Greenest apartment building set for Harlem

December 6, 2013

houing in harlem go greenManhattan is set to get its first residential building that measures up to passive house standards, a set of green guidelines that aim to cut heating costs by 90% through the use of solar energy, better insulation and other measures. A big step in that direction took place Wednesday morning when the development arm of Synapse Capital closed on the purchase of a 9,900 square-foot lot in Harlem.

“We’ve discovered a process by which we can build a building we think will cost the same, consume less energy and create a better quality of life for the people inside,” said Al Picallo, managing partner at Synapse.

The vacant site at 542 W. 153rd St. between Broadway and Amsterdam avenues and across the street from a cemetery was used as a parking lot by the seller, Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, who parted with the lot for an undisclosed sum. In its place, Synapse plans to build a roughly 40-unit, market-rate rental building over the next 27 months that will use a fraction of the energy consumed by the majority of the city’s residential properties.

“The way we’ve heated buildings in New York City, for the most part, hasn’t changed in 100 years,” said Synapse Partner Tom Bencivengo. “In the time these buildings were built and boilers were installed, we’ve put a man on the moon, and mapped the human genome.”

Synapse and architect Chris Benedict will draw on cutting-edge techniques of passive houses, including heavily insulated walls, triple-pane windows and an overall airtight structure, to build their property. But since most of the materials are not cutting edge, the project will not break the bank on construction.

“It’s just using data and information to apply a technique that yields a better result with the same stuff,” Mr. Bencivengo said.

Fresh air in passive houses is typically pumped in through a device called a heat recovery ventilator, which uses the warm outgoing air that has already been in the house to heat the incoming cool air.

According to Mr. Bencivengo, the 90% goal in reduction of energy consumption puts the passive house standard far above the well-known green-building criteria called LEED, which touts reductions to energy bills by as much as 40%.

Their Harlem apartment building will be the first passive house construction in Manhattan but not in the city as a whole. A handful of single-family homes and small multi-family have been built in the outer boroughs, despite the fact that passive construction typically raises construction costs significantly for smaller jobs. Meanwhile, several larger, multi-family apartment buildings are in various stages of production outside Manhattan.

The potential energy savings of such projects could be immense considering that the city’s buildings—residential and non-residential—account for 94% of electricity use in New York and are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2011 mayoral report.


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