An Architecture Firm’s Push To Build Net-Zero Apartments—On A Budget
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An Architecture Firm’s Push To Build Net-Zero Apartments—On A Budget

Philadelphia’s Onion Flats is constructing low-cost buildings that use design, mechanical equipment and residents’ behaviour to slash fossil fuel consumption.

By RUSSELL GOLD
Thu, Feb 11, 2021 3:52amGrey Clock 4 min

The shiny, onyx-coloured building appears alien in its drab, postindustrial Philadelphia neighbourhood—the love child of a “D-volt battery and the Death Star,” as one local architecture critic put it, admiringly.

Called Front Flats, the four-story building is wrapped on all sides and roof by 492 translucent, double-sided solar panels. The building is airtight and extraordinarily energy-efficient, its developers say.

By driving down consumption and producing electricity from its solar panels, Front Flats is designed to generate its own power. But this isn’t a corporate headquarters where executives can spend lavishly on a showcase edifice. It is 28 apartments, built on a budget for renters who make below the area’s median income. One-bedroom apartments rent for under $1,400, less than the $1,750 average for the neighbourhood, according to rental-listings website Zumper.

Onion Flats, the Philadelphia-based architecture-and-building firm behind Front Flats, is at the forefront of designing low-cost buildings that use design, mechanical equipment and residents’ behaviour to slash fossil fuel consumption.

“As an architect, if I’m not designing buildings that contribute no carbon to the environment then I’m being totally irresponsible,” says Tim McDonald, 56, a principal in Onion Flats. “I might as well be designing buildings that sit on marshmallows.”

Buildings contribute 38% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, including heating, cooling and construction materials, according to the International Energy Agency. The building industry is growing more interested in low-carbon construction, but few architects or contractors have experience with it. Many believe it significantly raises costs. Onion Flats wants to demonstrate that it can be done affordably and at scale, prodding others to follow and policymakers to enact energy-efficient building codes.

Mark Lyles, a project manager at the New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit based in Portland, Ore., that promotes low-carbon construction, says the work by Onion Flats is noteworthy because it ties together on-site renewable energy generation with “deep efficiency.”

Mr McDonald and his partners, he says, are “always asking where can I reduce energy consumption. A lot of his projects are bellwethers for where things are going.”

Onion Flats is one of several firms trying to build very energy-efficient housing. In Manhattan’s East Harlem neighbourhood, a 709-unit affordable housing development called Sendero Verde is under construction; it is intended to be among the most energy-efficient multifamily buildings in the world. In Portland, Ore., a 10-story, 127-apartment retirement community is slated to start construction this spring, and is expected to use up to 60% less energy than a typical multiunit building.

Onion Flats is a family affair. Two of Mr McDonald’s brothers, Patrick and Johnny, are also principals, as is Howard Steinberg, a friend since seventh grade in suburban Philadelphia.

Front Flats is its most ambitious attempt at a “net zero” building—a structure that throughout a year generates as much energy as it consumes. The solar skin—which is 60cm away from the windows and exterior—generates electricity, keeps the building cool in the summer by blocking the sun, and provides privacy to tenants. “You can’t see into people’s apartments, but they can see you,” Mr McDonald says.

The building, which opened in January 2020, doesn’t have a natural gas line and uses electricity for heat and hot water. From January through June, it generated more electricity than it needed and sold the excess onto the local power grid, Mr McDonald says. In July, August and September, it drew more kilowatt-hours than it generated. Overall, it is still ahead, Mr McDonald says, but since the pandemic slowed leasing and the building wasn’t fully occupied until the fall, the true test of whether the building is net zero will come this year with apartments full of people charging their mobile phones and playing on game consoles.

The firm has built several residential buildings in Philadelphia over the years and plans to keep going. The principals have learned that actual energy consumption is often greater than what the models predict. The culprit is “plug load”; people plug in bigger televisions and more electricity gobbling devices than expected.

About a mile south of Front Flats, Onion Flats built another apartment building called the Battery which attempts to tackle this problem. LEDs on the outside of the Battery are connected to particular apartments, although which light connects to which isn’t obvious to passersby or residents. When an apartment is using less electricity than its share of what is being generated, it glows green; otherwise, it glows red. The system, after encountering a software problem, is expected to go online this year.

After building its first government-subsidized, ultra energy-efficient townhouse for low-income residents in 2012, Onion Flats lobbied the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Authority, a state agency that distributes federal low-income tax credits, to consider an energy efficiency standard known as “passive house” construction when determining which builders were awarded the coveted credits. “We said ‘If we can do this, why can’t other developers’?” says Mr McDonald. After one meeting, the state agreed to give developers extra consideration for using a passive house design, beginning in 2015. (Onion Flats didn’t use the credit for Front Flats.)

The passive house projects didn’t cost much more to build than traditional apartment buildings—despite costing considerably less to heat and cool, according to an analysis of construction costs for residential projects over the past five years that the authority performed at the request of The Wall Street Journal.

“Not only is that encouraging, but the end result should be lower utility costs for the life of these passive house apartment buildings,” Robin Wiessmann, executive director of the agency, said in a statement. Tenants at Front Flats pay US$40 a month for utilities. Fifteen states are copying Pennsylvania’s approach and have begun using incentives to encourage more super-efficient apartment buildings.

