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In South End, energy-conscious design faces special challenges

Posted by Lara Salahi  December 18, 2012 12:35 PM

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By Justine Borst

20 Rutland Square.jpeg
20 Rutland Square features a green “growing” roof. (Photo by Joshua Rose-Wood)

From the outside, 20 Rutland Square looks like just another row house in Boston’s historic South End, complete with a red brick facade and bow-fronted wood windows. But on the inside, it looks a bit more modern. The five-story building features an open central atrium with ventilated skylights, and bridges and balconies throughout the different levels, crafted from repurposed oak flooring.

Another modern feature: the entire building is environmentally sustainable.

“Being sustainable in no way means compromising on design,” said Joshua Rose-Wood, the architect for the 20 Rutland Square project. “It is just another element of the design challenge.”

The building’s features include an insulated green roof, a dual-purpose heating system, a special ventilation system that constantly brings fresh air and heat into the building, and ventilated skylights that allow for light and heat. Also, most of the interior work used reframed and recycled products.

But this is no luxury building for Boston’s upscale. It’s part of the federal government’s Section 8 housing program, which means that tenants pay 30 percent of their income and the balance is subsidized. The renovations split the building into five units, four of which are currently occupied: one two-bedroom unit (1,100 square feet) and four single-room occupancy units (2,000 square feet total). According to the building’s management company, Tenants’ Development Corporation, the average rental price for the single rooms is $848 and the two-bedroom rent is $1,492.

Rose-Wood estimates that the cost of renovation was $80 per square foot, the relatively low cost due in part to the contractor, YouthBuild Boston, an organization that trains at-risk teenagers to do construction work while helping them get their GEDs. He said renovations at other South End homes tend to cost upwards of $300 per square foot.
Costs aside, the architect faced the same challenges others do when renovating in the South End: Because of the historic character of the neighborhood, any redesign is constrained by demands to preserve the area’s character. Any repairs and replacements visible from public streets can be subject to review by the South End Landmark District Commission. This particularly applies to building roofs and facades.

“Too often it can just be a big fight with the commission,” Rose-Wood said. “The important thing is to do your homework, be creative, be flexible, and understand what you’re doing and why it’s important to the community.”

Walter Maros, a preservation planner with the Boston Landmarks Commission, offered a somewhat different perspective.

“The South End was deemed to have architectural integrity worthy of preservation,” he explained. “These regulations have been in place since 1985, and they don’t go away because of concerns about energy conservation.” But he added the commission helps homeowners come up with alternative solutions when possible.

And as energy conservation gains in importance to the city – earlier this year, Mayor Thomas Menino launched his Greenovate Boston campaign – finding these alternative solutions is likely to become a more frequent challenge. The mayor’s goal is to make Boston a greener and more sustainable city by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

The “greening” of older homes will be part of that solution. Rose-Wood said the 20 Rutland Square building, on what he called “one of the wealthiest streets in the city,” is a perfect example of a “sustainable community.”

Probably the most obvious green feature is the “growing” roof, a layer of vegetation over a rubber membrane. It prevents the roof from absorbing heat radiation while at the same time absorbing water.

“There are so many dark surfaces throughout the city that absorb heat and re-emit it,” Rose-Wood said. In contrast, the green roof helps to lower the urban air temperature, cutting down on greenhouse gases. This also keeps the roof cool and “gives you more insulation,” he said.

Installing the green roof was not an issue with the District Commission, as it is not visible from the street. But it provided a different challenge.

“It can add weight so you have to make sure the structure is strong enough to carry it,” Rose-Wood said.

Windows, on the other hand, are always more difficult in this historic neighborhood. The commission urges repair rather than replacement of original windows. Rose-Wood said finding an historically accurate window to replace the original can cost a couple thousand dollars per window. So he decided to add storm windows instead. Under the commission’s rules, these can be mounted on the inside or outside of the main windows to improve thermal efficiency, provided that the middle bar of the window where the lock usually is aligns with the primary window.

Rebecca Harris, a field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving America’s historic places, argues that repairing existing windows is in fact a better way to go.

“Almost every retrofit option has a better return on investment than new windows,” she said.

Above all, she added, “Saving windows preserves a home’s character.”
In either case, homeowners don’t have to go to extremes such as installing solar panels to be energy efficient, said Chris Skelly of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, though he argues it is reasonable to put solar panels on historic homes because the process is minimally invasive.

“There are certain significant historic buildings that should never be touched,” he said, showing a picture of the Boston Public Library with a solar panel superimposed on the roof at a recent lecture about greening the older home. As long as they’re not visible from the street though, solar panels are fair game.

Other adjustments can be made inside the home that are not subject to review by the commission, like insulation and heating systems.
“In a row house, the side walls are nicely insulated by the adjoining buildings,” Rose-Wood said. “So really all you have to worry about are the front and rear facades, plus the roof.”

Another option is a co-generation heating system, a combined system that produces heat and electricity using a high efficiency gas boiler or furnace, and a generator, said Rose-Wood. The system provides heat first and then re-uses the energy to generate electricity. This cuts down greenhouse gases and saves the homeowner money on utility costs, because the system does not rely on an electric grid.

For those still unsure about green renovations, Rose-Wood counseled that it’s all about tradeoffs.

“You have to balance the life cost of the building,” he said. “There are some things that do cost more to begin with, but if you plan on being there more than a few years that starts to pay off very quickly.”

As for the 20 Rutland Square building, Rose-Wood said it sets the example in a number of ways. Not only does it balance the historic with the modern, as evidenced by the contrasting exterior and interior of the home, but it suggests to South Enders that it is possible to work with the District Commission in order to reconcile historic preservation with environmental conservation.

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