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.
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.