The Biggest Challenge to Green Development Is Fear of the Unknown

David E. Gross, AIA, is a founding partner of GF55 Partners, a New York-based architecture firm that is currently working on projects in Florida, New Jersey and New York. Over the past 20 years, GF55 has completed work on apartment buildings, condominiums, senior centers and mixed-use projects. Gross is currently on the board of directors of the New York State Association of Affordable Housing and serves on the Housing Committee of the AIA (American Institute of Architects). He has published articles in New York Real Estate Weekly, Suncoast Magazine and Avenue Magazine.GF55 has designed LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-rated multifamily projects in Harlem, New York and Jersey City, New Jersey. In 2007, the firm’s LEED Silver 40-unit mixed-use Webb Apartments in Jersey City received the Urban Redevelopment Award by the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority. Kalahari (pictured), a 250-unit mixed-use LEED certified project in which GF55 served as the executive architect and was responsible for the building’s production, including its green aspects and LEED rating, won a 2007 MHN Design Excellence Award in the Green Category, and Development NY named it the Top Green Building in 2007.Gross talks to MHN Associate Editor Erika Schnitzer about the most difficult roadblocks in green design, what it takes to be green, and how the state of the economy has affected the markets in which he works.MHN: How did your firm gain its green expertise?Gross: We gained our expertise by working on a green project with a knowledgeable developer. GF55 is a “hands on” company, and we learned by doing the project. Additionally, the partner-in-charge and the project manager took courses and attended seminars. We sponsored any employee who wanted to take classes, and this led to two project architects getting their LEED certification. MHN: What are the biggest challenges to green development? Gross: Fear of the unknown, poor understanding of the minimal costs involved and poor understanding of the process. On the process side of actually doing the project as LEED-rated, the procedure is cumbersome and costly. When green becomes standard, a lot of this process will simply be built into the system of construction. Now, it is an overlay. One of the biggest challenges is the cost of the additional professional layer that is required with LEED projects. MHN: Do you have to be LEED to be green?Gross: No. One can build with green principles but not go through the process of getting the building LEED-rated. Our understanding of green principles enables us to integrate those ideas into projects, even if the client does not intend to get the LEED rating. Aspects such as a green roof, super-insulated walls, Energy Star appliances or natural light and airflow do not have to be engineered for a LEED rating to be effective and green.Also, we do not have to be LEED-rated professionals to direct and focus the project to obtain maximum return on its green aspects. Part of our role as architects is to be a general expert with enough knowledge to direct the experts in structural or mechanical areas. Similarly with green, we don’t need to be LEED-rated individually to synthesize the green consultant’s work into our own. MHN: Is it difficult getting green buy-in from multifamily developers?Gross: It is getting less difficult, as the market is demanding at least some aspect of green, so it is now being seen as a feature or a benefit. However, that benefit remains hard to quantify. MHN: For which demographic do you typically design?Gross: All incomes. We are working on New Jersey’s first 100 percent affordable LEED-rated building in Jersey City (Webb Apartments). In New York, we are the executive architects for the Kalahari, which offers luxury market-rate residences. In Queens, NY, we are designing a LEED Silver private office building. MHN: Describe the market conditions in Florida, New Jersey and New York.Gross: The market in Florida has been dead for two years. The market in New York and New Jersey has been robust, but it’s getting scary and people are becoming reluctant to move forward. Loans are getting more difficult to close, and bills are being paid more slowly. New York and New Jersey rentals are being built to a far greater degree than last year, as for-sale projects are being re-marketed. MHN: How is the economic downturn affecting multifamily developers in your markets?Gross: The economic downturn is turning all the developers down. They are reluctant to press ahead, are paying slowly and are starting to sit on the sidelines waiting for the market to change. Our office is still quite busy and profitable, but the urgency seems to have decreased.