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This is part of our special series "Home of the Future." Read more.

These New York City apartments are affordable — and sustainable

Ultra-efficient high-rises and net-zero neighborhoods now in development could offer a blueprint for cities grappling with rising carbon emissions and dwindling affordable housing.
By Maria Gallucci

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Rooftop solar panels cover an affordable apartment building in Queens; the Manhattan skyline is seen on the horizon
Solar panels cover an affordable apartment building in Queens, New York City. (Local Office Landscape and Urban Design)

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In East New York, a residential area in the outer reaches of Brooklyn, a 14-story apartment building rises from the site of a demolished water pumping facility. With airtight insulation and advanced ventilation, the new brick-clad complex is designed to use as little energy as possible. Rooftop solar panels and electric appliances limit the need to burn gas for heating and cooking, reducing indoor air pollution and planet-warming emissions.

The 275 apartments at Chestnut Commons are some of the most energy-efficient units in New York City. Just as crucially, the climate-friendly building is reserved for low-income households, in a neighborhood where more than one-third of residents live below the poverty line.

The 300,000-square-foot property is opening its doors at a time when cities across the country are grappling with two pressing challenges: how to provide more affordable housing as rents and home prices skyrocket — and how to decarbonize and electrify millions of homes, offices, schools and other properties. In New York City, home to roughly 8.5 million people, buildings account for nearly three-fourths of the city’s total emissions.

A 14-story building with brown and beige bricks rises tall against a clear blue sky in East New York
Chestnut Commons in East New York provides affordable housing for formerly homeless and low-income households. (Chris Cooper/Dattner Architects)

City leaders are attempting to address both issues in tandem.

In 2019, the city council adopted Local Law 97, which requires buildings over 25,000 square feet to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and by 85 percent by 2050. Two years later, council members passed a bill that bans fossil fuels in new buildings, starting in 2024, making New York the largest U.S. city to adopt such a measure.

Meanwhile, policymakers have begun pushing to rezone large swaths of the city for residential development and provide more subsidies for lower-income households. In December, Mayor Eric Adams (D) unveiled a plan called Get Stuff Built” to speed up building approval and permitting processes. He also announced a moonshot goal” of creating half a million new housing units in the city over the next decade.

As the city adds more carbon-free buildings, yet another challenge for leaders will be making sure that New Yorkers from all walks of life can access these cleaner, healthier living spaces.

A handful of sustainable developments like the one in East New York are already in the works across the city’s five boroughs. Here’s a look at some of the groundbreaking examples offering a blueprint for the affordable home of the future.

High-performance apartments with cleaner air, inside and out

Chestnut Commons is one the largest multifamily buildings in New York City that meets the exacting Passive House performance standards. Starting this month, households earning between 20 percent and 80 percent of the area median income can enter a lottery to secure rental units there.

Dattner Architects, which designed the complex, began by creating a super-tight building envelope, using elements such as high-performance windows and continuous layers of wall insulation. The goal was to minimize energy loss from thermal bridging,” which happens when heat flows outside toward the cooler exterior air, or slips inside and makes rooms too hot. To keep apartments from getting stuffy, an energy recovery ventilator collects and forces out stale indoor air, while also using the air’s heat and moisture to pretreat incoming fresh air.

Such features are expected to reduce the property’s total heating and cooling loads — and related energy costs — by 70 percent compared to a typical building, said John Woelfling, a principal at Dattner and the lead architect for Chestnut Commons. He also led the firm’s other affordable Passive House projects, including Vital Brookdale in Brooklyn and 425 Grand Concourse and Santaella Gardens in the Bronx.

An overhead view shows solar panels on the rooftop of the Vital Brookdale apartment building in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Vital Brookdale, shown from above, has a solar-covered rooftop in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. (Pavel Bendov/Dattner Architects)

Along with lower utility bills and improved comfort, well-sealed and ventilated buildings can benefit tenants in another key way: They help keep out the harmful particulate matter that spews from heavy-duty trucks and industrial facilities — and which tends to disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods. The 425 Grand Concourse complex, which has 277 rent-reduced units, is located in an area with some of the nation’s highest asthma hospitalization rates.

