning a profit. “It’s hard to give a good reason to change when you think about the risks for people who aren’t concerned about the broader environmental questions or the broader social justice questions,” Brown says. “But once you say, ‘I do have some concerns about those questions,’ you say, ‘Well, let me look at the ways of doing that.'”

Behind all of his building’s fancy features, Brown has an ambitious agenda for changing inner-city communities. He points to the high rates of illnesses in poor and minority neighborhoods and notes there is increasing evidence that the public health problems in those neighborhoods are related to poor environmental conditions.

“When we say environmentally friendly–it’s a broader notion than what I call the ‘tree-hugging sentiments,'” says Brown. “It’s something that in addition to providing shelter should enable human activities to be more easily accomplished–it empowers people. For instance, if you are building in a poor community, you want to do things that first of all have a good environmental impact–you want to have better air quality. At the same time, you would want to do things to better connect people to the rest of the world. One of the things about poor communities is that they are isolated–there is this huge digital divide. So one of the things we focus on is smart buildings that can leap the digital divide.”

Brown also sees his buildings as a means of economic empowerment through homeownership. While most new Partnership buildings in Harlem consist of limited equity cooperatives, Brown insisted on building condominiums, giving their owners an opportunity to later sell at an unrestricted profit.

Generally, subsidized housing is of limited risk for developers. It is full of subsidies and grants, and, because of relatively inexpensive prices and limited supply, developers don’t have much trouble convincing buyers to commit. In the most dramatic example of “value engineering,” however, Brown is pouring all of his subsidies into only two-thirds of his units to make them affordable. That means he will have to sell the other third at market rate to pay back his loans and make a profit. In effect, the market-priced condos will help subsidize the affordable units. That means that Brown has to build a first-rate building, or his investment won’t pay off.

“He is taking a risk,” says Acosta. “Not every developer wants to do it.”

Alex Ulam is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.