Green Buildings: Via Verde

Green Bronx HousingCertain aspects of integrating sustainability into large scale building projects can be challenging, but building an affordable housing project can be a constant fight against the budget even without exploring ways to make it a healthier, more efficient space. Recently completed in the Bronx, Via Verde has risen to stand as a model for affordable housing construction, effectively breaking the barrier of plausibility for including green building components in a low-cost project.

In 2006, the New York Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a competition called the New Housing New York Legacy Project with the goal to create a low-cost solution for sustainable, affordable housing. The site that they had chosen was far from the standard, inner-city block. Originally part of an old rail yard, the parcel was a long triangle that sloped down from the street on two sides to the abandoned track bed. It was far from the ideal development site, with those constraints added to an already challenging program of affordable housing. Each team was required to have a chosen contractor paired with designers. *As a note,  I happened to be part of Cook+Fox’s competition team.

The scheme that ultimately won, Via Verde, was designed in partnership between Britain-based Grimshaw and New York’s Dattner Architects, paired with affordable housing mogul Jonathan Rose. The building hosts a public plaza in its center with a mass that starts low and wraps around the perimeter of the site, climbing higher to finish 20 stories off the ground in the northern corner. Like the Highline, I have to applaud the success of the design and construction team in the likeness between the finished product and the competition-winning scheme. All too often, design competitions promote a series of flashy renderings to woo the support of jury members, but then fall short of feasibility when the time comes to sign checks. No such fate befell Via Verde.

New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman points to sustainability being more than just the pro-environment design components, but the creation of a “healthy building.” Like any of the characteristic buzz words—green, ecological, environmental and even sustainability itself—“healthy” is one more that is open to a certain degree of interpretation. The architects and developers of Via Verde started to address this self-imposed criteria with programmatic components like a health clinic and a fitness center to compliment day-lit stairs that encourage walking over elevator use.

Of course, building a greener building inherently contributes to a healthier lifestyle. Measures that target indoor air quality (like the building’s Low-VOC materials) and greater access to natural light offer direct benefits to the quality of life inside the building. Designed to exceed LEED Gold standards, the project boasts a series of active and passive measures for a greener result, hitting all of the benchmarks for raising the standard of new construction.

Undoubtedly, the boldest design element of Via Verde is the one that contributed to its namesake and arguably won them the original competition. The building has 40,000 square feet of occupiable green roofs for the residents beneath. Even without rooftop access green roofs bring numerous environmental and energy benefits to the building sitting below it. Their natural medium acts an insulator throughout the year to lower the buildings energy costs while the flora provides mitigation for stormwater and promotes the life of micro-climates in urban settings. In this case, it does much more than that.

These rooftops will be home to community garden plots and fruit trees to be used by Via Verde residents. I would argue that health is an integral part of sustainability. Just as sustainability is not simply a series of technological creations to supplement a wasteful lifestyle, being healthy is more than just paying attention to the food pyramid. Subscribing to either (or both) of these mantras brings with it a lifestyle in and of itself, which is why Via Verde’s inclusion of growing space is so pertinent. Healthy living includes the activity of going out and picking a tomato from your roof—which is exactly the image that the competition team chose to portray. Growing your own food holds direct influence to the kinds of meals you eat and how much a family needs to spend on them. The broader benefits of health are cast far beyond the property lines of the building. More locally grown food (in this case very local) offsets the amount that has to be shipped in from outside of the city as one more small step to counter our somewhat misguided agricultural industry.

Green Affordable HousingInterestingly enough, one aspect that none of the other reviews touched on is Via Verde’s deviation from city zoning. Blogger Stephen Smith (of Market Urbanism and now Forbes fame) would be pleased to know that the project managed to blow past the 6-story limit that zoning had originally been dictated for the site. I know because a number of the competition teams abided by this height restriction—apparently to their own disappointment—while others disregarded the code in order to pursue the concepts of their designs more holistically.

Any competition-going designer will tell you that a key part of competing is knowing when and how much to break the rules. In this case though, the city’s waving of zoning restrictions raises the question of whether trading additional height and square footage for greener homes and a better constructed building should not be more commonplace—especially when the projects in question have affordable housing components.

Of Kimmelman’s review (which I agree with completely) the part that stuck out the most to me was:

“The greenest and most economical architecture is ultimately the architecture that is preserved because it’s cherished. Bad designs, demolished after 20 years, as so many ill-conceived housing projects have been, are the costliest propositions in the end.”

This couldn’t be more true. The passage struck a chord with NRDC blogger Kaid Benfield as well. Creating a building that resonates with the lives of its inhabitants is what helps grant a degree of importance to people’s surroundings. Were the new building to fall into disrepair within two decades it would most likely undo every sustainable measure that the design team intended for the project.

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