New York has 123 homes built under the environmentally friendly “passive house” construction standard. But architects and environmental experts say it should become the norm, especially for affordable projects in New York City.
Covered in shiny metal panels and tall windows, anyone passing 425 Grand Concourse in the Bronx might mistake it for a luxury apartment complex. But the 26-story facility is actually an affordable housing project built for low-to-middle-income families.
Opened in June of last year, the project was commissioned by the city’s Housing Preservation Department (HPD) and developed by Trinity Financial and Dattner Architects. It features amenities like a rooftop garden, fitness center, event space, and laundry rooms on each floor.
But its most notable quality: it holds the title of North America’s largest certified passive house project.
The Passive House is an international eco-friendly building standard that uses design elements such as insulation, airtightness, and heat recovery to consume less energy. By saving energy, buildings emit fewer greenhouse gases and generate lower utility bills. These constructions alsocreating a healthier environment for residents.
“People who live in affordable housing need to be able to take advantage of those benefits,” said Shefali Sanghvi, director of sustainability at Dattner Architects.
But most developers, he said, still view passive house standards as a “boutique” concept, reserved for upper-class residences like theat East 86th Street and on West 29th Street.
There are 123 certified passive house projects in New York state and 50 affordable projects in the city that have been funded or are in development, according to HPD.
Architects who spoke to City Limits said the passive house is starting to catch on in New York, but it’s still far from being the quintessential building model. The construction industry is skeptical when it comes to investing in this type of project, for which it is also difficult to obtain financing.
but with himSeeking to reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050, the passive housing development can benefit renters and help the state meet its climate goals, according to John Woelfling, principal architect of 425 Grand Concourse. .
The buildings’ 276 rent-controlled apartments are considered affordable under city law.for households making between $30,000 and a little more than $130,000 a year, including 28 units set aside for people who were previously homeless.
“I see the passive house as a way to address the twin crises we face: affordable housing and the climate crisis,” Woelfling said.
Why be passive?
The passive house standard was originally developed in 1990 by the(PHI) in Germany. The Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), founded in 2007, later became the national certification system for the standard in the United States.
Currently there are 840Passive house projects in the country. There could be many more, but the architects say most developers prefer a different model.
“Today’s buildings hide their mistakes by using oversized mechanical systems. And as a result, they use more energy than they should,” Ken Levenson, executive director of the nonprofit organizationhe told City Limits.
Instead of going with these “active systems,” Levenson explains, the Passive House standard uses a “passive” approach that seeks to “get away from devices and have the building’s fabric drive the building’s performance.”
Passive houses have a hermetic construction envelope that controls and maintains the interior temperature comfortably for longer, much like a thermos that keeps your drink cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Using a building’s heating and cooling systems less frequently saves energy and lowers utility costs, an important feature for low-income households who cannot afford.
Passive house sites can save up to 85 percent in heating and cooling costs and up to 60 percent in total energy use compared to a conventional build, according to aby HPD in association with other non-profit organizations.
The buildings also have well-insulated windows that prevent heat or cold air from escaping, and pay special attention to solar gain, using the building’s orientation and window size to take advantage of natural light.
Another key component is what experts call a “balanced” ventilation system to allow fresh air into the building while maintaining pre-conditioned heating or cooling. This process filters the air and produces better air quality, which can be particularly important for disadvantaged communities: By 2021found that, on average, people of color are disproportionately exposed to the air pollutant PM 2.5, which is responsible for 85,000 to 200,000 excess deaths a year in the United States.
Another study by the Rocky Mountain Institute research center found that low-income communities and communities of color tend to live closer to “polluting sources such as highways, power plants, toxic waste sites, and landfills.” These exposures, the study adds, “contribute to a variety of health conditions, from asthma to low birth weight and premature mortality.”
Yu Ann Tan, a senior researcher at the Rocky Mountain Institute who studies the benefits of healthy homes for low-income families, said that better air quality in homes helps reduce “asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and kidney disease.
“There are a lot of economic and social benefits that I think the passive house can offer that are particularly important to these communities that really need that kind of support,” Tan said.
But most developers trying to build sustainable projects are skeptical about going the passive route.
“There is a conservative nature in the construction industry. So you have builders and architects who just do what they’ve always done, and then you have real estate. [companies] that they only want to sell what has been sold before,” Levenson said.
Last year, the New York Real Estate Boardsome of the most sustainable construction in the city, applauding passive house projects such as Sendero Verde, a certified mixed-income passive house building developed by the Jonathan Rose Companies.
But Levenson says these projects are often one-offs. When it comes to building passive house standards on a larger scale, “everyone is dragging their feet.”
He believes lawmakers should find ways to offer more building incentives to make the Passive House the norm and make changes to the building code to include Passive House standards.
“Otherwise, the passive house will only exist on the margins at best,” Levenson added.
a matter of money
Patrick O’Shei, director of market development for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), says that one of the big challenges in implementing a passive house on a larger scale is overcoming “familiarity bias.” “of the construction industry.
“[Developers and investors] they’re used to building a certain way, so there’s uncertainty about how hard it’s going to be to build something they’ve never built before,” O’Shei told City Limits.
As a result, developers and investors often raise the costs of projects involving Passive House standards to offset the risk of working with an unknown model.
NYSERDA says it is trying to change that through its, which awards up to $48 million to carbon-neutral-ready multi-family construction projects in the state. The program, now in its third year, helped fund passive house projects like the 425 Grand Concourse. But that state aid usually accounts for only part of the costs.
“The challenge is that construction is incredibly expensive. So even if we provide more than a million dollars in a project with clean energy attributes, that could be 1 to 3 percent of the cost of the project,” O’Shei explained.
There is a debate among architects and environmentalists about how much more a passive house project costs compared to a conventional building. Sadie McKeown of Community Preservation Corporation (CPC), a nonprofit that works closely with city government to fund affordable projects that are also sustainable, said the passive house costs 5 to 10 percent. More for a new build.
“We have done a lot of work financing high-performance and passive house buildings. But there is limited money to support any kind of [sustainable] project,” McKeown said. “And that makes it very, very challenging.”
Financing passive projects requires bundling together government incentives such as tax breaks to offset construction costs with sustainable materials, which are often imported from abroad, he added.
However, other developers say that it is not impossible to build both affordable and passive.
The nonprofit Riseboro, which claims to be one of the first in the city to bring passive standards into affordable housing in 2012, has built eight such projects to date and did them “all within budget,” Ryan said. Cassidy, Director of Sustainability and Construction.
“We’re definitely in the camp of saying you can do it for the same cost,” Cassidy said.
Breaking Ground, another group that builds affordable housing for the homeless, just completedpassive house project last year for seniors coming out of homelessness or living on very low income.
Elissa Winzelberg, the organization’s director of design and construction, said it’s starting to get easier to build passive projects more affordably. Until recently, many of the parts needed for the design, such as the airtight windows, were imported from places like Germany.
“Now they are starting to be made here,” Winzelberg said. “The more this is done, the more American manufacturers will emerge, and the more cost-effective and widespread the standard will become.”