The Bronx is quickly becoming New York’s favorite borough for new multifamily affordable housing developments. Bright Power sat down with Aaron Koffman from The Hudson Companies to dig deeper into why.
(Bright Power) How did Hudson Companies come to develop affordable housing projects in the Bronx after much of the firm’s historic affordable housing development activity had been in Brooklyn?
(Aaron) Hudson’s been around for 31 years now. Early on, we did work with Housing Partnership to build home ownership units in various places all over the city. Hudson built a lot of two story walk-ups, low-rises, side-by-side kind of developments that were 80-100 units, in the Bronx, Brownsville and even in Fort Greene. It was a great way to bring stability to the communities, since in many cases the land was vacant or underutilized. Then Hudson took its focus toward market-rate housing in the late 1990’s and 2000’s. We did a lot of deals in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
I came on board in 2008 and ever since we’ve focused more heavily on affordable housing. Personally, I really wanted to get us back in the Bronx. The Bronxchester RFP was announced in 2013, and we loved the site. It was mostly vacant, in a great neighborhood next to the subway and all the shopping. And so we went after it, and formed the team for La Central. Thankfully we won and have been going to the Bronx ever since.
Where we can do great work in the Bronx, we would love to do it. Of course, theBronx has become very hot so now there are areas of the Bronx that are not affordable for affordable housing, which is a problem. So we’ve known about it, and then should’ve done more, didn’t do enough, and now we’re back doing a lot.
La Central, 430 Westchester Avenue, Bronx, NY
(Bright Power) How does developing affordable housing in the Bronx differ from other areas of New York City?
(Aaron) From an economic perspective, the difference is very minor, if at all, between affordable housing in the Bronx and affordable housing in Brooklyn. Taking the economics out, there are more cases where the Bronx has better train access. We were focusing on Brooklyn so the Bronx feels new to Hudson – even if some of our fellow developers have been doing great work in the Bronx for years.
I like that it’s new to us. We keep trying to do more deals in Queens, but for one reason or another it hasn’t worked out, and so the Bronx is still sexy. Though, we love all of our boroughs equally, I love the community groups, elected officials, the incredible amount of pride, and the people and their stories in the Bronx.
(Bright Power) What role does the Mayor’s housing plan play in the increased attention on affordable housing development in the Bronx?
(Aaron) I think it’s always important when government makes a statement that they want to invest in communities. There’s an energy there that trickles down to the agencies and staff level where clearly, when the Mayor does make it a priority, the City does its best to execute that priority. For that reason, it’s great that Mayor de Blasio has made it more of a priority to put more investment into the Bronx and so has the Borough President, Ruben Diaz Jr.
The Borough President tells a great story about how his son just graduated from college, and he and his friends moved to upper Manhattan but he wants him to move back to the Bronx. He wants his Bronx kid back in the Bronx, working as an engineer and living in the Bronx, and his son wants to be there. So the Borough President is really championing investment in the Bronx, and the Mayor is too. And so everything kind of follows suit with that energy, that’s a lot of tailwind for us.
I do think the City showed their cards a little early regarding the Jerome Avenue rezoning and brought some speculators into the market that drove land cost up considerably. Not trying to criticize the administration, but that seems to be what happened. Now you have market-rate developers like Chetrit who does great work but, in the South Bronx? You know what I mean: all of a sudden, where you wouldn’t have seen a market-rate developer, there they are.
(Bright Power) Congratulations on your success on winning the Spofford RFP! What do you think differentiated your proposal for the local officials, community and the City to choose your team?
(Aaron) Obviously I can’t speak as to how we were selected, but we crafted a team for The Peninsula that was first and foremost of the Bronx. We have incredible community partners, including Urban Health Plan – one of the largest employers in the South Bronx – and The Point CDC. And I think the great retailers, in part, joined our team because of our community partners, including Spring Bank, which already has a few branches in the Bronx, and a supermarket. We can activate it at night, because Hunts Point Brewery and Bascom Catering will be there and we can cater events in our open area. We want to try to bring more people in; it’s about inclusivity.
On the development side, I love our team. Our non-profit partner, MHANY, owns many properties across the street on Spofford so they know the neighborhood and certainly have expertise in affordable housing. Hudson brings even more expertise in affordable housing and ULURPs. Gilbane has an incredible depth – they’ve been around for 130 years as a construction company and are trying to expand their New York development. And I will give a shout out to the architects BLA and WXY – they did a beautiful job designing the project. We’ve all been there before, even on the non-profit side. And when you put it all together, that’s what made us so attractive.
(Bright Power) Do you think that implementing sustainable design strategies was a big differentiator?