Mr McDonald says he hopes that buildings that generate their own electricity will become commonplace.

“People don’t say, ‘I want to be known as an architect that has bathrooms in all our buildings.’ No, that’s just a given,” he says. “Being green, being sustainable, being carbon-neutral, should just be what it means to be a good architect.”



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We reveal the No. 1 areas for price growth in each capital city

By Bronwyn Allen
Thu, Jul 18, 2024 3 min

Home values across Australia rose by a median 8 percent in FY24, delivering the equivalent of $59,000 in new capital growth to the two-thirds of the population that owns a home, according to CoreLogic data. Investors received total returns of 12.2 percent over the year, including capital gains and gross rental income.

Very tight supply and demand in most capital cities except Melbourne and Hobart was a significant driver of the capital growth, with the smaller and more affordable capital cities of Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide experiencing the most price appreciation over the year. A lack of properties for sale trumped the usual dampening effect of higher interest rates.

As usual, some areas outperformed their city’s median growth benchmark. Here are the top SA3 areas for capital growth in each capital city of Australia in FY24. SA3 areas are large suburbs, or districts incorporating clusters of suburbs, with more than 20,000 residents.

 

Sydney

Home values across Sydney rose by a median 6.3 percent in FY24. The No. 1 area for growth was Mount Druitt. Its median value rose by 13.96 percent to $859,939. Mount Druitt is located 33km west of the CBD. It incorporates the suburbs of Mount Druitt, Ropes Crossing, Whalan and Minchinbury. The Mount Druitt community is very multicultural with almost one in two residents born overseas. It is home to many young families, with the median age of residents being 33 compared to the NSW median of 39.

 

Melbourne

Home values across Melbourne rose by a median 1.3 percent in FY24. The top area for capital growth was Moreland-North with 4.71 percent growth. This took the district’s median home value to $746,488. Moreland-North includes the suburbs of Hadfield, Pascoe Vale and Glenroy. It’s a multicultural community with a particularly large contingent of residents with Italian ancestry. One or both parents of 66 percent of residents were born overseas, according to the 2021 Census.

 

Brisbane

Home values across Brisbane rose by a median 15.8 percent in FY24. The No. 1 area for growth was Springwood-Kingston in Logan City. Its median value swelled by 25.55 percent to $710,569. Springwood-Kingston is approximately 22km south of Brisbane CBD. It incorporates the suburbs of Springwood, Kingston, Rochedale South and Slacks Creek. It is a multicultural community with one or both parents of 55 percent of the residents born overseas, according to the 2021 Census. More than 15 percent of residents have Irish or Scottish ancestry.

 

Adelaide

Home values across Adelaide rose by a median 15.4 percent in FY24. The best area for capital growth was Playford in Playford City. Its median value soared by 19.94 percent to $530,991. Playford is approximately 40km north of Adelaide. It incorporates the suburbs of Elizabeth Downs, Elizabeth Grove, Angle Vale and Virginia. It is home to many young people under the age of 40. The median age of residents is 33 compared to the state median of 41.

 

Perth 

Home values across Perth rose by a median 23.6 percent in FY24. The No. 1 area for growth was Kwinana in Kwinana City. Its median value skyrocketed by 33.19 percent to $618,925. Kwinana is approximately 37km south of Perth CBD. It includes the suburbs of Leda, Medina, Casuarina and Mandogalup. Henderson Naval Base is located here and there is a significant community of servicemen and ex-servicemen living in the area. It is home to many young families, with the median age of residents being 33 compared to the state median of 38.

 

Canberra

Home values across the nation’s capital rose by a median 2.2 percent in FY24. The best area for capital growth was Weston Creek. Its median value rose by 5.24 percent to $937,740. Weston Creek is approximately 13km south-west of the CBD. It includes the suburbs of Weston Creek, Holder, Duffy, Fisher and Chapman. Approximately 43 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree, which is on par with the ACT median but much higher than the national median of 26 percent. Household incomes are about 35 percent higher than the national median. Almost one in five residents work in government administration jobs.

 

Hobart

Home values across Hobart fell 0.1 percent in FY24. The top performing area for capital gains was Sorell-Dodges Ferry with 2.78 percent growth. This took the area’s median home value to $615,973. Sorell-Dodges Ferry is approximately 25km north-west of Hobart. It incorporates the suburbs of Richmond, Sorell, Dodges Ferry, Carlton and Primrose Sands. The area has a large community of baby boomers and retirees, with the median age of residents being 43 compared to the Australian median of 38.

 

Darwin

Home values across Darwin rose by a median 2.4 percent in FY24. The No. 1 area for growth was Litchfield. Its median value moved 3.21 higher to $672,003. Litchfield is about 37km south-east of Darwin and includes the suburbs of Humpty Doo, Acacia Hills and Southport.  It has a high proportion of middle-aged residents, with the median age being 39 compared to the territory median of 33. About 12 percent of residents are Indigenous Australians. The biggest industries are government administration and defence. Median household incomes are about 35 percent higher than the national median.

 

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This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

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