Clean Air: The Next Luxury Apartment Perk
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Clean Air: The Next Luxury Apartment Perk

Technology that seamlessly fixes air quality will become widespread in homes by 2030, real-estate developers say. Will homebuyers care once the pandemic subsides?

By KATY MCLAUGHLIN
Wed, Dec 16, 2020 3:24amGrey Clock 6 min

When buyers of real-estate developer John Roe’s seven condos walk into their new Manhattan homes sometime after May next year, Mr Roe wants them to breathe deep and feel good about it. That’s because he has spared no expense on air quality.

The boutique building, called Charlotte of the Upper West Side, is being constructed with an airtight external shell. Fresh air, tempered, filtered and then treated with ultraviolet light, will be constantly pumped into each room, while the same amount of used air is extracted. If a resident is worried—say they muttered “God bless you” to a sniffly dinner guest a worrisome number of times last night—they can boost the air exchange in their unit by 120%. Buyers of Mr Roe’s properties will be well aware of how special their air is: Marketing materials, which typically might describe the amenities and luxe touches, include elaborate diagrams and animations describing how the air system works.

The cost of all this magnificent air? The cheapest unit will list at $11 million (A$14.5 million), while penthouses will hit $18 million (A$23.8 million), Mr Roe says. Those price tags are largely due to the location, size and luxury finishes of the units, but the air system wasn’t cheap, either, Mr Roe says. Still, like everything else in real estate that was once the preserve of the elite—think roof decks, gyms, stainless steel—these technologies were already on a path of increased adoption and lower cost. Covid-19 has poured accelerant on the trend.

Executives at some of the country’s largest developers say they believe that by 2030 such systems will be commonplace in all residential development. Buildings with a high degree of mechanical ventilation and energy efficiency will be routine. Indoor sensors will identify when air quality has dropped and automatically increase ventilation. Systems will aim to mitigate outdoor air problems, such as general pollution or smoke from bushfires, as well as indoor threats, such as a sick resident, a burned pot roast or overenthusiastic spraying of lemon polish. Homes will feature dynamic air systems with a “crisis mode” that can upgrade filtration and run a disinfection protocol. Once the threat has been neutralised, systems will return to status quo to save energy.

At the same time, questions remain about what technology is most effective and worth the cost in both dollars and energy use. Will home buyers care about air quality when Covid-19 is no longer affecting daily life?

Scott Walsh, a vice president and project director for Lendlease, a global real estate and investment firm, says he believes that, armed with a new understanding about air quality, consumers will demand homes that improve it.

Already, developers are drawing up blueprints with a focus on fresh air flow, filtration and purification.

“Air quality is now front of mind for our buyers,” says Elisa Orlanski Ours, chief planning and design officer at Corcoran Sunshine, the new development wing of the Corcoran Group real-estate brokerage. Her developer clients are currently exploring how to filter and disinfect the air in both public and private spaces, she says.

The most cutting edge technology today, which will gradually become less expensive and more widespread, is an “energy recovery ventilator,” says Andrea Mancino, executive vice president of New York for Bright Power, an energy management consultant. These are ventilation systems that recapture energy from hot air leaving the building to heat or cool the filtered fresh air going back in.

Air quality experts believe that the wide adoption of MERV 13 or 14 air filters—which the ASHRAE trade group, formerly known as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, recommended in April—will be sufficient to manage major particle-related problems. MERV, or “minimum efficiency reporting value,” describes the efficiency of a filter at trapping particles of different sizes.

The pandemic has brought a jolt of interest to systems that go beyond filtering undesirable particles out of the air. Instead, they act upon particles to destroy them, through ultraviolet light, UV photo oxidation, ionization and other tactics. Scientific studies are expected to shed light on which methods and systems are most effective in a home.

“All these products work somewhat differently, and for a lot of these new products, we don’t have good studies to know how well they actually work,” says Max Sherman, the residential team leader of ASHRAE’s epidemic task force.

Gandolfo Schiavone, president of Sav Mor Mechanical, an HVAC company, says that since July his company has installed over 300 air purifiers on buildings’ existing ventilation systems around the New York area. Blueair, a Swedish maker of portable air purifiers that Unilever bought in 2016, has seen triple-digit growth this year, says chief product officer Jonas Holst.

Mr Holst believes that the U.S. will eventually buy air purifiers at the same rate as Asia. “In the U.S., the penetration rate for purifiers is about 15%. In Japan and Korea, about 40% of homes have an air purifier,” he says.

