Getting to Zero

Net-zero energy for non-profit communities.

The Better Housing Coalition (BHC) is a non-profit community development corporation in Richmond, Va. BHC acquires blighted properties or vacant lots and renovates/constructs homes in keeping with the area’s historic architecture while integrating modern green building technologies. The result is a high-quality supply of affordable housing that serves as the catalyst for further private investment and development.

Two buildings comprise Somanath Senior Apartments on the “Beckstoffer’s Block” of N. 28th Street in Church Hill. The smaller, single-story building of seven units is BHC’s first “net-zero energy” multifamily apartment building for lower-income seniors, and to our knowledge is the first of its kind in Virginia. Developed by the Better Housing Coalition (BHC), the net-zero apartments were certified for occupancy on April 1, 2013, and were leased by June 1, 2013.

Located in Richmond’s North Church Hill neighborhood, the seven one-bedroom apartments feature green technologies designed to generate all the energy that residents require, from heating and cooling to electricity and hot water. The apartments are also fully accessible and feature universal design. The one-bedroom units average 700 square feet and rent for an average $730 a month, which includes utilities.

Although BHC has developed green dwellings for many years, this was its first foray into a net-zero energy building. The biggest challenge was managing the competing interests, standards and requirements of private and public agencies and partners, balancing those with construction deadlines, and staying within budget.

The total construction cost for the net-zero energy building was $854,000. The project was made a feasible investment through federal renewable energy tax credits and tax credits for affordable housing. The development received additional significant funding support from Bank of America, Capital One, Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, Dominion, The Cabell Foundation, Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, and Wells Fargo.

Certified by EarthCraft™ Virginia, Somanath Senior Apartments has a HERS Index Score of 20, which translates to units that are 80 percent more energy efficient than their standard-code built counterpart. This seven-unit building utilizes many green building techniques to achieve the building’s net-zero status.

Solar hot water heaters with six solar panels on the roof generate heat for two 120-gallon tanks in order to produce hot water on demand for all seven apartments. Photovoltaic (PV) panels are also located on the roof. These 135 panels provide power for all electricity, which is on a net-metering system from Dominion Power. When the building produces more energy than residents consume, the Better Housing Coalition will receive an energy credit. The ultimate goal is to achieve a utility bill balance of zero over the course of 12 months.

Through Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV), the dwellings have a tight envelope to keep cold air outside. The EVR system helps the building “breathe” by bringing fresh air in and taking stale air out.

Unlike traditional condenser units that are normally installed on the ground, the condensers for ductless mini-split HVAC systems are located on the roof. The interiors of each apartment include two individually controlled heating and cooling panels; there is no ductwork, eliminating heating/cooling loss and maintenance needs.

On the exterior, Structural Insulated Sheathing (SIS) is a two-in-one product that provides structural rigidity, a vapor barrier and insulation to the frame; it is made from 94 percent recycled materials. The interior insulation is a combination of spray foam and blown cellulose. High-performance double-glazed windows reduce heat transfer across the building envelope.

Each unit comes equipped with Energy Star™ appliances, which are at least 15 percent more efficient than standard appliances. Water Sense plumbing fixtures feature low-flow toilets that use only 1.28 gallons per flush. Southern exposure provides an abundance of natural light.

Three underground cisterns collectively hold 47,000 gallons. One cistern provides irrigation for the landscaping and two manage storm water runoff. Landscaping utilizes native and drought-resistant plants such as Knock Out roses, firepower nandina, sweetbay magnolia and carissa holly.

The project’s architectural designer was Baskervill. Timmons provided civil engineering services while general contracting services were delivered by BHC’s construction contracting entity Better Homes Inc. EarthCraft™ Virginia served as green technical consultants and certified the apartments for energy efficiency and sustainability. The solar and PV panels were provided by Solar Services. BHC’s development company Richmond Affordable Housing was the developer on this project.