Building standards are in the spotlight now …and not just for downtown types of structures

Solar Roof in Fields CornerSolar Roof in Fields CornerThe path to green buildings in Dorchester began ten years ago with an experiment in recycling of the former state hospital grounds in Mattapan. On part of the grounds being redeveloped as a wildlife sanctuary, the Mass. Audubon Society used money from a city fund to build a conservation center that became Boston’s first municipal green building, and which would become a trend-setter for new development.

In Dorchester, the lessons of the conservation center are being applied at housing developments from Fields Corner to Franklin Hill. What started primarily as a way to save energy and reduce pollution has become a way to serve other needs, from public health and affordable housing to job opportunities.

According to the Mass. Audubon Society, the conservation center uses 30 percent less energy than a conventional building. Some of the reduction comes from the roof, with solar panels and photo voltaic shingles that convert sunlight into energy. Thanks to pumps that reach 1200 feet underground, the building can be cooled in the summer and warmed in the winter by groundwater at a year-round temperature of 55 degrees.

Inside the building, there are windows and sensors to maximize natural light and reduce the use of artificial light. There are building materials made from recycled or renewable sources, along with paint that has a lower level of emissions. In the area surrounding the conservation center, there are unpaved parking spaces—to reduce the “heat island” effect that comes from an asphalt surface—and landscaping features to reduce run-off from storm water.

In the decade since the Boston Nature Center was planned, there has been growing alarm about the pace and effects of global warming. Along with greater concern over terrorism and dependence on fossil fuel from other countries, there have been two economic downturns reinforcing the drive to cut costs.

Even before last year’s spike in the cost of gasoline and rising utility bills, the experiment with the conservation center had already led to new city standards for construction in larger projects, with more than 50,000 square feet. In January, 2007, Boston become the first city in the country whose zoning required those projects to have a Certified rating under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system developed by the US Green Building Council. Similar standards have also been adopted by the city’s Dept. of Neighborhood Development.

A little more than two years later, the Boston Society of Architects is calling for an extension of green building standards throughout the state. In a letter to the state board considering the change, BSA President Jim Batchelor wrote, “More than 60 percent of all the electrical energy produced in the United States is used to power our buildings—putting how they are designed at the center of the discussion about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

According to Mayor Menino’s Chief of Environmental and Energy Services, James Hunt, III, the share of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings is even larger in a densely developed area such as the City of Boston, amounting to 74 percent.

While green buildings have been associated with non-profit institutions, whether Harvard University, Artists for Humanity or the Boston Neighborhood Network, environmentally conscious design features can also be found in affordable housing developments and the new headquarters on Dorchester Avenue for the Mass. Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA).

“This isn’t just about downtown corporate headquarters types of building,” says Hunt.

When riders on the Red Line through Dorchester look out the windows, they can see rooftops in shades of ash-gray, mixed with the occasional clay-pot orange or slate-green. If it were possible to view what sits above the four stories of a mixed-use development at 1460 Dorchester Avenue, they would see a white rooftop, partially covered by the deep blue rectangles of solar panels.

The 1460 House was developed by Viet AID, with financial support that includes foundation money and funds distributed by the city from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Like The Carruth near Ashmont Station and the LEED gold-certified Macallen Building near Broadway Station, the 1460 House is an example of transit-oriented development along the Red Line. But the 1460 House has zero off-street parking, and its affordable apartments are separated from the trains by only a pedestrian walkway.

“We wanted to target people who did not have to depend on cars to get around,” says Viet AID Real Estate Project Manager My Lam.
According to Lam, the 43 studio and single-bedroom units went on the market at the beginning of last November and were all rented by the middle of January, after attracting 300 applicants.

“There’s a lot of demand out there,” said Lam.

Along with being LEED Silver Certified, the 1460 house is also one of five projects around the country to win a 2008 “Energy Star Award” from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The award is for achievement in energy efficiency in affordable housing.

As an example of serving both needs, Lam cites the solar panels. They provide energy for common areas, but also for the lower-income units. Lam says the efficiencies make it possible to charge residents a monthly rent of $750 that includes heat.

“For them,” he said, “it’s part of the philosophy of having affordable housing where you try to make operational expenses for them cheaper, so they can afford to live in the area.”

