Green Building at Its Best

Two recent award-winning projects illustrate how green building concepts are becoming increasingly prevalent--and more affordable--for apartment developers.

Green building is easily the fastest growing trend in the construction industry, and the multifamily sector is helping lead the way. Two recent award-winning projects illustrate how green building concepts are becoming increasingly prevalent—and more affordable—for apartment developers.

The first project (MHN’s November cover shot) The Voyager at the Space Center, in Nassau Bay, Texas, is helping pioneer the multifamily green building agenda, while earning its title as a “first” in the certified green world. Developed by Martin Fein Interests Ltd. and designed by Steinberg Design Collaborative LLP, both of Houston,  this 313-unit luxury apartment complex is the largest project to receive National Green Building Standard (NGBS) certification and approval by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Up next is the Circle at Concord Mills (Circle), a new multifamily community in Charlotte, N.C. Developed by Crescent Resources Multifamily Development Group, the project was awarded the NAHB National Green Building Luxury Multifamily Project of the Year award. What’s more, its clubhouse received LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification. Circle was also recently recognized as a Silver Audubon International Signature Sanctuary—the first multifamily development in the world to receive this certification.

These two projects share other commonalities besides their honors for environmental stewardship. The essence the developers have created in these communities can only be fully appreciated by living there.

Was it worth it? In a construction economy where dollars are the bottom line, it’s a question that needs to be asked.

On Voyager, architect Sanford Steinberg’s personal initiative to achieve NGBS certification after the project was already under construction was brilliant. The payback for Circle at Concord Mills has been a 94 percent occupancy rate that was achieved during one of the deepest troughs in multifamily history.

Rocket science

Voyager at the Space Center is conveniently located for an easy commute to downtown Houston. Those headed for the Johnson Space Center—home of our nation’s astronauts and center of human space flight—can simply walk.

Inside the community, floor plans feature stylish island kitchens with granite counters and stainless appliances. The striking exterior design and exquisite landscaping compliment the community’s almost endless list of amenities. And yes, Voyager is certifiably green.

“On this specific project, the benefits of building ‘green’ simply outweighed the costs,” says Jason Schlager of Martin Fein Interests Ltd., Houston. “These costs were not insurmountable, and the green building certifications we were awarded did not negatively impact the financial plan for the project.”

In this market, developers need to count the cost of going green and keep the “feel good” aspect of environmental awareness in its proper perspective. “In my opinion, anything we can ‘throw at’ a project will help us in a down market,” continues Schlager. “A green property gives customers another reason to lease or rent. Of course, going Class A, with all the bells and whistles, also helps.”

Schlager is just as excited about Voyager’s structured, wrap-around parking garage as he is about the project’s NGBS certification. “Our parking solution is exciting and different,” Schlager says. “It’s the first of its kind in the submarket and gives the community the urban feel of a higher density project.”

In fact, architect Steinberg’s move to get him—and his building—certified under the NGBS dovetailed perfectly with a widespread promotion of the program by NAHB. The resulting publicity for the project was enormous.

“I just thought it would be cool to be one of the largest multifamily communities to be certified under the NGBS,” Steinberg says modestly. “Since then, it’s been kind of crazy, and I’ve been asked to speak on the subject [of the NGBS)]quite a bit.”

“Yes, we are very happy about the publicity generated on the project,” Schlager admits. “But we did not ‘go green’ in anticipation of it.”

What the developer did plan for was the kind of resort-style pool and cabanas one would find in a luxury hotel and an exercise facility that’s twice the size of typical communities. “Amenities like these punched up this project,” says Schlager. “We also feel these kinds of investments will protect us from the downside risk.”

The developer has done its research and found its market segment views residential communities like Voyager as gathering places and requires a large list of amenities that are accessible 24/7. “We’ve done a lot of studies on Generation Y, and these people are very social and require the kinds of facilities that Voyager offers,” says Steinberg.

Martin Fein is also a developer and manager of Class A apartments, with a portfolio of infill, five-story, mid-rise and two- and three-story walk-ups stretching from Houston to Denver. “We build what we feel we are good at, and focus our expertise on the high-end market,” says Schlager. The developer is also breaking ground on another project this month and is looking closely at NGBS certification, according to Steinberg.

Circle of quality

While Voyager is close to the Space Center, the lucky residents at Circle can walk across the street to the Concord Mills Mall, recently built by Simon Properties Group. The thinking behind the design and operation of this multifamily community goes far deeper than the surface of its impressive exterior.

Perhaps Eric Borsting, chair of NAHB’s Green Building Subcommittee, describes Circle’s green qualities best: “This project is a great example of green building done right, while also done beautifully. This should be an example for multifamily builders everywhere when constructing energy-efficient and earth-friendly housing in their own communities.”

Nancy E. Richardson, Signature Program director for Audubon International, adds, “Through projects like Circle at Concord Mills and partners like Crescent Resources, we’re re-defining what it means to plan, build and manage our human landscapes. It is sustainable eco-design and development in action.”

While Circle at Concord Mills’ green construction and award-winning environmental awareness has been the subject of more than a few press releases, it is interesting to hear what developer Crescent Resources says about one of its newest multifamily projects.

“The short summary is, we have created a complete experience one would expect from a Class A luxury apartment,” says Brian Natwick, senior development manager of Crescent’s Mid-Atlantic region in Charlotte, N.C. “In addition to all the amenities, the community’s most important assets—its management and staff—were hand-selected from the planning stage onward.”

If you hear Natwick tell it, the development of Circle seems more akin to a Broadway show than a multifamily construction project. “We recruited all of our stakeholders early on and created a ‘cast’ with one coordinated message,” says Natwick. “We programmed a community here—not just a luxury facility—and executed it from the moment residents came through the front door.”

Natwick, who has a hospitality background with Disney, is confident that if residents have an exceptional experience at Circle, they will renew. “We’re concerned about how our residents live and breathe on a day-to-day basis,” he explains. Crescent takes that promise literally and made history with Circle as the first smoke-free community in the Charlotte region. It also weaved in an impressive green program with LEED, NGBS and Audubon certifications.

“We’re also building a community here and helping people make connections,” adds Natwick. “It’s the emotional experience our residents get that’s important.” The company clearly appears to be getting the job done, as illustrated by Circle’s high occupancy rate of nearly 94 percent. “You can’t accomplish what we have without a staff that is on-board and a development team that is diverse,” says Natwick.

Crescent also hired some outside help in the form of the Apartment Life CARES program, a leading onsite retention solution in the apartment industry. The architect chosen for the project, The Preston Partnership LLC in Atlanta, is also centered on the people side of the business. “I promised myself a few things when I started this firm, and the first was to strive like hell to service the needs of our clients and to always put those needs first,” says Principal Robert N. Preston, AIA. “The second was to never lose touch with my people, since they are our single most valuable asset, and inherently tied to our success.”

Preston describes Circle as a “garden apartment complex of three-story buildings, exhibiting features from the American Arts and Crafts style. The style is familiar to most people because of its influence on bungalow homes of the 1930s and 40s, and expresses a philosophy of combining function and design to create objects that are both useful and artistically beautiful.”

Community design is the first step in any green building program.  Natwick advises developers to first provide the amenities that residents are used to in a way that is cost-effective and has less of an impact on the natural environment. Crescent focused its green building program on two categories—public infrastructure and transportation—and green product selection and use. “Circle at Concord Mills is an upscale multifamily garden community with an authentic, green living experience.”

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