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Birth of 21st Century Construction in Harlem

By: The Full Spectrum Team

November 01, 2006

When many environmentalists and Green Building advocates look at 1400 on Fifth, a recently constructed 129 unit mixed income condominium located in Harlem, New York; they see a "marvel" of technology. Its geothermal heating and cooling system, filtered outside air system, IT backbone, energy efficient lighting and appliances, recycled building materials, bamboo floors and other renewable materials are living examples of 21st Century design that addresses many of the concerns about how to use the planet's resources in a manner that limits the negative impact of progress. Frequently they only see the technological-environmental aspect of the development.

The time and context of the development are sometimes lost. 1400 Fifth is built adjacent to 18,000 units of public housing. It was financed and built before the Harlem boom and was the first condominium building in Harlem planned to attract a mixed income population. Two thirds of the building was affordable to people of low to moderate income, while a third was intended to attract households with market rate incomes.

Fundamentally, Full Spectrum "bet the farm", that sustainable development practice could be a viable economic catalyst to market acceptance of mixed income housing in an immediate buying area that had had nothing more than special needs, government-financed housing for more than 40 years. Overlooked frequently was Full Spectrum's focus on:

  1. Making the building culturally relevant through African-inspired design reference in the facade — the form, massing and inclusion of commissioned art work from the African Diaspora in the building's public spaces. It is the largest public display of African art in any non-museum, non-gallery building in Harlem.
  2. Tenanting the retail spaces with local business and businesses owned by Latinos and African-Americans to provide economic opportunity for those typically left out in the gentrification wars
  3. Target marketing so that more than 50% of the homes were sold to Harlem residents
  4. Assuring that there was no first cost economic penalty for designing and building a green building — 1400 Fifth cost no more to build than other affordable housing being built in Harlem at the time, yet is saves each household more than $1,500 per year in energy cost and creates a $10,000 average tax credit for each resident from the NYS Green Building Tax Credit program

The development's financial viability relied on attracting market rate buyers at price points to offset the cost of selling affordable homes below the cost of production. In an unproven middle income market adjacent to a large public housing development, Full Spectrum gambled that green-sustainable development would create value in a market in which value had heretofore been created by large government subsidies. As gambles go, Full Spectrum won. 1400 Fifth was completed and is occupied by homeowners who have wide range of professions from downtown doormen to hedge fund managers.

Despite having achieved some significant milestones at 1400, when we at Full Spectrum look at the project, we only see a starting point. We see a development that brings the environmental justice community and the environmental movement together in one space by demonstrating that an urban Brownfield in America's most storied African-American community can be transformed into one of the building blocks of and a development strategy for sustainable community.

At Full Spectrum we include formal team reviews of each project undertaken to assure that as a project team we are pushing the envelope and attempting to incorporate as much sustainable, renewable, high performance, energy efficient strategies as financially possible.
Early on our in-house project team, the project architect; the project engineer; the project commissioning agent; the project cultural design consultant; and the project green building consultant, perform blue sky evaluations to determine the best achievable environmental performance objectives and paths for the project.

Our initial goal is for every project to end up capable of a LEED Platinum rating. However, whether we achieve a LEED rating or not, our most important goal is to assure that each project meets our sustainability objectives by addressing the economic, cultural, social and environmental goals as a coherent and integrated continuum. We start by instructing our design team to reduce energy consumption by 50% below the state energy code and reduce the cost of construction below the regional index by 20%. We also assign improved indoor air quality as a co-equal highest priority. By focusing on energy performance, indoor air quality and cost we have the basic building blocks for a sustainable project.

We also develop focus groups and partnerships within the communities in which we work to assure that our vision for the development is consistent with that of the communities in which we work. Effectively, community benefits are part of the core package of sustainability benefits that we strive to include in each our projects. Our core outlook is that there should be no premium for good sustainable design and development. This outlook is rooted in the belief that the process is not additive, but a complete paradigm change in the way we design and build. Each project becomes a stepping stone for the next by building on the vernacular and vocabulary of its predecessor. Though each project is a unique opportunity, the process of discovery and deployment is cumulative. By studying our own work, -- both the failures and the successes -- and by collaborating with colleagues, we believe we can be the catalyst for large-scale systemic change in the way sustainable urban fabric is developed.

Though 1400 Fifth might be more widely known for its deployment of deep bore standing column wells and ground source heat pumps, the building's high performance envelope and the process of creating that envelop, are the most important and replicable advancement in the building. Full Spectrum believes that high performance building envelope is the most important means for reducing energy and reducing a building's Carbon production. The creation of a cost efficient high performance envelope enabled many of the other advancements that Full Spectrum deployed in 1400, and is deploying in its other development projects.

