Green Building: A Community Tool for Environmental Justice – July 21, 2004

July 21, 2004

Many thanks to Carlton Brown, COO of Full Spectrum, LLC, and Cecil D. Corbin-Mark, program director from West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), for their presentation of our July forum, Green Building: A Community Tool for Environmental Justice. “All people, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or nationality, have the right to a clean and healthy environment.” – WE ACT At the offices of Fox & Fowle Architects, a firm that continually demonstrates its commitment to the environment, Carlton Brown of Full Spectrum, LLC, and Cecil D. Corbin-Mark of the West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc, showed the urgency, capacity, and economics of bringing green building to Harlem, one of New York City’s many environmental justice communities. Environmental Justice communities are predominantly low-income and minority neighborhoods that are disproportionately and adversely affected by environmental and health impacts of public and private actions and policies. The Environmental Justice Movement, rooted in both the civil rights and environmental movements, endeavors to bring and sustain environmental quality to these neighborhoods. CARLTON BROWN, FULL SPECTRUM Carlton Brown, a planner, architect, and developer, began the forum discussing the intersection of green building development and environmental justice. His firm, Full Spectrum, focuses on affordable housing and is most known for its green building 1400 on 5th. The company’s objectives are founded on the notion of sustainable development, which according to the Commission on Sustainable Development is the “integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future.” According to Brown, Harlem has seen disinvestment over the past decades and it has seen investment. However, the type of investment is not the wanted type, but rather facilities that increase the environmental burden on residents, such as highways, bus shelters, and sewage treatment plants. As a result of these investments, the community has elevated asthma rates and other health and quality of life impacts. Taking this into consideration, Brown has a hierarchical approach to the green building process and weighing the positive environmental impacts to costs. Environmental impacts occur on three levels, or three circles of environmental impact, as he puts it: micro, macro, and global. The microenvironment impacts the people who will live and/or work in the building. The macro environment affects the community where the development will be located and the global environment impacts the world. Using these three levels allows the developer to find the appropriate economic solutions. For each development, a new analysis, approach, and equation are necessary. For 1400 on 5th and Full Spectrum’s other Harlem developments, Carlton Brown has made the micro circle his number one priority, and in doing so, his projects positively affect the other two circles of environmental impact. On the microenvironment level, Full Spectrum decided to reduce the use of fossil fuels to improve the indoor air quality for the tenants with the use of alternative energy sources, such as geothermal heat pumps, as well as lessen their energy bills with energy efficient measures. In a typical building, energy costs consume 30 percent of disposable income, but tenants of 1400 on 5th will enjoy savings with a 70 percent decrease in energy consumption. They will also benefit from better indoor air quality. Indoor air improvement was also achieved with a ventilation system that brings in fresh air mechanically, removing most particulate matter, instead of filtrating air through walls and ceilings. In addition to better ventilation, Full Spectrum improved the indoor air quality by eliminating products that off-gas. Indoor air quality was a high priority given that air quality indoors in NYC is usually worse than that outdoors. In fact, most asthma attacks occur inside buildings. The choice of materials tends to focus on the macro environment. In 1400 on 5th Full Spectrum chose to use recycled and recyclable materials, including carpets, carpet padding, and dry wall from post-industrial materials. This reduces construction wastes and ultimately the number of polluting diesel sanitation trucks that drive through the community. The biggest challenge in developing not just affordable housing, but affordable, green housing, is to rethink the development methodology. The real estate industry is risky and therefore real estate professionals generally continue to do what has worked for them in the past in order to reduce risk. That is why we are left with development processes that are out-dated and not efficient. Brown believes and has proven that by rethinking these processes it is possible to achieve healthier and smarter buildings that work economically. For example, the 1400 on 5th development is not only more environmentally friendly and healthier than standard buildings, the development consists of smart buildings that embrace digital technology with wireless Internet access, energy management systems, and more. For each of his other developments, however, a new analysis, approach, and equation will be necessary. While Brown acknowledges that builders/developers will not be leading the green building movement, he believes the market will drive it and the builders therefore will be forced to follow. Initially, it took Brown four years to find financiers to support the 1400 on 5th development but has them lining up to finance his subsequent projects due to its success of 1400 on 5th where over 6,000 families are on the waiting list for the 128 available units. Product absorption led to access to more capital. Full Spectrum now has 400 new units in design and is hoping to break ground in 2005. CECIL D. CORBIN-MARK, WE ACT While Full Spectrum works to improve the quality of life for the Harlem community through the development of affordable and healthy housing, West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc (WE ACT) strives to improve environmental quality and policies through organizing, community-based planning, and advocacy. Cecil D. Corbin-Mark, the Program Director of WE ACT, took time to explain what environmental justice is, why it is urgently necessary, and how WE ACT strives to achieve it. WE ACT, now in its 16th year of operation was founded in response to the siting of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant and the Manhattanville Bus Depot in Harlem in the early nineties to act as a champion for the community to ease their disproportionate environmental burden. Harlem is a very densely populated community. Within its 7.5-mile area populated by half a million residents, there are six bus depots out of the seven total in Manhattan, the city’s largest sewage treatment plant, and miles of highway. These are all sources of diesel fuel combustion. Also in Harlem, there is, according to Corbin-Mark, an asthma epidemic, with one in four children testing positive for asthma. The community is definitely receiving more than its share of polluting facilities that continue to degrade the health and quality of life in Harlem. To WE ACT, environmental justice (EJ) is both the name of the “vision of the future” as well as the name of the movement that started in the mid-eighties. EJ is based on the civil rights, environmental, and anti-toxic movements. WE ACT believes that even the most urban streets should be viewed as a part of nature. Just as importantly, it stresses that community residents are experts of their neighborhoods and that the EJ movement is not taken up “not by fancy, but by necessity.” To achieve EJ, the WE ACT includes sustainable development as one of its focus areas. As a promoter of sustainable development, the organization has plans to renovate an old brownstone into a green building that will be the Environmental Justice Community Center. The seed money for this project is from funds WE ACT received from a lawsuit over the North River Sewage Plant. The Center will be a laboratory to teach the community about sustainable development and green buildings. The road to developing the center has been a long one, including eight years to just get a building. WE ACT is currently looking for architects and engineers for the project and will soon issue a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to do so. The RFQ will have clearly articulated objectives regarding sustainable development. WE ACT is looking for professionals that are not already experts in green building. Instead, the organization would prefer to make the design and construction process a way to add to the core of green professionals by training and fostering new local green professionals, preferably of color. WE ACT plans to carry on its fundraising drive for the project. In the meantime, the work of WE ACT continues to be a shining example of how a community can triumph over struggle. QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS Q: For 1400 on 5th, was there a cost premium for the green building? A: (Carlton Brown) Not really. We took a quantum mechanics approach, looking at the building as a system of interacting pieces. We spent more time in the design phase and then used an iterative process to think and rethink the different parts. It is all about the process, not the method, to designing a green building. There is no stamp pad solution; each project necessitates its own iterative process. WEBSITES