Sitting on a former railyard and brownfield site, the affordable housing development Via Verde stands out from the unremarkable high-rises nearby in the once arson-ravaged Melrose section of the South Bronx. The 222-unit apartment complex for low- and middle-income residents has not only set a precedent for the design of subsidized housing but also implemented an ambitious sustainability program to save energy and enhance the quality of life for its occupants.
This $70 million project was borne of the city's first-ever juried competition for affordable and sustainable housing, conceived by the local New York chapter of the American Institute for Architects (AIA) and the City of New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). The competition called on design teams to submit proposals that met specific criteria beyond just affordability, including LEED certification and the promotion of healthy living by providing amenities such as recreation areas, exercise facilities, and access to fresh food. The jury selected London-based Grimshaw Architects and New York's Dattner Architects, along with development partners Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies.
Since it opened in 2012, Via Verde, composed of rental and co-op units, has earned LEED Gold certification thanks to a number of green design strategies, from solar shading devices to a highly thermally efficient prefabricated rainscreen facade. The complex—which steps down from a 20-story tower to three- and four-story townhouses—is topped by green roofs that descend in a series of terraces and eventually end in an outdoor courtyard. The rooftop gardens serve multiple purposes: they provide fresh produce and open space for residents and reduce water consumption by capturing stormwater for irrigation. The plantings also help combat the heat-island effect. With the help of GrowNYC, an environmental organization that builds and supports community gardens, residents share and cultivate the garden plots.
The complex has a 66kW rooftop solar system, which provides the electricity for hallways, elevators, and public spaces. From July 2013 to June 2014, the photovoltaic panels produced 102,634kWh. So far Via Verde is outperforming similar multifamily buildings. Bright Power, a solar and energy-efficiency consulting firm, is tracking the building's energy and water consumption through its EnergyScoreCards tool.
Bright Power compared Via Verde to other multifamily complexes with similar metering, including central, owner-paid heat and hot water, tenant-paid cooling, and direct-metered apartment electricity. It consumed 40,000 Btu per square foot from July 2013 to June 2014—earning an A for energy consumption in the Bright Power system. According to Jonathan Braman, vice president of Portfolio Solutions Group at Bright Power, this means that the complex performs in the top 25 percent of similar buildings in the EnergyScoreCards database. (Roughly 15,000 multifamily buildings are in the Bright Power database.) It is challenging to gauge total energy use in these types of buildings, however, since there is no access to tenants' electric bills.
Via Verde has set new standards for sustainability and affordable housing, and other city-subsidized developments will likely follow its lead. Since 2011, HPD has required that new affordable housing funded by the city must comply with the standards of the Enterprise Green Communities Certification, a program that outlines green building practices for developers of affordable housing. But more important, Via Verde has demonstrated that sustainable practices can minimize the impact on the environment while improving the well-being of residents. According to Nikolas Dando-Haenisch, an associate principal at Grimshaw, "The building has really changed the way people understand living in the city."