RiseBoro’s Bold First Steps with RetrofitNY

Just one project can be the spark that leads to transformational change. For RetrofitNY, the road to net zero retrofits in affordable multifamily properties begins in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

A four-story, 46-unit building built in 1931 is the first of the RetrofitNY pilot projects in construction. The property, owned by RiseBoro Community Partnership, will reduce energy usage by 60–80 percent through a series of high-performance improvements. This pilot is part of an innovative Passive House retrofit design from architect and designer Chris Benedict, R.A., for RiseBoro’s Casa Pasiva project. Construction began in July 2019 and is expected to end in July 2020, with tenants remaining in place throughout construction.

We spoke with Ryan Cassidy, director of sustainability and construction at RiseBoro, who shared his team’s motivations for pursuing the improvements, insight into how they navigated design and implementation challenges, and practical advice for owners looking to take on similar projects.

Financially Smart, Mission Driven

As stated in its mission, RiseBoro seeks to unleash the potential of communities to thrive, no matter the odds. This guiding principle drives the organization to explore innovative solutions for the betterment of the communities it serves.

For 10 years, RiseBoro has worked with Benedict on Passive House new construction projects with much success. Together, they are now taking on their first large-scale retrofit using the same Passive House standards. Cassidy explains that not only do these projects provide high performance and high-quality housing, they’re also financially sound. By lowering operational expenses, RiseBoro is able to increase a property’s net operating income, which then increases the organization’s ability to leverage private debt and lower the need for subsidies.

“It’s a little more expensive on the renovation side, but we are still able to make it work,” says Cassidy. “We like the way it works financially. It also brings a lot of value to our mission of providing safe and affordable housing for tenants.”

Expected Project Benefits

  • Eliminate overheating and under-ventilation for tenants
  • Improve indoor air quality with more efficient balanced ventilation, replacing unhealthy in-unit gas stoves with induction stoves and removing oil heating system
  • Improve resilience—Passive House buildings are better equipped to maintain comfort and safety during a utility outage
  • Ease compliance through the next 30 years of building code changes
  • Reduce carbon footprint

This building is part of a multiple building project slated to be renovated with the same innovative work scope. Although NYSERDA is providing financial support for the building that is part of the RetrofitNY pilot, the 12-building cluster was made possible by the combined leadership at the housing agencies that utilized tax-exempt bonds and $2.92 million of subsidy loans from the New York State Housing Finance Agency (HFA) and additional subsidy loans from NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). The Richman Group provided syndicated tax credits for the project and Chase Bank was the letter of credit provider for the HFA bonds.

Deep Energy Retrofits with Tenants in Place

Most property owners recognize that one challenge that arises with any building renovation, large or small, is disruption to existing tenants. Inspired by net zero retrofits in Europe, Benedict believes similar transformations can occur to the multifamily properties in New York State with tenants remaining in their homes.

The approach involves making most of the improvements outside the individual units.

“Instead of getting into everybody’s apartment and rejiggering their existing systems, we’re actually eliminating them and running the new HVAC on the outside that’s coming through the wall and hanging a new air source heat pump, a mini split,” Cassidy says.

Additionally, an in-unit construction plan was developed that coordinated construction dates around groups of units on the same lines, ensuring access for the entire line at the same time to minimize construction delays and tenant disruption.

Upgrades planned for the property include:

  • New heat pump heating and cooling system and energy recovery ventilator (ERV) mounted on roof
  • Insulative cladding on exterior of building that covers the piping and connections for the new mechanical systems
  • Energy-efficient windows
  • New air barrier drainage plane
  • Domestic hot water (DHW) systems with highly efficient gas boilers installed in the existing distribution system

By electrifying its HVAC system, RiseBoro is lowering the property’s carbon footprint, and soon it will be financially and operationally feasible for owners to electrify all major mechanical systems, including domestic hot water. Efficient DHW systems fueled by natural gas can help lower environmental impact in the meantime, while the technology matures to fully electrify the building.

Regulatory Hurdles Lead to Design Modifications

The project design also involved navigating a few regulatory hurdles. The first was the four-inch sidewalk encroachment allowance. Benedict’s team appealed to the City for an eight-inch allowance, which would have allowed for thicker, more cost-effective insulation and better-shaped ductwork. Nevertheless, this was a design constraint the team was able to work around.

Regulations also mandate separate exhaust systems for kitchens and bathrooms. This impacted the design of the ERV, as fewer ducts and less equipment would have been feasible if combined exhaust had been allowed.

Path to Success: Considerations for Building Owners

It is the projects like RiseBoro’s Casa Pasiva that set the standard for the industry and help lead the way to a future of better high-performing buildings. If you’re a building owner, architect, contractor, or other energy solutions provider considering a similar high-performance project, Cassidy offers the following words of advice.

Coordinate with Capital Improvement Projects

“The best way to do these types of retrofits is when you’re having a financial moment, whether that’s a recapitalization project or new underwriting or changing ownership when you’re going to be doing some kind of capital project anyway, instead of trying to build a stand-alone project that feels like an inconvenience to the tenants,” Cassidy says. In RiseBoro’s case, the work was done in tandem with a Year 15 refinance capital improvement project that also included kitchen and bathroom renovations.

Find Your Project’s Champion

Cassidy advises that someone close or personally invested in the project act as a champion. “There’s a time and place for consultants, but I really think the owner or the design architect or the builder has to be the expert. One of those three on the development team has to be the champion of the cause and lead the charge,” Cassidy says.

He adds, “Work with an architect like Chris Benedict or one of the select few that are really committed to putting in the time to get all the details right. It’s easy for me as the owner to talk about the project, but Chris is the one who spent a year and a half coordinating all the details and digging into the project details to make sure that it could work.”

RiseBoro’s Bold First Steps with RetrofitNY