There’s a real environmental justice component to Passive House [projects] that are especially for affordable buildings,” Woelfling told Canary Media.

Efficient, power-producing and permanently affordable houses

While Dattner is designing multifamily complexes, another outfit is assembling single-family homes.

Habitat NYC and Westchester, an independent affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, recently acquired and demolished a cluster of vacant, dilapidated properties in southeast Queens. In their place will be 16 housing units that — thanks to rooftop solar panels and energy-efficient equipment and design — will be capable of producing more electricity than they consume.

An artist's rendering shows a green house with rooftop solar panels on a residential street in Queens.
An artist's rendering shows one of 16 Habitat Net Zero homes being built in Queens. (Paul A. Castrucci Architects)

The nonprofit organization had previously acquired and refurbished two other clusters of derelict homes from the New York City Housing Authority. But the latest project is the first to focus on sustainability.

We really wanted to do something more innovative and to push the envelope here,” said Juliana Bernal Guinand, director of real estate development for Habitat NYC and Westchester.

Habitat Net Zero homes are largely aligned with Passive House guidelines, including using continuous insulation, reducing thermal bridging and installing high-performance windows and energy recovery ventilators. Rooftops will be angled in such a way as to maximize solar panels’ exposure to sunlight. All-electric appliances and energy-efficient lighting will occupy the rooms, and mini-split” heat pumps will provide heating and cooling using electricity.

To standardize designs and reduce building costs, the nonprofit decided to construct modular homes. Walls and components are currently being fabricated at a factory in Pennsylvania. On-site, contractors are busy building the foundation walls and laying plumbing connections. Construction is expected to wrap up sometime later this fall, Bernal Guinand said.

An artist's rendering shows a cross-section of a Habitat Net Zero home, like a doll house with rooftop solar panels
An artist's rendering shows a cross-section of a Habitat Net Zero home. (Paul A. Castrucci Architects)

Soon after that, homes will be sold to households earning between 50 and 90 percent of the area median income; several city and state programs are providing subsidies and tax breaks to make properties more affordable. Although homebuyers will own the actual structure, the land itself will remain controlled by the Interboro Community Land Trust, a nonprofit initiative that includes the local Habitat affiliate, Center for NYC Neighborhoods, Mutual Housing Association of New York and Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

The land trust caps houses’ resale prices and rents, with the goals of preserving the homes’ future affordability for low- and moderate-income households and insulating buyers from the whims of New York’s real estate market. Participating nonprofits will offer technical or financial assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure or other economic hardships.

The whole idea is that we would like everyone to own a home,” said Orlando Marin, vice president of real estate and construction at Habitat NYC and Westchester.

A net-zero neighborhood built to withstand storms

Just west of the Habitat Net Zero homes in Queens, development is underway on what could become an entire net-zero community on the Rockaway Peninsula.

Today, the 116-acre oceanfront site is largely a maze of potholed, sandy streets lined with trash and old furniture. The $1 billion Arverne East project envisions transforming this vacant stretch into a vibrant hub, starting with 1,650 units of housing — the vast majority of which will be reserved for low, moderate and middle-income households and those who have experienced homelessness.

An artist's rendering shows a cluster of apartment buildings, bungalows, retail spaces and parks on the beachfront.
Arverne East, shown in an artist's rendering, will be built in phases over 10 years across from the beach. (Local Office Landscape & Urban Design)

Apartment buildings, detached bungalows, restaurants and retail spaces will all be designed to Passive House standards and feature rooftop solar panels and backup battery storage systems. Other solar arrays over parking lots and within community gardens are also expected to provide on-site power, while anaerobic digesters could transform landscape and garden scraps into biogas.

A geothermal district heating system will provide all the heating, cooling and hot water for buildings via a closed-loop underground network of pumps and pipes. During the summer, heat generated from air-conditioner units will be stored in the ground; in winter, the system will extract that heat as if drawing from an earthly battery bank, said Walter Meyer, principal urban designer at Local Office Landscape & Urban Design.