(Aaron) I do, it’s about sustainability, there’s no question, and it’s also about resiliency. I don’t know if Hurricane Sandy resonates in the Bronx as much as it does in Brooklyn or the Rockaways, but resiliency plays a role.
We’re in a different world where people are more cognizant of their utility use. People understand that power is polluting. Community leaders want to see that their neighborhood has the most sustainable and resilient development in the area. I’ve heard many elected officials boast about the green elements of these projects. And it is meaningful to people. I have talked to tenants of ours on other projects; they’re happy to brag about this.
At Hudson, it’s not just about us saying that we’re about the sustainable stuff, it’s that we’ve actually done it before. We know solar, passive house, cogen, and yet we still want to do one better. Also, we’re sustainable in a smart way – affordable housing depends on finite resources and we must weigh cost premiums to make sure we are doing it in an intelligent fashion.
(Bright Power) Hudson Companies was one of the first affordable housing developers to commit to implementing solar energy on their affordable housing projects. How has your view of solar energy changed over the years?
(Aaron) We’ve gone from solar being an interesting idea to solar being a no-brainer. We’ve done some great work with Bright Power in the solar and sustainability department, and the economics have only supported more investment in solar. It saves the development money, which makes the project more sustainable and allows us to put more investment back into the development.
I wish at Dumont Green we’d done a bigger solar project. Still, we’re putting in-ground and tree lighting to enhance security at night, which could happen, in part, because we’re taking electricity savings and putting it back into the building.
We see solar success every day at Gateway. I hear from a lot of Gateway tenants how proud they are when they drive down Flatlands Avenue and they see all the solar arrays up on Elton Street and they know that they live there. They are very proud that it feels state of the art. To reach 1 million watts of solar power generated at Gateway was a proud moment for our team.
We were drinking so much Kool-Aid on the solar at Gateway, which The Related Companies was a partner on, that Related has just now installed their own solar array on the Related Gateway mall. A big company like Related is always looking at the bottom line, so for them to buy in on the retail side is quite the testimony for solar.
Gateway Elton Street, Solar PV System
(Bright Power) Have you noticed tangible benefits or received feedback from residents about sustainable design elements of your buildings?
(Aaron) La Central is going to be the first affordable job where we’re doing VRF (variable refrigerant flow) HVAC systems. I’m really excited to move those tenants in, even though it will not be complete until 2020, and have them find out that the air conditioner is remote controlled, it’s already installed, and their windows are as big as possible – you get all the light!
I like to ask our tenants, “You know that new apartment smell, that smell of a freshly painted apartment?” And of course they immediately say yes. Then I tell them, “Yeah, unfortunately that smell is actually bad for you. That’s off-gassing.” When they walk into our apartments, they don’t smell anything. Then, it immediately hits them – oh, these guys are doing it better. Whether it’s no VOC paint, no vinyl, or putting dishwashers in the apartments (major water savers), I see that tenants are happy to be in our developments because we’ve taken steps that give tenants respect. That speaks volumes to how Hudson does business.
(Bright Power) Many of your development projects, including La Central and Spofford, are joint ventures with non-profit housing providers. What do you look for when selecting your development partner/s on a project? Can you describe the benefits they bring to your developments?
(Aaron) Non-profit partners are essential to every affordable job that we’ve done. What do we look for? We want a real partner. We are not an 800 lb. gorilla for-profit developer. We want collaboration. We want feedback and criticism. The non-profits in NYC are incredibly sophisticated, and we want their knowledge to help inform our projects. We look for that feeling of collaboration, competency in a particular field of social service depending on the building program, or general knowledge of services/neighborhood – if we can find all three, the better.
About Aaron Koffman: As Principal, Aaron heads Hudson’s affordable housing pipeline and portfolio totaling over 3,600 units and ~$2 billion in costs. At 797 kW and spanning nine buildings, the Gateway Elton solar project is collectively the largest solar installation on an affordable housing development in New York State. Aaron is the project lead on several large affordable housing/mixed-use new construction developments in the city, including: the 992-unit La Central development in the South Bronx, the 740-unit Spofford Detention Center Redevelopment in Hunts Point, the 659-unit Gateway Elton development in East New York, and a 56-building affordable preservation portfolio in several Brooklyn neighborhoods including Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.
Prior to joining Hudson, Aaron was a Project Manager with Forest City Ratner Companies, focusing on the 6,400-unit Atlantic Yards (now Pacific Park) residential development. In addition to serving on the Boards of the NYU Furman Center, Coro New York and the Center for Urban Pedagogy), Aaron is an Adjunct Professor of Affordable Housing Finance at NYU. Aaron received a Masters of City Planning degree from MIT and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from UC Berkeley.
