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LEED Gold Multi-Family Housing for Working People
Barb and Greg Whitchurch
The Ruth Lewin Griffin Place, affectionately known by locals as “Ruth’s Place,” was the vision of its namesake, who recently retired from the Portsmouth Housing Authority Board, where she served as a board member and commissioner since 1978. When it opened last year, “Ruth’s Place” received the New Hampshire “Building of the Year” award from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Now in her nineties, Lewin refers to the building as “affordable workforce housing.” Her vision was to provide affordable housing to “the men and women who made Portsmouth what it is today,” by providing income-adjusted rent pricing for those who have been forced into long commutes by the lack of affordable housing within the city (https://bit.ly/sco-rlg).
Those who meet the income eligibility guidelines get a one-bedroom apartment starting at $950 per month or a two-bedroom starting at $1,200 per month. The four-story structure contains 64 units and features a rooftop deck with panoramic views of historic downtown Portland.
Although the design and build team is capable of reaching much higher standards, a cost- and-benefit analysis led to the choice of LEED Gold as the certification standard they would shoot for.
The tug-of-war between developer and owner, or, in the case of private homes, between bankers and homeowners, pits the up-front costs of environmental damage and out-of-pocket expense against responsible building design and operational costs. Outdated local zoning restrictions and unrecognized embodied-carbon dangers also often conspire to dampen the good intentions of the architects and builders.
How did this project achieve the LEED Gold Standard? We spoke with Carla Goodknight, NCARB, AIA, President of CJ Architects (https://bit.ly/cja-rlg) and Jon Krygeris of Eckman Construction (https://bit.ly/eck-rlg). The sustainability consultants and the LEED administrators as well as the final commissioning were all provided by Resilient Buildings Group (RBG) (www.ResilientBuildingsGroup.com/).
Krygeris, the project manager for this project, explained that the owner, designers and builders used a tightly collaborative approach, which is common in high-performance building. As project manager, he was on site at least once a week, working with the project superintendent on scheduling and contracts. Together, they had to be aware of all the pieces and parts of the project, however minor those details might seem to an untrained observer.
For the concrete foundation walls and footings, they chose slag to replace some of the cement, thus lessening its environmental harm. Substituting fly ash or slag does retard the setting time just a bit, but the final product is stronger, and scheduling is done up front anyway.
As Krygeris points out, both LEED and Energy Star standards require effective air sealing, so they practiced their air sealing with sectional mockups. Then each “block” of two apartments was sealed separately, and mid-construction blower door tests were conducted. This is a common approach, since it allows for fixes before final layers and finishes are applied, while also teaching the crew where to be especially vigilant as they continue along with the build.
The exterior walls were standard two feet by three feet wood framing stud walls with batts and two inches of spray foam to neutralize the thermal bridging. They used Zip sheathing and tapes to achieve an R-32 wall. The flat roof employs four inches of polyisocyanurate board and closed cell under-sheathing spray foam to achieve a R-49 rating.
The historic district designation of the site limited their window options, so they settled for Marvin double-pane, low-E, argon-filled units. Every unit has operable windows.
The indoor air quality (IAQ) was handled by a GreenHeck ERV (https://bit.ly/gh-erv-rlg) mounted on the roof. This model does allow for monitoring of IAQ, if the building owner wishes to do so.
Partly because of the poisonous gasses injected into spray foam and the board insulations they used, a whole-building flush-out was performed to address the off-gassing.
Fossil fuels are used to run the building’s boilers and the clothes dryers; but those threats are pretty much confined to the utility room and laundry area, as they avoided piping it throughout the building. A set temperature range keeps the thermostats in individual apartments (which have baseboard heaters) from being abused. Each apartment has an electric range and oven.
Shared spaces have their own heating in the ceilings: for example, the communal laundry with four washers and dryers, and the community room just inside the entrance to the building. As yet, there is no electric vehicle charging or renewable energy offsets.
Krygeris emphasizes that when you plan everything out early on, in collaborative meetings with all contributors (especially for air sealing), it greatly simplifies processes, avoids correcting mistakes, and so saves time and money. Establishing a protocol of how, who and when to seal penetrations is of great importance.
While many opportunities to make the project more efficient were not taken, this building does outperform, out-save, and meet higher efficiency standards, while providing better occupant health and comfort levels than most homes and other buildings being built right now! It also serves a very important need for immediate and improved housing for real working people with low to moderate incomes — right now!
More urban infill and moderately-priced housing is desperately needed almost everywhere — the climate and air pollution issues involved can be addressed and improved upon incrementally, as vigorously as we wish, as we go along.
This project represents the innovative, inclusive and forward-thinking interests of the City of Portsmouth.
The Whitchurches live cheaply and securely with their EVs, heat pumps and induction range at their solar-powered Net Zero+ Passive House. For related articles, see www.bit.ly/get-w-ev.
GreenHeck ERV at center on roof. (Eckman Construction)
A finished apartment unit. (Eckman Construction)