On July 25, Urban Green Council hosted Keeping it Green: Operating Affordable Housing. The three Salon panelists spoke about the green affordable housing buildings they work in and the challenges of operating and maintaining them.
Davidson Headley (Building Director, Common Ground Community) and Ely Sepulveda (Maintenance Supervisor, Common Ground Community) discussed two of Common Ground’s LEED Silver supportive housing residences: The Hegeman, a 161- unit building in Brownsville and The Brook, a 190-unit building in the South Bronx. Both buildings use an electronic Building Management System (BMS), and each tenant has a swipe card to activate the electricity and air conditioning in their apartment, which automatically switches off when they leave.
David and Ely shared some of the operational challenges they faced. The Brook was built with dual flush toilets, so the flush handle could be pulled up to use less water, and down to use more water. However, as most of the tenants were accustomed to pushing the flush handle down all the time, minimal water savings were made despite efforts to educate tenants on the new system. In addition, the internal mechanisms of the dual flush toilets were fragile and up to 20 replacement parts would need to be ordered every few months. For newer construction projects, the dual flush toilets were replaced with single flush ultra-low-flow toilets, saving the same amount of water with less maintenance and user training required.
Tenants would also try to circumvent the BMS. For example, if they wanted to leave the air conditioning on while they are out, they would swipe out and quickly swipe back in. This required modifications to be made to the BMS to work like an unlimited Metrocard – after a successful swipe out, tenants could swipe back in and enter the building, but the power wouldn’t turn back on for a few minutes without intervention from building staff. Ely also commented that many of the green products used at the Brook are often difficult to source, and when replacements are needed urgently, a standard product is sometimes substituted instead.
Max Ruperti (Senior Property Manager, Phipps House Services Inc.) spoke about Via Verde, a new LEED Gold co-op and supportive housing facility in the South Bronx.
The operational challenges at Via Verde mainly relate to building design issues. Via Verde has a combined ventilation system, and the bathroom exhaust fan only operates when the bathroom light is on. If a tenant is smoking in their apartment and the exhaust fan is off, smoke will enter the combined ventilation system and other apartments. Since the building was tightly sealed to prevent air infiltration, as new construction should be, building staff discovered that it was essential to keep ventilation fans running in order to prevent condensation on the windows during certain seasons. There has also been flooding of the outdoor elevators and problems with the heating system. Max’s opinion is that often the architects and the design team are focused on obtaining LEED certification and do not always consider operational or maintenance issues at the design phase, and that the rental income achieved from supportive housing does not always cover the costs of operating and maintaining elaborate green design features.
The key message from the panel was that there must be a clear dialogue between the design team and the operations team in the design phase. This will prevent unnecessary expenses being incurred by the operations team later down the track, who must manage a tight budget and a larger number of tenants per square foot than most residential buildings. Tenant education on the green features of a building is essential, as tenants are more likely to maintain their apartment and amenities if the building management also takes it seriously. This also helps create a sense of community amongst the tenants, which is the key to providing effective supportive housing.