Living lightly: Condos go ecofriendly

Douglas Johnson, courtesy of Ibis Builds
Solar roof: Photovoltaic film atop condo units in Sebastopol, Calif., should provide all electricity needs.

Q: I’ve followed the trends in “eco-homes” now for many years. Are there equally encouraging things happening in the world of condos?
Charlie Anderson, Seattle

A: Believe it or not, condominiums may be some of the most environmentally responsible housing out there today, especially since more and more developers are paying attention to sustainability.

By their very nature, many condo complexes adhere to some of the most basic tenets of green housing: density, to maximize surrounding open space and minimize buildings’ physical and operational footprints; proximity to mass transit, given their typical location in urban areas; and reduced resource use per unit, thanks to shared systems, walls, and common spaces.

Builders can elect to layer on other green elements, such as high-efficiency appliances and HVAC systems, green roofs, and organic landscaping.

“Projects are embracing green [to] be more responsive to what the buying public is looking for,” says Gail Vittori, chairwoman of the US Green Building Council, which produced and manages the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. “They also want to have the built environment become much more in line with environmental and health considerations,” she says.

One example is Florence Lofts, a new development of 12 townhouses and a 4,200 square foot commercial building in Sebastopol, Calif. The LEED-certified project features roofs covered with a photovoltaic film that’s expected to produce most of the electricity needs. A commercial-scale “gray water” system diverts sink and shower water for irrigation purposes, and a tank collects storm water from roofs to prevent excessive runoff.

Another example is The Riverhouse overlooking the Hudson River in New York City’s Battery Park district. The LEED-certified, 320-unit building – the new home of actor/environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio – has geothermal heating and cooling, twice-filtered air, nontoxic paint, and landscaped roof gardens.

Developers need not break the bank to go green on condo and apartment projects. Two-thirds of the units in Harlem’s much-publicized 1400

Fifth Avenue building – touted as New York’s first green condominium – are considered affordable, priced at $50,000 to $104,000 and restricted to families of moderate income.

Also in the New York metropolitan area, Habitat for Humanity recently announced it has assembled a green design team to build “real affordable condos” in New Rochelle and other parts of Westchester County.

“If you’re doing a moderately green building, the premium to build is typically in the 1.5 to 2 percent range. It’s very small,” says Leanne Tobias of Malachite LLC, a Maryland-based green real estate consulting firm. Additionally, the carrying costs for green units are lower, since such buildings operate on less energy and water and generate less waste than conventional high-rises.

“All of those will be savings every month for the homeowners or residents of those buildings,” Ms. Vittori adds. “That’s a big plus.”

Got an environmental question? Write: Earth­­Talk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or e-mail:

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