by Lisa Delgado
Event: High Performance Strategies for Affordable Housing
Location: Center for Architecture, 07.12.10
Speakers: Christine Hunter, AIA, LEED AP — Principal, Magnusson Architecture and Planning; Paul Freitag, LEED AP — Development Director, Jonathan Rose Companies; Shillpa Singh — Sustainability Manager, YRG Sustainability; Yianice Hernandez — Green Communities Senior Program Director, Enterprise Community Partners; Jonathan Braman, LEED AP — Energy Performance Analyst and Project Manager for Multi-Family Developments, Bright Power
Moderator: Esther Yang — Project Design and Management, Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation
Organizer: AIANY Committee on the Environment
A recent panel on green affordable housing featured quite a diverse group, not only architects but also people working in development, certification, and energy analysis. “The aim is to get us all out of our respective bubbles and really talk about how we can use our mutual insights to move forward,” said moderator Esther Yang, an Enterprise Rose fellow, as she introduced the panel.
Yianice Hernandez of Enterprise Community Partners discussed how her organization’s Green Communities Initiative supports the development of sustainable affordable housing through funding and education. At the heart of the initiative is the Green Communities Criteria , which is designed as a “cost-effective road map” to guide people through the design and construction principles for this type of housing, she said, adding that following the criteria helps reduce utility costs, conserve resources, and improve indoor air quality. Since they offer the possibility of funding, similar programs are often more attractive than LEED for affordable housing projects, added Yang, who is currently working on project design and management for the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, a nonprofit organization that develops and manages affordable housing in the Bronx.
Jonathan Braman, LEED AP, emphasized the importance of benchmarking to get a sense of a building’s strengths and weaknesses in energy performance, before embarking on a renovation. Various benchmarking technologies are available, including EnergyScoreCards, an online tool offered by his energy-consulting company Bright Power, which can be used to translate the raw, hard-to-decipher data from utility bills into a format that can be easily understood, he explained. A grading system of A to D rates a building’s performance in areas such as heating, cooling, water usage, and carbon footprint.
In collaboration with Dattner Architects, Jonathan Rose Companies has used some affordable housing projects in NYC as experiments to push the limits of what’s possible, explained Development Director Paul Freitag, LEED AP. One project involved renovating 10 identical affordable housing buildings on West 135th Street to make them dramatically more sustainable. The challenge in another project, Joyce and David Dinkins Gardens on West 153rd Street, was to take an existing building type — the block-and-plank midrise affordable housing building — and figure out how to greatly boost the sustainability at no additional cost to the company. With the help of grant funding, it turned out to be possible, Freitag said.
From her recent experience in property management, Yang emphasized that, generally, the best bang for the buck comes not through technologies like photovoltaics but through improving performance by analyzing the fundamental qualities of the building: its orientation on the site, the energy-efficiency of the building envelope, and systems such as HVAC and water conservation. “From a property manager standpoint, I’m looking for the largest expenditures that I’m going to have in operating this building, and trying to reduce those — so having bamboo flooring may not come before adding an additional layer of insulation to the building,” she said. Thinking in those terms helps keep rents low for the tenants and, for a property manager, ensures enough money for running the building.
Meanwhile, aesthetics can’t be ignored. A lot of affordable housing projects look boxy and blandly similar, which can lead to the inhabitants feeling stigmatized, Yang said. She praised the design of the façade of Joyce and David Dinkins Gardens for its multiple materials and different colors of brick. For designers on a tight budget, the challenge is to “add interest and not insert sterilization,” she said.
Lisa Delgado is a freelance journalist who has written for Oculus, The Architect’s Newspaper, Blueprint, and Wired, among other publications.