Tuesday, August 15, 2006

It’s Getting Easier to Be Green

NY Times
August 13, 2006


THEY are not yet as ubiquitous as the Toyota Prius, the hybrid car popular among the ecologically minded, but “green” apartment buildings have begun popping up around Manhattan. At least six large buildings designed to meet elevated standards for energy efficiency and for the use of environmentally friendly materials have opened in the last three years, and several more are under construction or being planned.

The green designation is conferred on buildings that incorporate recycled or renewable materials and that slash energy use and water consumption with features like photovoltaic cells, internal sewage treatment systems and roofs covered in soil and vegetation.

Developers say they are building green because they believe in it, but they also expect to gain a competitive edge. If faced with the choice of renting or buying two similar apartments, the developers say, consumers increasingly will opt for the one with green features, even if it comes at a higher price.

“We think it’s important to do, and we think that other buildings that don’t do this will become obsolete, and our buildings will continue to maintain their value,” said Douglas Durst, who built 4 Times Square, a pioneering green office building, in the late 1990’s. He is now building his second green apartment tower.

But will New York apartment dwellers share the enthusiasm of developers for going green?

Polly Brandmeyer and her husband, Michael, moved into the country’s first green apartment tower, the Solaire, a rental building at River Terrace and Murray Street in Battery Park City, when the building opened in 2003. They picked it because it was in the neighborhood they wanted (they were moving from two blocks away). They now pay about $6,500 a month for a three-bedroom, three-bath apartment, which is at the upper range of rents in the area.

At the time, the Brandmeyers thought of a green building as little more than a novelty.

“It’s funny,” Ms. Brandmeyer said, “because now the green part of the building is the most important to me. I think this should be the standard. It’s night and day different, the quality of living.”

Since moving in, the Brandmeyers have had two children, Alexa, now 2, and Nicholas, 6 months. Ms. Brandmeyer likes the fact that the air entering the building is filtered and that fresh air is constantly being circulated through her apartment, especially with all the construction around the nearby World Trade Center site. The humidity in the apartment is also regulated, so that the air does not get too dry, and she considers it an advantage that the building uses environmentally friendly cleaning products and paints. “You don’t have fumes everywhere from when they clean the carpets or paint an apartment,” Ms. Brandmeyer said.

Tenants in the city’s six green apartment buildings — five rental towers and a low-rise condominium — generally seem to split into two groups. One is made up of outright enthusiasts like Ms. Brandmeyer. Members of the other group say that while they may not always be able to tell the difference between a green apartment and one that is not, they like the idea of living in a building that, in numerous ways, is designed to tread a little more lightly on the planet.

“With the war in Iraq and gas prices over $3 a gallon, when you’re living in this particular era, you want to do what you can,” said Kelly Caldwell, who rents a one-bedroom apartment at the Helena, a 37-story green building at 57th Street and 11th Avenue. She would not say how much she pays in rent, but a typical one-bedroom in the building is $3,400 a month.

Ms. Caldwell, a freelance researcher, said the air did not seem noticeably fresher or the water purer in her apartment. But she does notice a big difference once a month when the electric bill comes.

In her previous apartment, which was about the same size, she paid about $200 a month in the summer for electricity. At the Helena, with its energy-efficient design, her bills have been about half that amount.

The road to a greener life has not always been without bumps, however.

At 1400 on Fifth, a green condo at 115th Street in Harlem that opened in late 2004, residents said there had been problems with a heating and cooling system that operates on water drawn from deep geothermal wells.

Lark E. Mason Jr., an expert on Chinese antiques who is seen regularly on “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS, moved with his wife, Erica, into a three-bedroom triplex apartment during the recent heat wave, only to find that the air-conditioning was not working properly. Grit from decomposed rock in the water from the geothermal wells was clogging the cooling units in some apartments, and the Masons were told that the developer, Full Spectrum of New York, planned to install filters to remove the grit from the system.

The Masons, who paid slightly under $1 million for their apartment, took the attitude that they were pioneers in a new way of urban living. “The concept is really exciting,” Ms. Mason said. “Practically speaking, there are still some kinks they’re working out.”

Carlton A. Brown, the chief operating officer at Full Spectrum, said that only some of the apartments had been affected and that he expected the filters to take care of the problem.

The Solaire’s 290 luxury rental units were built by the Albanese Organization in accordance with green building guidelines created by the Battery Park City Authority, which now requires all new office and residential buildings under its jurisdiction to meet the criteria.

Next, in late 2004, came 1400 on Fifth, built with support from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The building has 129 units, including 85 that were sold at below-market rates to low- or moderate-income buyers.

Two more green buildings opened in 2005. The Related Companies completed TriBeCa Green, a 274-unit rental building at 325 North End Avenue, at Warren Street, across Teardrop Park from the Solaire. And in Hell’s Kitchen, the Durst Organization finished the Helena at 601 West 57th Street, at 11th Avenue, with 597 units. That building includes 120 units offered at below-market rents.

Early this year, Albanese completed its second green rental in Battery Park City, the Verdesian, with 250 units, at 211 North End Avenue, also on Teardrop Park.

