By Noah Morgenstein
This May, students in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management and the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development toured Via Verde, one of New York’s greenest housing complexes. From the photovoltaic solar panels to the rooftop gardens and water reclamation system, Via Verde embodies many of the practical approaches to sustainable development that seek to strike the right balance between low environmental impact, social inclusion, and economic development.
Robert Garneau — an architect from Grimshaw Architects, the firm that was involved in the design of the complex — led students on a walking tour of the facilities. Via Verde was the winning entry to the 2006 New Housing New York Legacy Competition sponsored by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter. Dattner and Grimshaw Architects collaborated on the design, while Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies developed the project.
Via Verde’s innovative design represents the future of high quality, affordable, and sustainable housing. The building is estimated to be over 30% more energy efficient than a standard building, making use of rooftop solar panels, a storm water irrigation system, and rooftop gardens- which absorb rainwater runoff while providing opportunities for gardening. Each apartment also includes energy-efficient lighting, high-efficiency windows, super-sealed insulation, and water-conserving fixtures.
The tour kicked off in the central courtyard, which includes seating for social gatherings and playgrounds. Here, Garneau discussed the challenges of constructing such green, yet affordable, housing. Material selection is critical to ensuring sustainability, low environmental impact, aesthetics, and low cost. Over 20% of the materials used in Via Verde’s construction were recycled, while another 20% were locally manufactured.
From there, the tour ascended to the outdoor gardens, some of which are maintained by the complex and others by the residents themselves. Garneau explained that each resident is guaranteed a plot of the garden, which included flowers and vegetables, though some donate their space to other residents. Besides offering opportunities for residents to grow their own food, the rooftop gardens also dissipate heat and absorb rainwater runoff and provide more space for social gathering. Above the gardens on another rooftop, students explored the storm water reclamation system, which recycles water for irrigating the gardens.
Students were impressed by the hard work that went into transforming an overgrown lot on top of abandoned railroad tracks into an affordable urban housing oasis. In addition, Via Verde provided students with an opportunity to examine the applications of several subfields of sustainable development, including alternative energy, urban agriculture, water systems, environmental sustainability, and community development.
Noah Morgenstein is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute. He attends Columbia College and will graduate in 2015 with a degree in economics and political science.