Because of the building’s added insulation—one extra layer to prevent loss of vapor--Lam says the overall energy costs, with less need for heat and air conditioning, are being reduced 40 to 50 percent. Though the white roof is “slightly more expensive” than a more conventional cover, he says, the money saved on air conditioning would be greater than any loss on heat.

“The long-term effect of it so outweighs the incremental cost,” said Lam, “that we had to put it in.”

Consideration of costs in years ahead—part of what makes a building sustainable—also explain the use of interior paints with low vapor emissions. Instead of the conventional wall-to-wall carpeting, or a more expensive hardwood floor, the building has squares of low-maintenance biodegradable material. Bedrooms have green-label rugs with tighter fibers than a regular carpet, so they trap less dust. Lam describes them as “almost a floor.”

“They’re sustainable and they don’t cause allergies,” said Lam.

“What we try to do,” he said, “is make the building as healthy as possible per se, and use materials to lessen the impact on the environment.”

Energy efficiency, health, and environmental impact also figure in the reconstruction of the Franklin Hill public housing development.

The energy manager for the Boston Housing Authority, Daniel Helmes, says efficiencies in the new development will reduce energy costs by 40 percent. As at the 1460 House, plans call for white roofs on mid-rise buildings and solar panels. And, as at the Boston Nature Center, there is landscaping design to reduce run-off from storms.

Though Franklin Hill will gain parking spaces when streets are extended through the development, some of the asphalt surrounding the buildings—typical of public housing developments built in the first decades after World War II—is being replaced with greenspace.

“Twenty-five years ago, the easiest thing to do with a limited budget was to pave it,” said Helmes. “You won’t see that in any of our new developments.”

But Helmes also draws attention to the benefits of materials inside the units, including “green linoleum” flooring made of recycled material, and carpets in bedrooms made of “very short” recycled material—which he says are “easier to clean and maintain.” The materials were also meant to reduce problems associated with poor air quality, such as asthma.

“The improved quality of life these buildings bring is probably the greater benefit,” he said.

According to Helmes, the energy efficiency at Franklin Hill increases the initial costs by as much as 6 percent. But the benefits of green buildings are being counted in other ways.

“Energy costs are the most compelling financial case,” says Hunt, “but what piques the mayor’s interest primarily is the health of these buildings.”

Short of recommending solar panels and white roofs for three-deckers, Hunt says there is potential for more efficiency in the housing already built.

“Tightening a building’s envelope through weatherization is the most efficient thing a homeowner can do,” said Hunt.

“Retrofitting existing buildings,” he said, “is really the area we see as the new frontier.”

Some of the money for the retrofitting will come from the federal government, a $2.8 billion energy and environment block grant. The grant program was approved as part of President Obama’s recovery package, after being introduced in Congress two years ago, with support from the US Conference of Mayors.

Hunt says there was a reason for the energy grants to be proposed by city officials around the country, including Mayor Thomas Menino, and members of Congress representing “large urban centers.”

“These cities are older cities that need to be retrofitted, with high energy costs,” he says.

And that need for retrofitting is already being incorporated into the reconstruction of a Boston Public School in Hyde Park.

“The city governments are facing tremendous financial issues, and they need to save money, just like tenants and homeowners need to save money,” says the executive director of the Boston Climate Action Network (CAN), Loie Hayes.

Where Hayes sees a chance to reduce spending on energy, she also sees a chance for economic recovery. Boston CAN is among the groups around the country calling for new legislation that would combine new money for energy efficiency with disincentives for using fossil fuels.

“When we put a price on carbon, that is going to increase the value of all the weatherization work that we do,” she explained. “Fossil fuel energy is going to be slightly more expensive because of putting that price on it.”

While the legislation faces resistance from parts of the country that produce fossil fuels, Boston CAN tries to prepare more workers to meet what could be a growing demand for weatherization. Part of the preparation was a “barnraising” two months ago in Jamaica Plain that brought together volunteers with job skills and other volunteers who wanted to learn.

Hayes calls it “job-shadowing with hands-on experience.” But she says it could lead to learners doing more work in their own homes, or later being paid to do the work for other people.

“It’s really the first step in a career ladder,” she said, “that could lead to being the owner of a small business in weatherization.”

And Hayes sees the opportunity for those businesses in a growing need to save on the cost of energy.

“The United States economy as a whole wastes 55 percent of the energy that we through-put, that we consume,” she said. “If you look out the window, almost half the houses you can see need weatherization.”