Green Housing For the Rest of Us
Real estate developers at Full Spectrum NY had been told that sustainably designed buildings are only for the rich. The company's response? The Kalahari, a green high-rise with all the latest features but a reasonable price tag.
By Nitasha Tiku | Nov 1, 2007
Not so precious
The Kalahari, located on 116th Street in New York's Harlem neighborhood, has almost all of the accouterments of luxury green buildings--solar panels, vegetated green rooftops, wind-powered electricity, low-flow water fixtures, energy-efficient appliances, and bamboo floors. But nearly half of the 249 condos at the Kalahari are set aside for families earning as little as $56,000 a year--something unheard of in the usually precious world of green architecture.
The Kalahari is named for the southern African desert. The building's unusual façade is inspired by designs from the region's Ndebele tribes.
Another kind of green
In 1996, Full Spectrum set out to build its first green housing complex in Harlem, called 1400 on Fifth. But officials at New York's Housing and Preservation Department, which had to sign off on the project, were skeptical. "We wanted at least some evidence it was going to be cost-effective," says the department's commissioner, Shaun Donovan. Full Spectrum spent $700,000 gathering research to make the case that green housing was a sound investment. It eventually raised $40 million from a hodge-podge of investors. When 1400 on Fifth finally opened its doors in 2004, it had cost just $135 per square foot, roughly what it costs to build a standard affordable housing complex.
Clean Air Act
Before breaking ground on the Kalahari in 2005, Full Spectrum held a series of focus groups with Harlem residents and potential buyers from throughout the region. "Everyone in each of our groups had family members with asthma," says co-founder Carlton Brown. In fact, a 2003 study by Harlem Hospital Center found that 25 percent of children in central Harlem suffer from the condition, compared with less than 10 percent nationally. That inspired Full Spectrum to install high-efficiency MERV 13 air filters, which remove the particulate matter that aggravates asthma.
On green rooftops, plants, grasses, and mosses are used to help insulate the building and filter pollutants out of air and rainwater. They also look pretty. But in New York City they're even more vital. That's because the city's antiquated sewer system is not equipped to handle storm water runoff during heavy rainstorms, which results in untreated sewage getting dumped in the East River. The unplanted parts of the rooftops use an inexpensive coating that deflects sunlight, thereby cutting down on energy costs.
In many residential developments, insulation is installed next to the exterior walls rather than the interior ones. The problem: Condensation in the walls, which leads to mold and mildew, another contributor to asthma. With the Kalahari, Full Spectrum placed the insulation next to interior walls instead, keeping the condensation on the outside of the building--something few builders of affordable housing opt to do.
Friends of Brad
By 2006, Full Spectrum boasted revenue of $20 million. It has developments under way in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, and is talking with community groups in Biloxi, Mississippi, that are hoping to take advantage of the $1.2 billion in tax credits available to build green commercial and retail space in the struggling gulf region, where Carlton Brown was raised. All the activity has dropped a little stardust on the developers. Brown was featured on the Sundance Channel's Big Ideas for a Small Planet in April, and Full Spectrum recently signed on as a consultant for the Holy Cross Project, a large residential development in New Orleans's Ninth Ward. The project is being funded in part by actor Brad Pitt via his involvement in the nonprofit Global Green.