Andy McNamara, VP West Coast Operations at Bright Power (left) with Aaron Koffman, Principal at Hudson Companies (right) at Gateway Elton’s solar PV system unveiling.
In the US, buildings account for about 40% of the primary energy use. Now, a lot is being done to cut that number down and companies like ours exist to do just that. Sustainable building practices are on the rise with recently developed standards like LEED, Enterprise Green Communities, and Passive House. Cities are mandating stricter energy usage reporting to collect better data that they can then use to inform green policy and legislation. So I’d say we’re headed in the right direction but there’s one thing that always sticks out in my mind when thinking about efficiency in the long term, the one variable that is arguably the most important and the most difficult to control: people.
In any kind of building, though particularly in multifamily properties, the people using the building ultimately decide whether or not it’s going to be efficient. New equipment and cutting edge technology are only going to get you so far if the people inside the building don’t adopt them. As simple as that may sound, we’ve often found it to be a barrier to long-term savings and performance. In some ways it makes sense since energy efficient behavior can be in direct conflict with comfort and productivity. Letting the AC blast for hours on a sweltering summer day just feels right sometimes. But as studies have shown, this part of the energy efficiency equation is crucial to its successful results. Let’s take a look at some of the behavioral studies that explore this topic.
The US Department of Energy conducted a study in 2014 to assess the behavior of federal employees, operations and maintenance staff, and visiting public in federal buildings and their impact on building energy performance. The study employed strategies from peer-reviewed literature that are shown to drive behavioral change and aligned them with specific sustainability goals. Key strategies used to promote behavioral changes included education regarding emerging technologies, offering rewards, and securing commitments. The study concluded that the groups’ behavior significantly impacted the results of proposed energy efficiency initiatives. These results were not surprising to me, nor would I expect them to be surprising to anyone, but the fact of the matter remains that the behavioral component of energy efficiency initiatives, while crucial, is the most difficult to control and often most easily overlooked.
Behavioral Cooperation in Action
So what happens when you get everyone who works or lives in a given building on board with energy efficiency? According to a study published by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2013, occupants contribute to 30% of a building’s energy consumption. These findings inspired Allegheny County’s Sustainability Office team to collaborate with an energy management services provider, to implement a program to improve employee behavior towards energy efficiency within the organization. The county’s participant group consisted of 6,000 employees, making it a significant opportunity to observe energy conservation as affected by behavioral change. The program was based on four key steps:
- understanding individuals’ behavior and establishing a baseline
- raising awareness and communicating the impact of energy conservation
- creating a sustainable behavioral program
- revisiting existing programs and improving upon their practices.
This effort proved to be a huge success at the organization. In just a few months, the county saw significant improvements in three key behaviors: turning off lights, turning off computers when not in use, and switching to a community printer, which in turn led to measurable energy savings. See Figure 1 below for more detailed findings.
In Allegheny County, energy consumption went down thanks to a concerted effort to change attitudes and behaviors, but I wondered whether or not we were starting with a low bar since the US is known for being a global energy hog. Would the same be true in other, more energy savvy parts of the world?
Several similar studies have also been conducted in countries where the general awareness of and responsibility towards energy efficiency is observed to be higher than the global average.
The 2013 paper by the European Environment Agency that analyzed the behavioral impact on consumption patterns also published findings on the impact of behavior on energy efficiency. It showcases that an interface between policymaking and human behavior is key to achieving sustained reductions in energy consumption. As noted in the paper, for several energy efficiency measures implemented in Europe, the success has depended crucially on individuals to understand the information they receive and to act upon it. One of the prime examples highlighted in the study combines direct and indirect feedback methods such as deploying smart meters, installing in unit energy consumption displays, providing detailed bill analysis and historic consumption comparisons. These strategies have been most successful in changing individual behavior to achieve energy savings. And it makes perfect sense.
You can install the most efficient, cutting edge technology on the market but if you don’t get your people to adopt it, it’s just not going to be effective. Take faucet aerators, for example. These innocuous fixtures are tremendous energy savers, but all someone has to do to impede on those savings is unscrew it from their faucet. Explain to the resident how they work and allow them to be a part of the selection process and you’ll see your long-term savings.
These are just few examples in the long list of studies and observations that highlight the importance of individual behavior in this context. It would not be farfetched to say that the success of emerging technologies and improved practices hinges on its users as much as the product’s viability and cost implications.
By no means can behavior alone achieve our goal of operating a more efficient building, providing a more comfortable residence, or living in a more energy efficient world, but it is crucial to our success in any one of those endeavors.
Wolfe, A.K., Malone, E.L., Heerwagen, J., & Dion, J. 2014. Behavioral Change and Building Performance: Strategies for Significant, Persistent, and Measurable Institutional Change. Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA.
