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Construction has begun on a zero-energy building in Portland, Oregon, that will include 18 apartments and ground-floor retail space for offices, a restaurant or shops. Called Eco Flats, it is scheduled to be completed in March 2011. Solar panels will generate some energy on site, and there is no common entrance or central hallway, which cuts heating and cooling costs, and reduces materials used. "It's really a low-energy model," developer Jean-Pierre Veillet says. "We're trying to take basic technology and make a low-energy-consuming building." "The whole Williams corridor is incredible. It's the right demographic. It's one of the biggest bike-commuting (areas of Portland). The fact that they're riding their bikes to work makes me think they want to live in a low-energy environment. And it's still relatively affordable …." In fact, EcoFlats has no on-site vehicle parking except for bicycles.
by Kimberly Madrigal
There is no lack of imagination in the sustainable development community in Portland, Oregon, but when Doug Shapiro and Jean-Pierre Veillet teamed up, a new type of ‘everyman housing’ was the result. In about a year the partners expect to have built a commercial mixed use development that includes a net-zero apartment building they can market to those who desire to reduce their personal carbon footprint.
Net-zero is used to describe the result in which a building’s energy use is equal to the amount that is produced on site from renewable resources like solar or wind. Because the technology exists to create this perfect balance, many governments are aggressively making plans to impose net zero requirements within a generation. Investors are following this trend and, based on projects like this one, many will decide to invest in buildings with net-zero energy technology. And that is exactly the point. The ecoFLATS partners insist a driving force behind their motivation to build this development has always been the concept that it would provide both educational benefits and a prototype that would support similar projects.
If ecoFLATS becomes a solid comparable that will satisfy lenders, that is another large bonus for the community. Historically, when innovation in design meets the commercial lending world, it can get ugly. A lack of comparable properties to hand off to the lender’s appraiser can regrettably cripple a cutting-edge building design. The U.S. Green Building Council and its affiliates are vigorously attempting to address this problem through education and certification, but cracking the appraisal barrier will take more than a rigorous effort. Reforms in the financial system are needed to establish credible standards to address value in sustainable design and require everyone – lenders, appraisers, engineers, designers, builders – to come to the table. In the interim, until these types of projects demonstrate they perform, the public demands these features or government takes the lead and requires achievable energy performance standards, building pioneers will continue to contend with the lending industry’s knuckle-dragging.
So what in its design makes ecoFLATS so unique? On the surface the development seems to be a standard mixed-use project combining residential units on 3 upper levels with retail, commercial and a restaurant proposed for the ground floor. The 18 residential apartments are a mix of one and two-bedroom designs with a third of the units fully-ADA compliant. The building is neither in the luxury class nor in the government-subsidized affordable housing category, but anyone who has been to North Williams Avenue recently will tell you what it does have. The ‘coolness’ factor is written all over that neighborhood like an emerging field of daffodils in late February.
The proposed apartments range between 600 and 750 sq. ft. and utilize natural lighting and cross-ventilation to great advantage. The oh-my-gosh factor is that the complex has no vehicle parking but substitutes bike parking with the appropriate bicycle racks, storage and safety features. As this property sits on the Williams/Vancouver corridor, it has frequent bus service and is already a favored bicycle-commuter route. The residential units will also be completely off the general energy grid with the exception of what the building department may require for signing off on permits. To meet stated energy management goals, the self-supporting building will also depend upon and utilize the ‘pride of tenancy’ engagement the partners expect to generate. My inside thought was, wow, you are giving us an awful lot of credit, but as I love a passionate optimist as much as the next person, I asked the partners how they intended to organize this tenant cooperation.
Veillet: Our ability to afford what we have designed is still in question. The way our concept works is to think of the tenant population as a community. We feel if we place a monitor in the main entrance and circulation space that displays ‘energy consumed versus energy created’, we can establish goals the community will work together to achieve. We expect a reward for the tenants may be a drink in the Bar up the street or? We feel giving people a little more incentive to think about shutting off the lights or being more thoughtful with energy consumption will go a long way. We have been assured by Imagine Energy (IE) that this is very achievable with technologies they have already implemented.
