How We Deliver ‘Responsible Luxury’
Synapse Development Group has expanded its sphere of influence through a passive approach to apartment development.
By Diana Mosher
New York-based Synapse Development Group has expanded its sphere of influence with several high-profile YOTEL deals on the East and West coasts as well as the highly anticipated launch of Perch Living ©, a new multifamily brand focused on low-impact living and community-oriented design. Synapse is currently developing 542 West 153rd Street, a Perch-branded ground-up seven story building in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem. The project will be the first market-rate rental building in New York City designed to Passive House standards. MHN Contributing Editor Diana Mosher recently sat down with Synapse CEO and Co-Founder Justin Palmer to find out more about Perch and the thinking of the company behind the brand.
MHN: Your team has taken an important environmental idea and merged it with design elements that will appeal to the marketplace.
Palmer: That’s spot on. In my mind there are a several elements that make design great and aesthetics are just one component. We view energy efficiency and energy performance as an important element that contributes to great design and it’s something we’re very focused on for this particular project, as well as company-wide. For Perch Harlem, we started with the Passive House business plan and spent a lot of time thinking through how the benefits of Passive House create a higher quality rental experience in the urban environment. Our team spent countless hours identifying well-thought-out finishes such as low-VOC paint, sustainably produced cabinetry, and low-energy appliances. For example, our vent-less dryers will help produce heat in the apartments, so residents won’t have to use their heaters as much in colder weather. Every component of the building was evaluated by our team to ensure that the materials and products fit into the ethos of designing an efficient building that creates a better living environment for our residents.
MHN: These apartments are market rate, but are they at the lower end or the higher end of the price range? Would you describe them as luxury?
Palmer: We’ve tried to avoid the word luxury, as it tends to be overused in the marketplace. That said, our interior designers coined the term “responsible luxury,” primarily because we are delivering a rental product that gives residents a constant supply of fresh and filtered air, high-end finishes that are low VOC and a very high quality façade/window system that reduces outside noise within each apartment. Ultimately, we’re delivering a far superior product than the other rental product in the marketplace because of those elements. Combine that with other key passive design elements that create a more comfortable living environment, like central heating and cooling and an energy recovery ventilation system, and that equates to luxury in our view. We also like the term “low-impact living,” as it really embodies the philosophy of our team in designing this building. While 542 West 153rd Street is not a net zero building, it’s as close as you can get in an urban environment while still providing the comfort that market rate residents are going to demand.
MHN: Tell us about your decision to work with interior design firm Me and General.
Palmer: I had worked with Me and General on 25 Broad Street at the Exchange, a rental project in New York City’s Financial District, to finish the interiors and I really enjoyed their creativity and approach to design. Frankly, I knew they were the right fit for this project and did not even ask anyone else to bid on this project. They do some really cool things in design and added a lot of value to what this project has become. I’m a big fan. They also do work for some major developers in NYC, which is valuable to be able to leverage off of their experience on larger scale projects. They know when to say, “You can get the same look and feel for a better price with this faucet, or that tile.” I think that their skillset is valuable, especially in today’s construction market.
MHN: Passive House is a standard like LEED?
Palmer: Passive House is a standard, but it is drastically different from LEED. We elected to pursue both the U.S. Passive House and German Passive House certifications, which are substantially similar, however, the requirements are much more rigorous than LEED. Frankly, LEED does not really look holistically at energy consumption of a building, which is very important to us from a philosophical point of view. It is also important for our investors to understand the value we are creating via energy savings through proper design.
When we discussed the passive business plan with our investment partners at Taurus Investment Holdings, they were completely on board, as they have German roots and have been investing in passive designs since the early 1990s.
MHN: How was the deal for 542 West 153rd financed?
Palmer: When we decided to pursue the investing in the land for Perch Harlem, we had already acquired two buildings in the area with Taurus that we were renovating using similar Passive strategies. We were not able to go fully Passive on those existing buildings (without gutting and completely redeveloping) so we were adding insulation on the interiors, we were creating air tight units by caulking when we renovated, we were making these makeshift ERVs to circulate fresh air (cutting holes in the brick into the light well to keep a constant flow of fresh air which is basically what the ERV does). When we saw the opportunity on the land deal come up, we talked to Taurus and said, “Hey, we’ve been working hard on all these energy retrofits on these existing buildings. Why wouldn’t we just build this thing right from the start.”
MHN: Will we be seeing an explosion of the Perch brand?
Palmer: We hope so. I certainly think that our product can compete with the Avalon, Equity Residential, and the Related Companies of the world because we know our apartments are built to the highest level of quality. We have the vision to make Perch a national brand and not just say, ‘Hey we’re building passive because that’s what the city wants.’ Our creative vision is to deliver this very unique rental building in Hamilton Heights and prove to the capital markets that residents value our product. How many rental apartments offer: constantly circulated fresh clean air, with proper ventilation so that you won’t be able to smell your neighbors’ cooking, in addition to solid sound proofing in both the interior and exterior so you don’t hear your neighbors or the sirens outside. We think that makes the concept of Perch very valuable in urban markets anywhere.