Becker & Becker also finished work this year on the Octagon, a 500-unit rental building on Roosevelt Island that incorporates a restored octagonal tower from what was once the New York City Lunatic Asylum; 100 units there are for middle-income tenants.

Anybody can call a building green, so to impose some accountability, the United States Green Building Council created a rating system called LEED, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, to measure the degree to which buildings incorporate green practices and materials. The Solaire, Helena and TriBeCa Green have received gold ratings, the second-highest rating. Developers for the other buildings said they expect to receive either a gold rating or a silver, one rung below gold.

Several more green apartment buildings are either under construction or being planned. Five are in Battery Park City. Millennium Partners is at work on a 236-unit condo at Little West Street and First Place; Albanese is planning a 250-unit condo tower at 70 Little West Street; and the Sheldrake Organization is putting up a 320-unit condo called One Rockefeller Park, on River Terrace across Murray Street from the Solaire. Milstein Properties is planning two towers with a total of 421 condos on North End Avenue between Warren and Murray Streets. The developers say that new design refinements may qualify the Albanese and Sheldrake buildings for platinum LEED ratings, the highest.

In Midtown, Durst and a partner, Sidney Fetner Associates, are building a tower called the Epic at 125 West 31st Street. It will have about 400 rental units, 20 percent of them at below-market rates. The Dermot Companies are building the Mosaic, with two towers of about 300 rental units each, on 10th Avenue between 51st and 53rd Streets.

And in Harlem, Full Spectrum and a development partner are at work on another project, the Kalahari, with 250 condos on 116th Street between Fifth and Lenox Avenues. Half of the units will go to moderate- or low-income buyers.

The buildings share many similar features. To improve indoor air quality, they circulate filtered air through the apartments. (The windows open, but some tenants say they prefer the indoor air.) They also use products that eliminate or minimize volatile organic compounds, or V.O.C.’s, such as formaldehyde, which can give off unwanted gases. They choose paints that are low in V.O.C.’s and carpets and cabinets with low-V.O.C. adhesives. They also use many recycled products, like carpets made from recycled materials or wood flooring rescued from demolished buildings.

Energy saving is a key factor in building green, and most buildings are expected to use at least 35 percent less energy than typical apartment towers. Most of the buildings have photovoltaic cells to generate electricity used in the lobbies and hallways. The newest buildings have microturbines, powered by natural gas, to generate electricity. Green roofs improve insulation and cut rainwater runoff.

To receive a LEED rating, completed buildings must be evaluated, and points are awarded for their green features.

Bruce S. Fowle’s firm, FXFowle Architects, designed the Helena and the Epic. He said the Helena includes an internal sewage-treatment system that purifies wastewater and recycles it for use in the building’s toilets, which gave the project enough points to qualify for a gold rating. The Epic will not have such a system, although it will be comparable in other ways, like its energy-saving features and environmentally friendly materials. As a result, Mr. Fowle said, it will probably receive a silver rating.

Developers say that features necessary for a gold LEED rating generally add 6 to 8 percent to the cost of a building. In the case of One Rockefeller Park, J. Christopher Daly, the president of Sheldrake, said that he expected to spend an additional 8 percent, or $18 million, for the building’s green elements, which include an unusual double-glass wall that provides an added level of insulation.

Mr. Brown of Full Spectrum said that he faced a distinct challenge, because he was building affordable housing and could not pass on the additional costs of the green features. He estimated that they added only 1 or 2 percent to the cost of his buildings.

While the other green buildings provide some of their electricity with costly photovoltaic cells, Mr. Brown said he looked for cheaper ways to make his buildings energy-efficient. The Kalahari, for instance, will use a heat exchanger that will recycle heat from air exhausted from the apartments.

The city, which has been a partner in Mr. Brown’s Harlem buildings, is taking further steps to make green design available to those who cannot afford a luxury apartment.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development is working with the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects to find a development team to build a green affordable housing complex with about 150 units at Brook Avenue and East 156th Street in the Bronx. Young families are one group that seem to be attracted to green buildings. On a recent afternoon, a group of mothers and their babies sat enjoying the shade in Hudson River Park near TriBeCa Green, Related’s green rental building, where several of them lived. (The women said they paid $5,075 to $5,600 a month for their two-bedroom apartments.)

Prompted by a reporter, the conversation turned to the pros and cons of green living.

Lisa Ellis, a management consultant, said that when she and her husband, Greg, were apartment hunting last fall they actually wondered if the building’s green aspects might be more of a drawback than an attraction. They worried that a building that promoted itself as an environmental paragon might give short shrift to basic functional considerations, like water pressure.

But none of those fears have been realized. The women in the group all agreed that the water pressure in the building was very good and that while they felt a certain duty to recycle, it was no more of an obligation than in their previous apartments.

Jacqui Brown, who moved from Toronto last year, said she was glad she lived in a green building, even if she does not necessarily notice its effect on air quality or other aspects of her daily life. When she and her husband went apartment hunting, she said, they narrowed their choices to two Related buildings in Battery Park City: TriBeCa Green and a traditional building across the street, called TriBeCa Park.

All other things being equal, Ms. Brown said, they picked the green building.

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