Volume 75, Number 21 | October 12 - 18, 2005

It’s an airtight case: New green building is very energy efficient

By Anthony Weiss

The recently completed green building at 228 E. Third St.
The new building at 228 E. Third St. was open to visitors earlier this month. People sat in the unfinished ground floor on stacks of foam insulation and heard architect Chris Benedict and mechanical systems designer Henry Gifford explain how their building uses 85 percent less energy to heat than a building with ordinary construction, all for the same price.

As The Villager reported over a year ago, Mary Spink, executive director of the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Assocition, is developing 228 E. Third St. and three other buildings with Benedict and Gifford as low-income housing. These buildings will rent to tenants making less than 50 percent of median income. For Spink, the logic behind an energy-efficient, “green” building is practical. “We have an affordability clause for 99 years,” she says. “If you’re going to do that, you have to save some money.”

The building at 228 E. Third St. is now virtually complete. Benedict is waiting for the Department of Buildings to issue a temporary certificate of occupancy, which is needed to allow tenants to move in. Benedict and Gifford estimate the building will use 15 percent of the energy of an average new building for heat and hot water, and 50 percent less electricity for the common areas.

They have achieved these savings using standard, off-the-shelf construction products. Outside, Benedict designed the facade with a layer of insulation inserted between the brick exterior and the concrete block of the structure. This design prevents heat loss, and the insulation allows any water to drain out, preventing water damage.

Inside, the apartments are airtight, individually ventilated, and individually temperature-controlled. Benedict tests each apartment for air leaks. Any leaks are identified and sealed.

The boiler, designed by Gifford, is similar to a system he installed for Spink at 535 E. Fifth St. There, in a building with no other “green” features, the boiler uses 23 percent of the energy of a standard building. Gifford measured the boiler on the coldest day of the year. It was running at precisely 100 percent capacity, and the tenants were comfortable. A standard boiler, he says, would run at a maximum of 20 percent to 30 percent capacity.

A small boiler means the boiler room can go on the roof, eliminating the need to excavate basement space for it. Airsealing the apartments also creates a firestop and soundproofs the apartments.

To demonstrate the soundproofing, visitors were taken on a tour of the building. A seventh-floor apartment was presented with music blasting.

“Welcome to the party,” Benedict said. “Is this too loud?”

She then led the group into the neighboring apartment. The music was inaudible.

“Is the music still on?” a visitor asked. A quick check confirmed that it was.

It is a point of principle, and a point of pride, that Benedict and Gifford refuse to accept grants for energy efficiency to fund their work.

“It perpetuates the myth that it costs extra to do things right,” said Gifford.

For Gifford and Benedict, building green is neither expensive nor fancy. Part of the process is making the systems work efficiently — running pumps and boilers only when they are needed; designing walls and ventilation systems that keep heat in and cold out during the winter. The other part is quality control — ensuring that contractors and subcontractors follow instructions and properly install the equipment. Benedict regularly visits the construction site to check for the gaps and leaks that can undermine her precise designs. When she spots a leak, she has it plugged and caulked.

The problem with such an approach, as both Gifford and Benedict point out, is that it requires hard work. It is not glamorous. “Engineers design a fancy pump,” said Gifford. “The architect loves it, the developer loves it, they can have an arrow point to it in the article.” He turned to Benedict. “What’s the arrow going to point to in this article?” Benedict smiled. “It’s going to point to caulk and lots of things we left out,” she said.

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