How to build green and lean in the East Village


By Jessica Mintz

Behind the scaffolding on E. Third St. between Avenues C and D, a six-story apartment building is taking shape, layer by layer of concrete, insulation, brick and steel. Down the block, the same developer will pour another foundation this week. But however conventional these construction scenes may appear, a closer look proves they’re part of a project that turns traditional housing inside out.

For one thing, every apartment in these two buildings is smart about saving energy. Each has its own thermostat and precisely calibrated vents and fans that control the air flowing through the apartment, keeping the temperature steady. Heat comes into the apartment gently with hot water instead of with harsh blasts of steam. Windows are treated to avoid fluctuations in temperature, and hallway lights dim when no one’s around. On top of one of the buildings, a community garden will flourish, protecting the roof and providing insulation alongside enjoyment.

When the buildings are finished, the owner expects 20,000 people to apply to live in them.

But neither of these East Village spots will be the next Solaire, Battery Park City’s luxury “green,” high-rise apartment building. Every apartment in these buildings is going to be filled with New Yorkers living at or below 40 percent of the median national income — about $25,000 for a family of four. What’s more, every tenant will be guaranteed that the apartment will remain affordable for 99 years.

The buildings’ owner and architect both have personal roots in the neighborhood, and they share a commitment to forward-thinking housing.

Mary Spink, the director of the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, is intent on building affordable apartments that combine communal living ideals with energy efficiency. And she’s most intent on doing it on the Lower East Side. After all, Spink was born in the neighborhood, and has lived in the East Village for the last 38 years, though not all of it was spent as a real estate developer.

“I was poor in this neighborhood,” says Spink, now 58. “I was on welfare in this neighborhood. I was a drug addict in this neighborhood. I turned my life around in this neighborhood.

“Everything that’s happened to the people [who live in L.E.S.P.M.A. housing] has happened to me.”

Spink’s first job in real estate was as a building superintendent, which came about because she couldn’t afford an apartment in the East Village. Her interest in affordable housing began after she read about the European model of mutual housing. There, people who live in one housing complex share everything from repair costs to childcare and cooking shifts. Spink’s vision of mutual housing for New York City clearly needed some tailoring, but what resulted — affordable housing governed by a tenant association (similar to a co-op) — is working well in the two buildings already owned by L.E.S.P.M.A., according to Spink.

But if Spink’s commitment to keeping the new L.E.S.P.M.A. housing units affordable over a lifetime is to pan out, she also has to be extremely cost-conscious about everything from insulation to light fixtures. Hiring an architect who is building her reputation on extreme attention to energy-saving details certainly made that easier.

Chris Benedict came to the East Village in 1978 to study at Cooper Union, and hasn’t left the neighborhood since. She has lived in 15 different apartments, “some of them really inefficient,” she notes. Her mantra, repeated several times in the course of talking about and walking through the sites, is “control, control, control.”

The story Benedict tells of inefficient buildings unfolds and compounds until the details are staggering. Start with the typical steam heating system, built around one boiler set at one temperature (designed to comfort the tenant who complains the loudest about the cold). The boiler burns excessive amounts of oil or gas, says Benedict, delivering scalding water and too much heat for most tenants, who then throw their windows open to get some fresh air. Cold, dry air rushes in, which not only wastes energy but also dries out tenants’ sinuses, making them more susceptible to sickness, according to Benedict.

Add to that ventilation problems (like a bathroom without a fan, where water condensation can cause potentially toxic mold to grow) and roof water drainage problems and come up with a building that hemorrhages heat and is a danger to its tenants’ health and safety.

Benedict and her partner and mechanical systems designer, Henry Gifford, have worked out the bugs in building housing that works more efficiently, using solutions that Benedict describes as holistic and elegant.

“I can guarantee 72 degrees in every apartment,” says Benedict; she and Gifford have perfected an apartment-by-apartment thermostat system that controls the amount of hot water running through the baseboards (and thus the room temperature) with a small wax capsule that expands and contracts.

Then Benedict controls the air flow through the apartments, making them airtight, leaving a vent open in the bedroom and small, quiet fans running in the bathroom and kitchen. The air moves slowly but constantly, helping keep a level temperature and humidity level. Benedict also swaps regular insulation positioned inside sheetrock or dry wall for a waterproof insulation layer just inside the brick exterior of the building, keeping the cement skeleton of the building itself dryer and less exposed to the elements.

Granted, it’s not the sexiest green technology out there, with less wow power than throwing around words like “solar panels” or “geothermal” at a cocktail party, says Benedict. “It’s not trendy,” she says. “There is no tour bus coming by saying, ‘Look at all that caulk.’ ”

But these system fixes are radical, especially because Benedict doesn’t take any “green” building incentive grants to support the projects, all completed for the same amount of money as Benedict would spend on a conventional project.

“There is no additional funding that goes into these projects — none. Never,” she says. “I believe the market transformation comes from people trying out how to do it for no additional money.” When the grants dry up, so will the incentive, fumes Benedict.

Housing like this can be called green, sustainable, high performance, energy efficient, healthy housing, or as Benedict says, “minimum stuff, maximum benefit.” But the almost obsessive attention Benedict and Gifford pay to details makes it small surprise that neither knows anyone else in the city who is doing the kind of work they do. “We’re voices in the darkness,” says Benedict.

And Spink, says Gifford, is a very different kind of building owner. “She’s the only owner I’ve ever met tough enough to stand up to a contractor at the critical moment,” says Gifford, who is also working on the E. Third St. buildings on Spink’s behalf, doing quality control. Unlike other building owners, Spink won’t accept what others might — doors that don’t close, or drains that don’t slope down.

“It’s very fair to say standards in the industry are very, very low,” says Gifford.

However, Spink and Benedict set the bar high, and neither has much use for traditional thinking about low-income housing.

Benedict is stymied by the way many people who hear about the kind of work she’s doing assume a connection between green building and affordable housing. There’s no reason why more, if not all, types of buildings can be energy efficient, in her opinion.

In fact, Benedict and Gifford see no reason why they can’t build the next Solaire — for less.