Meyer’s office is leading the resiliency planning work for Arverne East, which will occupy an area that is extremely vulnerable to coastal flooding and sea level rise. During 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, a 14-foot storm surge ripped beach boardwalks from their posts and shoved them into homes across the Rockaways. 

A diagram shows the resilient design features that could help protect Arverne East from storm surge and flooding.
A diagram shows the resilient design features that could help protect Arverne East from storm surge and flooding. (Local Office Landscape & Urban Design)

Today, work has begun on a mile-long roadbed that will channel stormwater runoff into an artificial wetland. A 35-acre nature preserve should act like a natural sponge while also providing a thriving habitat for local bird and pollinator species. Workers are adding around 8 feet of soil to the site, so that ground floor spaces are elevated by 16 feet or higher, without having to raise buildings on stilts.

This will be a community hub; it’s a safe place to come to,” Meyer said, noting that the development’s clean-energy systems will provide off-grid power during an emergency.

After a decade of designing and planning, Arverne East’s developers are still probably another decade away from completing the community, Meyer said. However, aspects of the project are already in place.

An 8-story apartment building with rooftop solar panels faces elevated subway tracks on the Rockaway Peninsula
Beach Green Dunes II is a newly built apartment complex near the Arverne East development on the Rockaway Peninsula. (Local Office Landscape and Urban Design)

To demonstrate their vision to financial backers, developers built three prototype” properties in the neighboring Edgemere community. The Beach Green Dunes buildings combine affordable housing and retail space and feature many of the energy-saving elements that Arverne East will have, including a closed-loop geothermal system in the second complex for heating and cooling.

The future is here,” Meyer said of the renewable, resilient buildings. It’s not pie-in-the-sky anymore.”

Housing units heated by a giant geothermal system

Arverne East’s developers say their geothermal district heating system will be the largest in New York City when completed in the coming years. For now, however, that title belongs to a new beachside project in Brooklyn.

Construction is well underway on 1515 Surf Ave., a 471,000-square-foot residential and retail complex in Coney Island, the neighborhood best known for its amusement park and hot dogs. The development, which is slated to open in 2024, won’t use any fossil fuels for heating, cooling or hot water — only geothermal.

About one-third of the project’s apartments, or 139 units, are designated as affordable housing.

A worker in a yellow safety jacket handles a geothermal drilling rig in the sandy soil.
A worker drills a geothermal well in the sandy soil at the site of 1515 Surf Ave. (Ecosave)

Geothermal energy systems are catching on across New York state as a more efficient and less-polluting way to heat homes and buildings. According to state data, nearly 130 geothermal projects, including dozens in New York City, have drilled wells up to around 500 feet deep — the depth the Coney Island project will reach.

The system at 1515 Surf Ave. draws from more than 150 wells, spaced 20 feet apart beneath the foundation of the two-tower complex. The technology is expected to reduce the property’s carbon emissions by more than 60 percent, compared to a conventional HVAC system for a residential high-rise building. That’s according to Ecosave, the firm tasked with designing, building, operating and maintaining the system.

Building a project of this size, and so close to the ocean, meant workers had to make adjustments along the way, said Raymond Johnson, executive vice president of engineering and construction at Ecosave. Since most of the drilling for the wells was performed in previous winters, the crew had to protect drilling equipment and wells from freezing. The ground’s geology was also inconsistent, requiring workers to change drill bits, drilling fluids and the use of casings to optimize the drilling process.

Ecosave is working on similar projects in New Rochelle, just north of New York City; Hoboken and Jersey City in New Jersey; and Miami, Florida. LCOR, the developer of 1515 Surf Ave., has said it hopes the Coney Island geothermal system will serve as a model for residential developments across the country.

Canary Media’s Home of the Future series is supported by Sense.

Consumers need better tools to make their homes more efficient and to foster electrification. Sense technology is built on a simple, proven premise: Customers need real-time information to engage. With the first-of-its-kind Sense app, consumers can see exactly where and how to save energy in their homes. Sense works for utilities, for consumers and for the grid. Leading meter manufacturers are partnering with Sense to create consumer-ready smart meters that take home-energy management to the next level. Learn more.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.