Shapiro: Part of Net Zero is to maintain constant monitoring initiatives and justify any assumptions. It will remain critical that the tenants engage and participate for the building to meet its objectives, but we envision we’ll attract the kind of tenants who will want to do this. These units are designed to be modest and efficient, to capture the attention of bike commuters, university students and transit users who desire a ‘live small’ lifestyle.
Veillet: The idea here is to create the next 100 year model for market rate apartments. Energy consumption in buildings needs to be addressed now, and the technology is here. We have to do this because we know that buildings consume more energy then anything else we come in contact with. We know it is in people to try and make a difference - they feverishly recycle their paper scraps – and knowing this we need to move those efforts into areas that have a greater impact. Our technologies for this building are not so high tech and can be constructed with standard construction procedures at standard construction costs. This is why it is a model for the next 100 years, because it is achievable by many, not just a few. That is the success of the design in its totality. It is balanced for the result we feel the environment and the people need.
Their promotional material describes the project as, “Striving for a Net Zero operation, ecoFLATS embodies the ethics of beauty, sustainability and contemporary design. The project is working with Energy Trust of Oregon on a high-performance design in pursuit of a Net Zero Standard.” Self-generation of energy will be accomplished through the use of a roof top trellis containing a 3000 sq.ft. elevated solar panel installation which would provide energy and hot water for the building tenants. (ecoFLATS has been accepted into the Net Zero Pilot program and will be eligible to pursue a LEED rating, considered a green building coup.)
Whenever architects and builders design something that significantly changes the way we look at inner-city development and talk about the life cycle benefits improving net operating income (NOI), we should pay attention. The multiple synergies in the ecoFLATS design combine the use of volume and light to create desirable and inviting living spaces without excessive energy usage. Some of the construction and maintenance cost benefit will be realized through elimination of internal corridors - apartments are accessible from an exterior loggia – - and cross ventilation that replaces the need for air conditioning. Eliminating some of these features made it economically feasible to widen the units and provide 9′ ceilings, increasing their livability and appeal. Although an elevator will be installed, the design includes troughs on the sides of the stairways which allow bicycles to be easily ‘rolled’ up and down. That calming visual brought me back to my youth, my over-sized silver bike and that walk-up I lived in for six years. As the concern for those who cannot maneuver stairs has been addressed , we can rejoice in the assumption that the bicycle community – which embraces healthier living and better phyical fitness – will probably enjoy those stairs.
Both partners have developed sparkling individual resumes as driven sustainability activists. In addition to the ecoFLATS joint venture, Shapiro is the Managing VP of Construction with Hoyt Street Properties and also in pursuit of the first USGBC LEED Platinum neighborhood designation in the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon. Jean-Pierre Veillet is the driving force behind Siteworks, a design-build firm locally renowned for combining good design, quality craftsmanship and aesthetically pleasing sustainability features, all incorporated within very sound construction. His company will be the builder, giving the partners complete control over the building envelope. Although it is now rolling along, this first joint venture has required their complete devotion.
Estee Segal, (Portland Development Commission’s Senior Project Manager) described by the partners as one of many key supporters, gave us her perspective along with a link to the PDC’s loan program parameters.
Segal: The property on Williams was an under-utilized, blighted and contaminated site, but right on a commuter’s corridor. The projects’ anticipated rents were market for the neighborhood or even a little below. The building design had four stories, which used the site well, and the plans included bicycle, but not vehicle parking, which met our sustainability goals of reducing CO2 and vehicle usage. There was also a Phase II planned which we liked. The sustainability elements were all in there; it met our criteria and more.
I asked her if she had been concerned that ecoFLATS might be too cutting edge.
Segal: Actually, the project fits the neighborhood and can successfully build on The Hub, another exciting commercial venture developed by John Kellogg. United Bicycle Institute has moved there – they teach about bike building - and then there’s the Queen Bee that makes products out of recycled materials and with all the other businesses, this is just a good mix. We think the area may be poised as the next Portland neighborhood to go through its own Renaissance, but it already has a unique identity linked to bicycling.