Clean Air
Mr Levitt examines a MERV 13 filter at Lakehouse. Air quality experts believe that the wide adoption of MERV 13 or 14 filters will be sufficient to manage major particle-related problems. PHOTO: DAVID WILLIAMS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Sensor technology that analyzes indoor air quality is already in use in a handful of new luxury homes. Delos, which founder Paul Scialla describes as a “wellness real estate and technology company,” sells a system that monitors and mitigates air, water and light quality. Through an app, homeowners can see when their air quality drops below optimal standards; the built-in system then triggers ventilation.

In the near future, sensor-based technology that not only detects problems, such as cleaning chemicals in the air, but also responds by, say, automatically ventilating a space, will become widespread, as more manufacturers create better and cheaper systems, contractors learn about them and homeowners demand them, predicts Ryan Donovan, senior category manager for indoor air quality at Ferguson Enterprises, a seller of plumbing and HVAC products. Systems will also become more sensitive: “In 10 years, I do think it’s possible that the sensor will tell you there’s a flu virus,” Mr Donovan says.

Insiders compare the current state of the air quality industry to the early days of the organic food movement, before a U.S. Department of Agriculture standard was formalised. Today, there are a handful of voluntary certifications that speak to air quality, including Passive House and the WELL Building standard, founded by Mr Scialla’s Delos. Whether such labelling will eventually cohere into a government-backed standard, or lead to regulation, isn’t known.

At Lakehouse, a 196-unit condo building in Denver, developer Brian Levitt designed features he hopes will help him achieve the WELL certification “gold” level, he says. The apartments are for sale for US$499,000 to US$1.825 million. Mr Levitt says that residents will get their own ventilated air, furnishings were “off-gassed” in a warehouse for months, and he used low VOC paints and glues. “Buyers may not be willing to pay a premium for WELL yet, but we do think it increased our sales absorption,” and lowers resistance to multifamily living, says Mr Levitt, president of NAVA Real Estate Development.

Clean Air.
Mr Levitt developed Lakehouse with features he hopes will help the project achieve the WELL certification ‘gold’ level. PHOTO: DAVID WILLIAMS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Air quality is a concern across the price spectrum. Michael Bohn, senior principal at Studio One Eleven, an architecture and design firm based in Long Beach, Calif., redesigned an affordable-housing complex in Santa Ana, Calif., after the pandemic struck. It will now include MERV 14 filters and balconies for each unit.

Indoor air quality cannot widely improve until the building industry finds ways to ventilate, heat, cool, filter and purify air in an energy efficient way. Newly-constructed buildings have the best shot, says Dr Sherman: They can be designed to avoid leakage of air and can use the most efficient mechanical systems. Retrofitting existing buildings while meeting green building standards that will eventually become law is harder, says Derek Tynan, a project engineer with Efficient Energy Compliance, a consulting firm for commercial buildings in New York.

Developers and engineers believe one of the answers lies in dynamic systems that can boost air quality mitigations in times of crisis—thus using more energy—and then reset to a more energy-efficient setting when it is safe to do so.

It’s not clear whether pandemic shock will lead to lasting change. Dan Holohan, an author of 24 books about the steam heat industry, has studied engineering manuals during and after the 1918 flu pandemic. Back then, there was lots of discussion of “the fresh air movement,” but once it was all over, so was any mention of infectious disease, says Mr Holohan.

“Once we get vaccinated, people will forget this ever happened and get back to doing the cheapest thing,” he says.

 



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They Were About to Move In When the Ocean Almost Washed Away Their New Home

Gail and Ron Fink’s property in Jupiter Inlet Colony sustained major damage during an unusually windy day. ‘The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone.’

By E.B. SOLOMONT
Fri, Feb 23, 2024 8 min

Gail and Ron Fink weren’t home the day the ocean swallowed their backyard.

The Florida couple, who are in their 70s, were a few miles away on Feb. 6—an unusually blustery day in the Sunshine State—as waves pounded their beachfront property in Jupiter Inlet Colony, sweeping sand, dirt and trees out to sea. When it was all over, the Finks’ newly-built, roughly 10,000-square-foot home was intact; so too was their free-form swimming pool, improbably balanced on exposed concrete-and-steel pilings.

“That’s what saved the whole thing,” said Ron, founder of an air- and-water purification company. “The pilings are holding up the house and pool.”

