At PHA’s New Norris Apartments, Weighing The Costs And Benefits Of Green


Solar panels on roof of PHA’s Norris Apartments | Photo: Jacob Hellman

Last week, a mere 15 months after the Philadelphia Housing Authority took a wrecking ball to the outmoded high rise it called Norris Apartments, PHA cut the ribbon its lower-density and more handsome successor, which bears the same name but is LEED-certified, PHA’s first such project. In a February article, Hidden City Daily contributor Stephen Stofka was harshly critical of the project’s design; he admired the chic facade, designed by Blackney Hayes Architects, but looking beyond it found an overly-generous parking area and vinyl siding. It was disingenuous, he wrote, for PHA to call this lower-density development “green.”

Over March and April, I tested the building envelopes and heating systems of the Norris Apartments, certifying–or failing to certify, as the case may be–these units for their LEED rating. (I work for a non-profit agency contracted by PHA and accredited by the US Green Building Council.) From the inside–figuratively and literally–I argue that in spite of Stofka’s critique, we should concede some admiration for what PHA has done. As recently as five years ago, the acronym “LEED” had not entered mainstream urbanism discourse, and to those who did know of the green building accreditation standard, it would have been unthinkable that the nation’s fourth-largest public housing authority would soon build a 51-unit LEED development in a section of North Philly often perceived as hopeless.

Photo: Jacob Hellman

During post-construction certification, raters use a blower door to test the buildings and ductwork for air leaks. This was my job, and I did it, ad nauseum, on the identical, barren apartments. Usually when developers advertise a LEED rating, they push components most resonant with the prospective buyer: recycled flooring; zero-VOC finishes; a green roof. Partially as a result of this focus on surfaces, it’s hard to find experienced installers for mechanical components like a well-insulated duct system, even though these are the kinds of things that will conserve significant energy over the lifetime of a building.

With the industry is still on its learning curve, what PHA is doing by investing in a building’s green guts is going to have a ripple effect in the skilled trades. Ductwork is particularly instructive: a multi-story building will have hundreds of mechanical joints which, if not properly sealed, will leak to the outside. Sheet metal installers in Philadelphia, like much of the construction industry, excel at getting the job done, and not at fussing with duct-sealing mastic. Pencil-sized gaps may seem insignificant, but added up, they can easily exceed the opening of an entire register–one wasting expensively conditioned air.

About the author

Jacob insulates low-income housing, and makes art. He studied political theory in Oberlin, OH, and is now slowly renovating a house in Strawberry Mansion. On the web:

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  1. My response to the criticism of the certification costs as presented in this article is: “How would the inspections and testing associated with the certification requirements have been accomplished without going through (and paying for) the LEED & Energy Star certification process?” I think the answer is that they would not have been conducted; which means leaky ducts, poor insulation and air-sealing, improper refrigerant charges, inattention to lighting, appliances, ventilation and site details such as landscaping, rainwater management, and erosion.

    PHA chose to go for LEED Gold certification, which comes at a higher cost than just basic certification due to the increased need for verification of the installed measures – in this case 70 credits. Due to the project’s urban location and density, the accumulation of enough credits for basic certification – 40 credits – would have come at a somewhat lower cost, and would have included all the performance testing and verification of mandatory requirements.

    Clearly there are lots of things they would have done anyway, certification or not; so the actual value of getting the LEED certificate, rather than just the Energy Star label for example, has to be largely in the mind of the developer.

  2. The cost of obtaining LEED certification is a lot more than $40k. Generally more like $75k at an absolute minimum, but typically more like $150k.

    • This project is being certified under the LEED for Homes Rating System applicable for low-rise single- and multi-family developments. The actual certification cost was more than the $40k stated in the article, but nowhere near $75k.

  3. And the Pruitt-Igoe was hailed at its conception too…

  4. Might be of interest… we build this LEED Platinum house in NM for $188 per sq Ft.

  5. Jacob: If you build a LEED-Platinum exurban office park, is it truly green?

    No, of course not: the particulate emissions resulting from any viable transportation to its wholly autocentric location are far in excess with the savings available to any green standard (this includes Passivhaus). Saying a building is green says nothing about whether its context is green.

    I agree that the Norris Apartment buildings are reasonably green. (I’ve heard people complain that new construction can’t possibly be green because it was wood-framed in the past, but I don’t buy this argument.) My criticism was that it does not embrace its site in the greenest possible way–maximizing intensity of use, particularly in a context that includes a major railroad station a block away. Instead, it favored a large parking lot and a “park” that is hidden and hence will only be the residents’ backyard.

    Green isn’t about creeping featuritis–it’s also about building in a way that makes sense of what’s around it. Green features–a green building–is great–but a green building does make a green site plan. That is what advocates like Kaid Benfield have been saying. That is what Norris Square is lacking.


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