Early Design Support Helps Two MAP Projects Explore Novel Solutions

CVA 3a

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is seeking qualified projects for its Buildings of Excellence Early Design Support. The request for proposal stipulates that NYSERDA will provide eligible teams with funding whether their project is new construction, adaptive reuse, or gut rehabilitation of an existing multifamily building. Selected projects may receive up to $1.50/square foot in direct funding up to $100,000.

Crucially, projects must be clean and resilient, functional, and capable of achieving carbon neutral-ready performance. NYSERDA elaborates, stating that “successful design firm Partner Proposers to the Early Design Support RFP must demonstrate how their design firm has engaged with prior projects and will engage with projects in the future to substantially reduce energy use, while increasing building resiliency, successfully integrating architectural design attributes, and improving health, comfort, safety, and productivity for occupants, in a manner that can be replicated at scale.”

Two projects that have already received funding from the Early Design Support program are Carmen Villegas Apartments and Casita Park in Manhattan and Sol on Park in the Bronx. Magnusson Architecture and Planning is the project architect for both developments, and while there are notable differences between the two, there are significant similarities that deserve mention. First and foremost, both are affordable senior living facilities that promote physical and mental health through a combination of design and community integration. Secondly, both projects are exploring the possible use of geothermal energy to satisfy their heating, cooling, and domestic hot water (DHW) needs. Third, both are being designed using passive principles. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, these projects are replicable, clean, and resilient.

Funding through the Early Design Support program has afforded the project teams the ability to conduct studies, build capacity as a design/development team, and create and test new tools capable of modeling and analyzing the costs associated with improving energy efficiency and reducing the embodied carbon of the buildings. Among other things, these studies have focused on the feasibility of Passive House certification, how to optimize the buildings’ ventilation systems, and the potential use of geothermal systems. Without these studies, a proper risk/benefit analysis would not be possible, and many questions about the viability of these improvements would have remained open and subject to speculation. The studies provide guidance about what is financially possible for the projects under consideration. This level of specificity gives developers more confidence that they are making decisions that make sense not only from a sustainability standpoint, but from a budgetary standpoint, as well.

These studies also pave the way for MAP to use similar strategies in future building designs. Consequently, the importance of the data obtained from these analyses transcends the projects discussed in this article; it also gives design teams at MAP the ability to better communicate to developers the capital expenditures and return on investments for high-performance and carbon neutral ready buildings even earlier in the design stage.


Carmen Villegas Apartments and Casita Park

Carmen Villegas Apartments is a new, 28-story, 180,000-ft2 high-rise in East Harlem being developed by a joint venture of three Harlem-based organizations—not-for-project Ascendant Neighborhood Development, Urban Builders Collaborative, and Xylem Projects. Rounding out the team are MEP engineers Skyline Engineering, sustainability and energy consultants Bright Power, and general contractor Lettire Construction Corp. Adjacent to Carmen Villegas Apartments is an existing senior housing building, Casita Park—which was built in 2001, and is owned and operated by Ascendant—that will undergo a renovation in a second phase. Ascendant's vision is for the design and circulation of the two buildings is to be cohesive, sharing an entrance, courtyard, and amenities.

Casita Park is a six-story apartment building for low-income seniors located at the southwest corner of East 111th Street and Park Avenue in need of a retrofit with an adjacent underutilized parking lot at the northeast corner of East 110th Street and Park Avenue, which is the site of the future Carmen Villegas Apartments. In addition to exploring the feasibility of Passive House certification for both buildings, the team is also studying the possibility of International Living Future Institute (ILFI) Zero Carbon certification, as the development’s joint partners are committed to cutting embodied carbon whenever feasible.


Once complete, the project will consist of 250,000 gross square feet and more than 300 affordable units in total. The abutting structures will be connected via a two-story breezeway at street level known as “Salsa Way,” which will be adorned with art and run from East 110th Street (a/k/a Tito Puente Way) to the existing courtyard of Casita Park. In addition to art along the breezeway, the entire eastern façade of CVA will feature a mural that both celebrates the Hispanic heritage of the neighborhood and highlights the aesthetic themes that will reoccur throughout the entire development.

Construction of CVA will take place first. Named after a prominent local activist, the late Carmen Villegas, the building will be comprised of over 200 age-friendly apartments for seniors. There will be two breaks in massing, one that corresponds to the height of Casita Park, and one that corresponds to the New York City Housing Authority’s Clinton Houses on the south side of East 110th Street. The building will also contain ground-floor retail, community facility space, and lounge areas to encourage socialization. Once CVA has been completed, the team will then begin the retrofit of Casita Park, which is currently home to 94 one-bedroom units for seniors.