Gail and Ron Fink recently finished building a roughly 10,000-square-foot home. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Drone footage and pictures from local photographers and the Finks’ builder show the severity of the destruction, which left their pool suspended in the air, with pipes protruding from the earth. Town officials said erosion claimed 7 to 10 feet of sand and created steep drop-offs in front of about half-dozen homes, including one belonging to Kid Rock , the rapper-turned-country rocker, who paid $3.2 million for the property in 2012. Conair heiress Babe Rizzuto also sustained damage to her property down the street, which she bought for $6.3 million in 2015 and currently has listed for $22.5 million, according to Zillow.  Neither responded to requests for comment.

But the Finks house, located just past the end of a granite revetment wall—a kind of sea wall—bore the brunt of the heavy wind and waves.

 

“The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone,” said Ron. Also gone are fully matured Palm trees and an ipe-wood deck. “It’s out floating in the ocean someplace.” Ron is self-insured and the repair work will be quite expensive. undefined

A New Jersey native, Ron is an engineer by training who worked at nuclear-testing sites in California and Nevada before moving to Florida in the 1980s. He is the founder of RGF Environmental Group, which makes air- water-and food-purification systems.

For almost 40 years, the Finks—who have three adult children and eight grandchildren—have lived in Admirals Cove, a gated community in Jupiter about 5 miles from their new house. They paid $180,000 for the Admirals Cove lot in 1987 and built a roughly 6,000-square-foot house, Ron said. The Finks also own homes in the Cayman Islands and Bahamas.

Until now, the Finks have lived in Admirals Cove, about 5 miles from their new house. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Ron said they began looking for property in Jupiter Inlet Cove years ago. “It’s a neat place, just a closed little colony right on the ocean, low key and quiet,” he said.

About 20 miles north of Palm Beach, Jupiter Inlet Colony is at the southern tip of Jupiter Island. The town, founded around 1959, has approximately 240 homes and is surrounded on three sides by water—the Atlantic Ocean, Jupiter Inlet and the Intracoastal Waterway. Long a destination for wealthy homeowners, homes in Jupiter Inlet Colony tend to trade for between $2 million and $5 million, although one sold for $18.6 million in January, according to real-estate brokerage Redfin. Last year, a home on the Intracoastal sold for $21.4 million, a record for the town.

In 2020, the Finks paid $4.9 million for a vacant beachfront lot and subsequently built a coastal-style house with a copper-and shake-style roof, covered loggia, pool and outdoor fire pit. “You know, it’s kind of a dream home,” Ron said. “We have built quite a few homes, but this is the end of the line for us, hopefully the last one.”

He said the property originally belonged to the singer Perry Como, one of the town’s first residents. A prior owner demolished Como’s house, and when the Finks bought it, there were concrete-and-steel pilings sticking out of the ground.

Ron Fink said he never removed about 60 pilings, he simply added roughly 30 more. “Now I’m glad I did,” he said. (Pilings are based on the design of a house, so Ron retained some pilings that he didn’t necessarily need.)

John Melhorn of design-build firm Thomas Melhorn, which built the house, said the Finks were a final review away from obtaining a certificate of occupancy when the backyard was destroyed. “They were right there at the goal line,” he said.

The Finks’ house and pool are standing on about 90 concrete-and-steel pilings. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Melhorn said the erosion began in late October amid unusually high winds and ocean swell. During the first week of February, sand beneath a row of sea grapes that stabilized the dunes between the house and ocean began to wash away. By the evening of Feb. 6, the plantings disappeared. The yard was gone by the next morning.

Melhorn said a pre-existing, low wall between the ocean and house—described as a cinder-block retaining wall on land surveys—also washed away, as did a walkway and steps to the beach. But he said the 2-foot-high wall was less of a retaining wall and more like a curb between the street and sidewalk. In this case, a prior owner used it to hold sea grapes back from encroaching on the property. The Finks replaced the wall with decorative stone, now lost to the ocean. An outdoor fire pit is still there, cantilevered over the ocean. “We tried to pull as many things out as we saw the erosion coming, but we lost a lot,” Melhorn said.

In Florida, erosion is increasing because of more frequent, more severe storms and sea-level rise, said Cheryl Hapke, a research professor at the University of South Florida and the chair of the Florida Coastal Mapping Program. But she said it isn’t just hurricane-level storms that cause major damage. “One thing I have found about barrier islands [like Jupiter Inlet Colony] is that sometimes a series of smaller events can have as big an impact as a major hurricane,” she said. “But people get caught off guard. It’s something they don’t think of.”