But in fact in spite of the support of the Portland Development Commission, the Energy Trust of Oregon, the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland State, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Mayor Sam Adams and most importantly, the Williams Avenue neighborhood, the partners’ timing could not have been worse. In March of 2009 Shapiro and Veillet gathered their passion, their designs and their financials and began to make the rounds for financing. Shapiro described the ten months they spent working on this as a ‘rollercoaster ride’, and Veillet agreed.
Editor: So you two approached this unique design project when even conventional financing was impossible to get. I would imagine you had to stick your necks out pretty far personally to get halfway there.
Shapiro and Veillet admitted they had been ready to stick their necks out but were surprised with how far out they would eventually go.
Veillet: Yes, our necks are out there, but people have risked a lot more for a lot less. For instance, all the people risking their lives over in Iraq and Afghanistan… all we have are material things on the line. And we are fortunate that our families have given us their complete support. They believe in this project and in us and we are working hard to ensure ecoFLATS gets built.
“This project seemed to have nine lives,” Shapiro added. ”It would die and then it would be resurrected and we’d start up all over again.”
The financial markets for most of 2009 were in shambles and until late in the year, no commercial lender was willing to take on a mixed-use development so futuristic and daring it lacked commercial vehicle parking or common amenities like air conditioning. Imagining that tenants would be pro-active in reducing and monitoring energy usage was also a concept so alien, the future sustainability aspects were given no value by appraisers. Eventually the developer concessions included adding an elevator to serve the upper floors - this satisfied the ADA requirements – and accommodations to lower the number of apartments to 18 from the original 21 to accommodate changes in design. The final element of financing was completed on December 23, 2009. Now the partners are busy preparing the site for development and attempting to recycle and salvage whatever is possible from the demolition of the previous structure.
Certainly these partners have invested a year of their time to bring something unique to Portland, but I wanted to know one thing.
Editor: Why didn’t you give up when the going got rough? Why did you want to do it?
Shapiro: We both felt passionately that we wanted to demonstrate that sustainable building could be constructed for about the same price as conventional construction. During the Cascadia Conference what I talked about was that promoting sustainability is about education. How else do we connect the dots without it?
Veillet: Our experience in this industry allows us the opportunity to create that educational opportunity and remain innovative. Developing these projects right now is more about creating models and prototypes that all end up part of the educational process that can be utilized by all developers with an interest to do the right thing. If these building practices are not being completely honed by us, the already convoluted process of development will remain too complicated to add green.
Shapiro: Our main hurdle was that our innovative sustainable design was not valued, and the only comparables the appraisers came up with were built in 1928. There just was nothing like this already standing, which was the point. Obviously it was possible to find a building that might have met the square footage criteria or the natural ventilation aspects, but these were not in any way comparable to what we were doing. Ultimately we made some adjustments on the small things, but we didn’t alter our main design. Once this development is completed, it will be easier for the next comparable project.
Editor: Other than the financing aspect, what kind of neighborhood resistance did you encounter?
Shapiro: When we designed the project we wanted to ensure that it would socially interact well with the existing neighborhood. Other projects had upset people in the community and many of them were gun shy about us at first. Our project had a lot of benefits like not being built to the full height allowed, so it won’t be an eyesore to the current residents and should fit in better. We tried to look at the commercial needs too. We talked to non-profits in the area and we asked what people needed and wanted.
Veillet: We felt that adding a restaurant was positive and an urban farm would be educational. Kids in the neighborhood will be included in something special in their neighborhood. An innovative place to work, witness and be aware of. We wanted to have something that would engage them and include rather than take advantage of and impose. Most of the neighborhood saw development as the ‘death star’ coming in and taking over. We didn’t want to do that. We are with Yoda and Skywalker on this one.
When I think about people ahead of their time, names like Madame Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, and Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs come to mind, but in the Portland sustainability movement, Doug Shapiro and Jean-Pierre Veillet’s ecoFLATS project may help them earn a similar moniker locally. At the very least, they are passionate visionaries who, if we listen, will eagerly teach the rest of us how to achieve our own net-zero standard.