CVA will be an all-electric building and an all-electric conversion is being studied for Casita Park, as well. Feasibility studies performed by Brightcore Energy have indicated that the heating, cooling, and DHW systems for CVA can be powered by geothermal energy, and that it may be possible power the heating and cooling systems for Casita Park, too. For CVA, an analysis conducted to narrow down the optimal ventilation system revealed that ERVs were the best fit for the building and that the payback period was only nine years. Onsite photovoltaic (PV) systems and battery storage could further cut operational carbon and improve building resiliency in times of power outages. Analysis of New York City’s projected flood maps for 2080 showed that both buildings will sit just within the flood zone, so the mechanical systems for the buildings will be situated well above ground level and the lobbies will be raised from street level.

Aesthetically speaking, the design team hopes to create a cohesive theme that is shared by the two buildings. This includes not only interior design elements, but also the cladding for both buildings, which may include building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) panels. The design team is favoring these panels for CVA and exploring how BIPV systems could most feasibly be integrated into the envelope of Casita Park. One strategy would involve installing the BIPV panels over the existing brick façade. Another would be more intensive and require the removal of the brick face and the installation of a continuous insulation layer. The insulation would then be covered by BIPV panels.

Even if BIPV panels are not used, the team will use a panelized wall system for CVA. Panelized systems have better quality control because they are fabricated within a factory and they can reduce the number of onsite workers, speed up the time during construction it takes to enclose the envelope and make it watertight, and reduce the total number of deliveries to the site by up to 90%.

What remains an open question is if panelization is feasible for Casita Park. Originally built in 2001, the existing wall assembly is composed of CMUs with insulation on the inside face of the wall. The walls also have large openings currently used for air conditioning units that may or may not be used depending on decisions regarding the potential geothermal system. What is perhaps more concerning is that preliminary testing of the existing envelope shows the walls to have an R-value of 8. Additional insulation and new cladding will be necessary to significantly increase R-values, further justifying the more robust wall assembly.


Sol on Park

Located on an underutilized section of the Morris Houses II campus in the Morrisania section of the Bronx the new, 170,000-ft2 Sol on Park will consist of 195 units of affordable housing for seniors, two floors of community spaces, a Federally Qualified Health Center, and a State University of New York (SUNY) sponsored educational opportunity center. Additionally, it will be outfitted with a large pedestrian plaza containing seating, planters, and rain gardens to afford better integration into the existing community.

An emphasis on natural light yielded a sawtooth design which gives each unit a room with two exposures, making them all corner apartments. The angled façade will enhance the streetscape experience with a dynamic exchange of light and shadow and a lively undulation of form, while the terraced massing of the 15-story building creates a cascading effect and opportunities for rooftop access on the seventh, eighth, and ninth floors. These outdoor spaces are integral to promoting health, well-being, and social connectivity among residents and each will have unique amenities: restorative gardens with low-maintenance flowers and perennials; vegetable and fruit gardens requiring more intensive maintenance; and exercise areas, shade structures, and a platform for gatherings. In addition to providing residents with easy access to outdoor activities, these terraces reduce heat loss and water runoff. Indoor communal spaces are located adjacent to two of the roof decks to encourage use.

Conceived as a model for healthy and sustainable senior living, Sol on Park is currently designed to achieve LEED Platinum certifications, as well as the highest rating from Fitwel (Level-3); however, MAP is working with the developers – the NRP Group, Selfhelp Realty Group and Foxy Management – and Bright Power (sustainability and energy consultants), Brightcore Energy (geothermal and other sustainable systems consultant), Touchstone Builders (general contractor), and Ettinger Engineering Associates (MEP engineer), to see if it is feasible to bump energy performance levels up from LEED Platinum to Passive House. Funding from the Early Design Support program gives the team the chance to study what modifications are necessary for this increase in performance. Beyond providing a clear picture of the potential cost differentials for construction, these studies are also showing the differences in operational emissions and whole life cycle ROI.


Should the project pursue Passive House, the team is exploring the use of prefabricated wall systems that incorporate cladding, glazing, spandrel panels, grilles, and insulation. While the plan is to cap the rooftop with a PV array, another study is looking into the use of geothermal heat pump systems for the building’s heating, cooling, and DHW. Geothermal seems at the very least promising because the property sits atop Inwood Marble, a geologic formation prevalent in northern Manhattan and parts of the Bronx, that has excellent conductive qualities. This presents one of the most exciting aspects of the project, which is that it has the potential to showcase the viability of geothermal energy, particularly in all-electric, large multifamily buildings in northern Manhattan and the Bronx. Since geothermal systems have the potential to offer the lowest carbon emissions of any HVAC solution, developing practical guidelines for implementing such systems may push more developers to adopt this technology, reduce operational carbon emissions, and discover a more cost-effective way of complying with New York’s increasingly stringent codes.

Ultimately, this is the impetus behind the Early Design Support program. By giving projects additional resources in the design development phase, NYSERDA is ensuring that design teams can perform in-depth analyses on new and potentially more sustainable building practices, thereby giving developers the data, and the confidence, they need to become early adopters.

All renderings courtesy of Magnusson Architecture and Planning.

Author: Jay Fox
Categories: News, Multifamily