In Jupiter Inlet Colony, longtime residents said this month’s erosion is the worst the area has seen in years, possibly ever.

Mayor Ed Hocevar, who has lived there for 17 years, said it has been a particularly cool and challenging winter with an abnormal number of Nor’easters. On Feb. 6, local news channels warned of high winds, with gusts between 40 and 50 miles an hour. (There were also reports of an earthquake off the coast that week, causing high waves.)

Since the 1980s, Jupiter Inlet Colony has had a granite rock revetment wall that extends from the northern end of the community past 11 oceanfront homes. “But we’ve got 28 homes along the beachfront, so it isn’t complete,” Hocevar said. “Where the wall ended is where the significant damage occurred.” Hocevar said he doesn’t know why the wall wasn’t completed, although local lore is that homeowners building the wall ran out of money.

Last week, the town hired a local mining company to bring in 7,000 tons of sand to replace what washed away. Hocevar said it would cost about $500,000, which will come out of the town’s reserve fund. Long term, he said, extending the revetment wall isn’t a strong possibility.

Hapke, the coastal geology expert, said that in recent decades, sea walls and hardened structures have fallen out of favor as scientists discovered they are detrimental to the environment around them. “Storm water wants to flow, so it will redirect water to the area without a sea wall,” she said, adding that the most ideal long-term solution is to move homes away from the coastline.

 

Hocevar, 67, who has been mayor of Jupiter Inlet Colony for about a month, said the town is working closely with the Department of Environmental Protection on its response. He said the DEP’s recommendation, should erosion like this occur again, is to bring in more sand. Hocevar emphasised that the community is rallying together. “Think about it as a fortress and your wall has been breached,” he said. “You want to protect your neighbourhood and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Holly Meyer Lucas of Compass, who represented the seller when the Finks purchased their property, said Jupiter Inlet Colony is a “special little enclave” where sales exploded during Covid. “Listings sell after a day or sell off-market,” she said.

Lucas said the consensus among local real-estate agents is that property values will hold, despite the erosion. “I think this is a really rare, weird, fluky event,” she said. “I’ve sold everywhere up and down the coast and I’ve never heard of anything like this.”

The couple were close to getting their certificate of occupancy for the newly-built home. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Babe Rizzuto, whose house is two doors down from the Finks, listed her house for $24.5 million in December 2023 and cut the price to $22.5 million on Feb. 6, according to Zillow.

“She’s going to continue to sell,” said Milla Russo of Illustrated Properties, who is marketing the property with her husband, Andrew Russo. “Even though the timing isn’t great, it is what it is.”

Russo said there has been erosion in the past, and during hurricanes residents of Jupiter Inlet Colony are the first in the area to evacuate. But in general, people are not preoccupied with the weather. “Maybe because we live here, when the hurricanes come, we all have hurricane parties. We go to people’s homes and we barbecue and grill. Of course we’re careful and we lock up and all that, but weather is weather,” she said. “We’ve never been terribly scared.”

(The Russos were also involved in selling the Fink property. However, in 2020 the closing agent on the deal, Florida-based Eavenson, Fraser & Lunsford, PLLC, sued Milla Russo and Illustrated Properties as part of a commission dispute. The seller, Michael Cantor’s Range Road Developers, was named as a defendant and cross-plaintiff in the suit, in which a judge ruled in favor of Eavenson, court records show. Milla Russo declined to comment on the suit. Eavenson declined to comment beyond the judge’s findings and Cantor did not respond to requests for comment.)

Ron was also matter-of-fact about the state of beachfront living. Bring a life jacket, he jokingly told a photographer who inquired last week about taking his picture.

However, the Finks are facing weeks of costly repairs. Although the town is bringing in sand to replace the decimated beachfront, the couple is self-insured and will be on the hook for the cost of rebuilding. Several major home insurers have pulled out of Florida, and Ron said insurance on the house would have cost $100,000 a year. Now, he estimated they could face about $1 million worth of repair work. “We gotta eat it,” he said.

The couple, who was supposed to move into the house this month, has put those plans on hold—for now. An engineer recently inspected the property and deemed the house safe, Ron said. “We’re doing wallpaper today,” he said. “We can put it back together again.” The patio and pool area, meanwhile, are roped off while the area underneath is backfilled with sand.

Ron said being near the ocean makes it worthwhile. “I just love the ocean, we both do. It’s important to us,” he said. “It isn’t easy to look at, but I’ve been through a lot worse.”

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