Dear EarthTalk

I’ve followed the trends in “eco-homes” now for many years. Are there equally encouraging things happening in the world of condos?

Charlie Anderson

Seattle, WA

Believe it or not, condominiums may be some of the most environmentally responsible housing out there today, especially since more and more developers are paying attention to sustainability from the get-go.

By their very nature, many condo complexes adhere to some of the most basic tenets of green housing: density, to maximize surrounding open space and minimize buildings’ physical and operational footprints; proximity to mass transit, given their typical location in urban areas; and reduced resource use per unit, thanks to shared systems, walls and common spaces. Builders can elect to layer on other green elements, such as high-efficiency appliances and HVAC systems, green roofs and organic landscaping.

“Projects are embracing green [to] be more responsive to what the buying public is looking for,” says Gail Vittori, chairperson of the U.S. Green Building Council, which produced and manages the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) design and building standards. “They also want to have the built environment become much more in line with environmental and health considerations.”

One example is Florence Lofts, a new development of 12 townhouses and a 4,200 square foot commercial building in downtown Sebastopol, California.

The LEED-certified project features a photovoltaic solar system on the roof for hot water and other electrical needs, a commercial scale “gray water” system to divert sink and shower water for irrigation purposes, and a tank that collects storm water from roofs to prevent excessive run-off.

Another example is The Riverhouse overlooking the Hudson River in New York City’s Battery Park district. The LEED-certified, 320-unit building — the new home of actor/environmentalist Leo DiCaprio — has geothermal heating and cooling, twice-filtered air, non-toxic paint, and landscaped roof gardens.

But not all developers need to break the bank to go green on their condo and apartment projects. Two-thirds of the units in Harlem’s much-publicized 1400 Fifth Avenue building — touted as New York’s first green condominium, are considered affordable, priced at $50,000 to $104,000 and restricted to families of moderate income. Also in the New York metropolitan area, Habitat for Humanity recently announced it has assembled a green design team to build “real affordable condos” in New Rochelle and other parts of Westchester County.

“If you’re doing a moderately green building, the premium to build is typically in the 1.5 to two percent range. It’s very small,” says Leanne Tobias of Malachite LLC, a Maryland-based green real estate consulting firm. Additionally, the carrying costs for green units are lower, since such buildings operate on less energy and water and generate less waste than conventional high-rises. “All of those will be savings every month for the homeowners or residents of those buildings,” Vittori adds. “That’s a big plus.”

Want to get down to earth? Submit questions to earthtalk@emagazine.com.