Full Spectrum's experience at 1400 Fifth has confirmed that the most cost efficient and resource-efficient method to create a high performance building envelope is to utilize factory manufactured panelized construction. Specific attention was given to assuring that thermal bridging is eliminated; that air infiltration is eliminated; that the vapor barrier is in the right place; that the glazed area is no more than 40% of the envelope and that the insulation is designed to assure that the R Value is maximized while assuring that the dew point is not in the wall cavity. The use of sophisticated computer modeling and simulation tools enabled us to use manufacturing techniques taken from other industries and apply them to housing. Having done this successfully with building envelope at 1400, Full Spectrum has found that technology transfer from other manufacturing industries offers incredible opportunities to improve environmental, energy and cost performance in buildings. Having started with exterior walls, our current projects in addition to exterior walls, now include bathrooms, kitchens and plumbing systems that are manufactured offsite using technologies transferred from the aircraft and ship building industries in which performance tolerance are much higher than those of the traditional building construction industry.

Though 1400 uses all Energy Star(TM) appliances and fixtures, from an electro-mechanical viewpoint, the geo-thermal HVAC system is the most environmentally conscious system. The geothermal heat pump system eliminates the need for a boiler and central chiller plant, while using no fossil fuels for heating and cooling. This system is one of the primary reasons the building produces 65 tons less CO2 than comparable buildings which use fossil fuels. New York City regularly fails the EPA's Clean Air Standards, and the EPA has resisted recommendations from its own scientists to revise and strengthen its standards for ozone and particulate matter. For Full Spectrum, developing a building that reduces toxic emissions into a community and City that is burdened with pollution is an important means of strengthening and respecting local communities..

The geothermal heat pump system at 1400 Fifth uses eight 1500 foot deep wells connected to a water loop that circulates through the building. Seven of the wells are supply wells and one is a discharge well used to moderate the well temperatures. High efficiency water to air heat pumps are attached to the water loop in each home and controlled by digital thermostats. Though the geothermal system is about 15% more expensive ton for ton than more traditional alternative systems, because the heating and cooling load is 40% less due to the high performance building envelope, we were able to use a much smaller geothermal system, thereby eliminating the premium cost. Essentially, without the high performance building envelope, 1400 Fifth would not have included a geothermal heat pump system.

1400 on Fifth is likely the first "Smart Building" offered as a basic service in the Harlem community. Each resident is provided with a high speed Internet connection, internal security capability tied to the building closed circuit security system, Cable and Satellite TV connections, and laundry room real time usage profile. While these "Smart Building" features are standard in high-end residential buildings in lower Manhattan, they were not previously offered in Harlem, until they were offered at 1400.

The use of recycled materials in the basic construction materials is another component that sets 1400 on Fifth apart from its neighbors. At 1400 we have recycled materials in the steel, aluminum, copper concrete block, concrete, gypsum board, and carpets. In lieu of wood flooring, we utilize bamboo, a rapidly renewable material that has proven to have all of the beneficial qualities of traditional hardwood flooring, without impacting harvesting of forests.

Harlem has the highest rate of asthma in the US according to the National Institute of Health. Elevated asthma hospitolizations have a devastating long term effect on communities. Lost school days, lost work days and large medical expenses associated with asthma are believed to cause an $18 billion dollar drain on the economy. Harlem's elevated asthma rate would imply that the economic drain is disproportionately high in Harlem. Moreover, more than 80% of asthma attacks are triggered by indoor air quality, i.e. avoidable circumstances. In response to the economic and health impacts of Full Spectrum believed it was important to take measures to improve the indoor air quality. First we used only products with low VOC's thereby eliminating or drastically reducing VOC and other chemical triggers. Second, Full Spectrum deployed a system that filters heats and cools the air before it is delivered to the public corridors and to the apartments. Third, we installed high performance air filters in the each pump in every home. Last we provided each home with a freestanding HEPA air filtration unit. Combined, we believe these four measures dramatically improve the indoor air quality and will over the long term significantly reduce the incidence of asthma in attacks triggered by indoor air quality.

Full Spectrum hopes that the mainstreaming of green buildings will have a positive impact on capital markets and insurance costs. By reducing operating expenses potential health threats, and environmental impact, green buildings should be rewarded with preferred financing and insurance terms. If this type of market transformation takes place, reduced capital costs should translate into better opportunities for low- and moderate-income residents to live in safe and healthy housing.

In 2002, 1400 on Fifth received the first New York State Green Building Tax Credit to a residential condominium. 1400 Fifth has also been the subject of several case studies by organizations including ULI, Global Green and several academic institutions. By that same standard, Full Spectrum is continuing to study our results through a 5 year commissioning process and being engaged with the residents and property managers to help us more clearly understand where our efforts have fallen short as well as where we have met or exceeded our performance objectives. Ultimately we see the project as a learning laboratory which is helping us to improve performance on new projects we've undertaken in Jackson, Mississippi and Trenton New Jersey. Hopefully Full Spectrum's experiences will advance the knowledge base for all developers, architects, engineers and communities committed to equitable sustainable urban development.

On The Full Spectrum Team: Carlton Brown, Julia Lynch, Michael Vaughan and Brandon Mitchell. Mr. Brown is the founding partner and Chief Operating Officer of Full Spectrum, LLC. He is a 1972 graduate of Princeton University, School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

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