Part Two: Reflecting on 48 years in Affordable Housing: An Interview with Alan Bell

Norwood Terrace Apartments, Bronx
Norwood Terrace Apartments, Bronx

“For B&B Urban, expert routine and systematic maintenance is most important to ensure long-term efficient operations.”

If you missed the first part of our interview with Alan Bell, Principal of B&B Urban and a founding principal of The Hudson Companies, Inc., we recommend reading part one first.

Bright Power: What energy-related design techniques or technologies are you looking to explore as you think about future developments?

Alan: I am excited about efficient, economical battery storage. To me, batteries are the next frontier that will pair well with solar—making solar an even bigger no-brainer. Passive House could be a real opportunity as contractors become more familiar with constructability methods. I think if the city supports Passive House with more subsidies, it would help offset some of the higher first costs (I think these additional costs are woefully understated by government officials).

VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) systems are also on my radar. I’ve been watching VRF system costs come down over the past 10 years. Combined with more vendors, I think the VRF industry is heading in the right direction. VRFs are the future. They don’t puncture the envelope of the building like with PTACs (Packaged Terminal Air Conditioner) and air-conditioners which results in a much tighter envelope. One problem with VRFs is diagnosing where refrigerant lines rupture. But you don’t run into issues of busted pipes or damaged flooring that you incur with hot water baseboard systems or PTACs.

I’m also a committed IRMA (Inverted Roof Membrane Assembly) roof person. I think it’s better thermally, for the long-term, and easier to diagnose leaks because they are right at the deck below the insulation. That’s a big change we’ve made where we’ve seen positive results. It’s a great advance that’s happened to make buildings more sustainable and energy efficient.

Bright Power: What role do you think the New York City and New York State housing agencies should play in facilitating the development of highly efficient buildings? What do you think would have the biggest impact?

Alan: It would be helpful if the city and state agencies had more data on the value of Passive House. I think we need more tangible comparisons of energy costs from a non-Passive House with a Passive House to really quantify the results. Developing a database will create the track record passive house needs to become widely adapted and ensure that costs are properly underwritten into operating and maintenance budgets.

There’s a natural tendency for the city and the state to minimize the subsidy amount for each deal in order to finance as many units as possible each year. That means all of our deals are underwritten with a limited tolerance for mistake and error. With affordable and supportive housing, if anything goes wrong—a tenant lease-up doesn’t go well, rental subsidy payments are delayed, or you have some tenant non-payments—it hits your bottom line in a big way. We need a reliable database of operating costs to give the industry enough building data to be confident in energy savings. It’s a direction the city and state should encourage. Anything that helps to lower long-term operating costs, such as Passive House, would be great—along with being better for the city and the environment. That’s a triple win.

Bright Power: How do you measure success and what are the biggest lessons that you have learned?

Alan: Success is building high-quality, attractive housing that lasts long-term, has stable operating budgets, is energy efficient, includes solar, and has useful amenities—like a library. For example, with help from Reading is Fundamental, we build libraries in our buildings for children and young adults. Another lesson I’ve learned over the years is to ensure my new developments are contextual, fitting into the neighborhood where they are located. It’s important to have support from the neighbors and community boards. So making compromises to ensure that they are heard is key to integrating into a community successfully.

East 162nd Street Court, Bronx
East 162nd Street Court, Bronx

Walton House, Bronx
Walton House, Bronx

Bright Power: What do you think is the most important thing a developer can do to help ensure that a building will perform as expected after it has been handed over the property management and operations teams?

Alan: That is the $64,000 question, as they used to say. For B&B Urban, expert routine and systematic maintenance is most important to ensure long-term efficient operations. Property management is the key. You want to ensure that the building is set up to run effectively with operations and property management teams. I think nonprofits need more proactive property management firms or internal professionals with the necessary expertise to run their buildings and new efficient systems. Maybe SHNNY (The Supportive Housing Network of New York) could help non-profits improve their building management skills and help them hire people with the necessary expertise.

It takes a lot of hard work and there is always room for improvement when it comes to routine maintenance and operations. Everything that looks great on ribbon-cutting day doesn’t necessarily look the same 10 years later. We can always look to improve. For instance, the last few buildings we have developed have been joint ventures with L+M Development Partners since they have strong and skilled management operations. It’s hard to find that.

You are right to put your finger on this issue. Ongoing checks and systematic maintenance are critical for successful long-term operations. It’s an area that needs lots of attention.