Zachery Ambrose, Ashley Jones, Sally Russell 2014. Energy Saving Behavior Change for the 21st Century. ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.
Rachel Young, Sara Hayes, Meegan Kelly, Shruti Vaidyanathan, Sameer Kwatra, Rachel Cluett, and Garrett Herndon 2014. International Energy Efficiency Scorecard. American Council for Energy Efficiency and Economy.
Our Top Picks for Energy Cinderella Stories
Every year there’s one small team that slowly but surely rises in ranks, winning upset after upset, while facing off against the biggest names in basketball. The same can be said for certain energy conservation measures which are often overlooked in favor of flashy, high-tech projects. But sometimes, it’s the smallest changes that make the biggest impact. Let’s take a look at our top five picks.
These simple devices are so easy to buy and install we’re not sure why they’re not on every faucet. By restricting the flow of water that comes out of your faucet, aerator implementation is a simple and cost-effective water conservation measure that can also result in major cost savings, especially across a portfolio. (Note: Low flow doesn’t mean crappy – we sometimes refer to the aerators we recommend as “engineered flow”, because they don’t get you any less clean, they just use less water.)
Where to start? Caulk has many useful applications. You probably think about caulking around the tub and countertops as preventing leaks into the floor below, but it also prevents mold and preserves indoor air quality. Caulking around your windows, doors and A/C sleeves keeps indoor air in and outdoor air out. So if you’re feeling the chill on a cold winter night, or when you receive your heating bill, feel around for air infiltration and try a fresh bead of caulk to keep you cozy and warm.
Energy efficient lighting has got to be one of the easiest upgrades out there with the most bang for its buck. The cost of the bulbs themselves are quickly recovered in short payback periods and improved quality of life. That’s right, efficient lighting also means comfortable lighting. Gone are the days of flickery twisty CFL bulbs – get yourself some of the new LEDs and enjoy beautiful light, much longer bulb life (10x fewer bulb changes) and much less unwanted heat, leading to a balanced indoor environment and budget.
If you’ve ever accidentally backed into an uninsulated pipe, you’ll surely understand the value of pipe insulation. Pipes get hot, really hot, and that’s exactly what they’re made to do. What they’re not made to do is retain that heat. This is where pipe insulation comes in. Attaching insulation around every heat and hot water pipe is not only an important safety measure, it also significantly cuts down heat loss, meaning you’ll have lower heat and hot water bills.
Control Your Controls
Sometimes the biggest savings are right under your nose. Many building owners implement building controls of some form. But more often than not, once the controls system is in place, it’s left to operate on its own without much oversight. Checking in on your controls is the best place to start when something isn’t working, but it’s an even better practice to check in when everything seems to be working fine. You never know what you might see. After all, a proactive approach to energy management is the real Cinderella story every year.
Passive House, or PassivHaus as you may have seen it written, is an innovative new approach to energy efficient design and construction practices. We’re excited to see it popping up across the United States more and more. There are plenty of well-covered examples of these projects – their potential impact on residential energy conservation efforts is unmatched. But what are people really talking about when they say Passive House? And more importantly, should you be considering it for your next development?
What is Passive House?
Passive House is a recently-developed German building standard that takes energy efficiency to the next level.* Buildings that are designed to this standard are called “Passive Houses,” but they aren’t just single family homes. Passive Houses can include multifamily and commercial developments, too.
Passive Houses require less energy to heat and cool, and are up to 90% more efficient than the existing building stock. Insulation and superior air sealing are the primary focus of Passive House design. The goal is to design an extremely air-tight building envelope, limiting outside air coming into the building. This allows for the ventilation to be managed mechanically, which dramatically improves indoor air quality without consuming unnecessary energy.
What are the benefits?
Passive Houses are built to exceptional standards, and the benefits follow suit. The fine-tuned control over indoor air quality and temperature make Passive Houses extremely comfortable for residents throughout changing seasons and across climates. An added perk of the focus on insulation is that they are also much more sound-proof than traditional buildings – something our friends in NYC and other bustling cities across the country certainly covet.
Additionally, Passive House is a smart financial investment. Because the buildings are so well insulated, their heating and cooling systems can be dramatically smaller, which helps offset some of the costs of higher quality envelope. The highly efficient design reduces energy usage and operating costs dramatically, making up any additional construction cost within a few years.
And, of course, these buildings are good for the environment.
How do I know if it makes sense for me?
While existing buildings can be retrofitted to these standards, Passive House is most common for newly constructed single family homes, multifamily buildings, and commercial real estate developments. If you have an upcoming construction project, Passive House is an excellent option to explore if you want to maximize comfort and minimize utility costs. The key is to incorporate it into the design process as early as possible for an easier transition to high-performance design.