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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Expert tips for prospective buyers looking to purchase a home in 2024.

By Josh Bozin
Fri, Apr 12, 2024 3 min

For aspiring homeowners, be it a first-time buyer, downsizer, or investor, picturing your idea of homeownership bliss is the easy part. But before deliberating on furniture choices or scouting for that perfect neighbourhood coffee, understanding your purchasing power stands out as the most important step in ensuring your success in homeownership.

And with the Australian property market gaining momentum in 2024, there’s never been a better time to come to grips with your financial options.

In 2023, amid the changing financial landscape that saw rising interest rates and the cost of living skyrocket, among other factors, the total amount borrowed for property purchases across Australia was estimated at $300.9 billion, a 12.7 percent decrease from the previous year, according to PEXA’s latest Mortgage Insights Report.

Each mainland state also experienced a decline in new lending, according to the report, with Victoria and New South Wales seeing the biggest drops to $84.1 billion and $109.5 billion, respectively.

While this trend reflects the repercussions of such financial hardships on the everyday Australian, John Morello, director and auctioneer at Jellis Craig, said we’re seeing renewed confidence in the property market during the first quarter of 2024, particularly in Melbourne.

“Auction clearance rates have started the year strongly and consumer sentiment is rising. This lift is driven by cooling inflation and an improved outlook on interest rates. At Jellis Craig, as with the rest of the market, we are experiencing an increase in volume of property compared to the same period in March last year (up 28% in 2024),” Mr Morello said.

“Melbourne’s property market, in particular, is showing its ongoing evolution and resilience.”

PEXA’s report revealed that, while borrowing saw a decrease in 2023 in Australia, Australians still invested $613.0 billion in property purchases in 2023. In 2024, purchasing confidence is only going up, as prospective first home buyers, seasoned downsizers, and savvy investors look to capitalise on a flood of new property hitting the market, coupled with the lowering of interest rates across the board.

“With more certainty in the economic outlook, along with an increase in volume of property available, we are seeing these factors translate to early signs of a boost in confidence in both buyers and sellers,” said Mr Morello.

“Further encouraging data shows that whilst there is more property available to purchase, more people are inspecting property, again indicating that demand has increased broadly across our marketplace.”

If you’re in the market for a new property, the biggest question you must ask yourself is how much house can I afford?

A great starting place is to speak with your mortgage broker or financial professional, who can guide you on your lending options. This is critical, as you need to know what your future repayment options might look like, and ultimately, what you will typically be able to afford.

A useful tool for judging whether you can afford a specific property is to factor in the 28/36 rule — a rough guide that suggests you should not spend more than 28 percent of your gross monthly income on housing, and no more than 36 percent on all debts. Another useful tool is the idea of a debt-to-income ratio (DTI); a formula whereby an individual can divide all of their monthly debt payments by gross monthly income to arrive at a number that one can measure as a way of managing monthly mortgage payments.

Mr Morello emphasised the need to understand affordability and what’s feasible for each individual when looking to make a purchase, no matter the budget, on a property in 2024.

“It’s pivotal to work out what you can afford. Get your finances in order. Consider all associated costs with buying, and research what concessions and grants are available,” said Mr Morello.

“It’s easy for individuals to begin the process today. Start actively searching potential properties on a weekly basis, and research areas you are interested in. Check weekly sales results, attend inspections and auctions, to get a feel for the process. Just remember, it’s important to be really comfortable in understanding your living expenses, and what the ongoing expenses will be once you have bought a property.

“For example, mortgage repayments, council rates, water, power, owners corp fees, insurances, maintenance costs; if you are buying as an investment, the Land Tax payable on that property which is an ongoing tax. There’s many factors to consider.”

To see what’s possible for your specific circumstances, visit our Finance Portal for specific tools, guides and tips—as well as our own mortgage calculator—to assist you on your property journey.

 

MOST POPULAR
35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

11 ACRES ROAD, KELLYVILLE, NSW

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

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