Housing Complex

LEEDing By Example: Why Are “Green” Apartments So Rare In D.C.?

This article will appear in the latest issue of Washington City Paper out Thursday.

Five years ago, developer Armond Spikell sent out some checklists he got from a green building Web site to architects and engineers working on his latest project, Cityline at Tenley.

The development, which currently houses Best Buy, the Container Store, Ace Hardware, and 204 condos, already included some nods to environmental friendliness: It was right by the Tenleytown Metro, it preserved a 1940s structure, and it brought services to D.C. that had been the province of the suburbs-the whole "walkable city" thing.

Spikell thought maybe Cityline could qualify for "some sort of green building certification," he says, so he reached out to his partners in 2003 as construction began. "They were not that interested in thinking about it, responding to it, or getting involved," says Spikell, a founding partner of Roadside Development. By contract, the developers at Cityline weren't obligated to incorporate green design into their plans. So "we finally gave up," says Spikell.

Five years later, it's a lot easier getting people interested in being green.

Just how much importance consumers place on eco-friendliness, however, is a bit tougher to judge.
For Roadside's next mixed-use project, the CityMarket at O in Shaw on the site of the Giant grocery, Spikell commissioned an extensive survey about amenities, including questions about how important green features are to renters.

For the legwork, he reached out to Mary Ann Voight, an independent marketing specialist.
Voight drafted a lengthy online survey that asked possible renters and buyers to grade 25 different amenities-from a "pet washing/grooming room" to "loaner bicycles" to "auto care in the garage"-on a 1-to-5 scale.

"It was kind of trying to figure out what the have-to-haves are versus the need-to-haves," says Voight.

About 200 people took the test at Quarterlifecrisis.com, from an ad at washingtoncitypaper.com, and through other outlets.

"There were a lot of nice-to-haves. But the have-to-haves came out loud and clear," she says. She found that "people really, really, really want to have a recycling chute on their floor. They don't want to have to hold onto their recyclables in their apartment and take them down once a week. That really surprised us," says Voight.

Overall, 61 percent of respondents said it was "very important" or "extremely important" to their rental decision that there was a chute on each floor of the building, rather than a single recycling area on the first floor. Roughly 70 percent responded similarly about having energy efficient appliances.
"[Those] were way more important than a swimming pool, or even a gym. It was literally, besides parking, the most important of all the amenities," says Voight.

Only 37 percent of respondents rated "green design features" "very" or "extremely" important. And only 33 percent felt the same way about Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, a rating system created by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council that provides guidelines for constructing eco-friendly structures.

Ken Johnson, CEO of DCRealEstate.com, which markets new condominium buildings in the Washington area, has twice polled readers of his company's newsletter about amenities. Both times, he collected between 200 and 300 responses. "People say they want green, but they still want their SUV," he says. "People want green when it comes to condominium apartments-if they can have everything else for the same amount, they'll take it. But they often don't choose it."

Johnson points to the Alta near Thomas Circle, D.C.'s first LEED-certified condo building. He doesn't think the building's eco-friendly cachet boosted sales, which began in 2006 and ended in 2008.
But Long & Foster agent Lance Horsley definitely sees a demand for sustainable design. He recently took a course through Greenrealestateeducation.com to learn, among other things, about how he could help clients retrofit their apartments with green products and systems.

"[People] are coming to me a lot saying 'Where are your green buildings-can we start with them?'" says Horsley. "Unfortunately, my answer is 'We've got one or two to select from. Let's go look at them,' and then that's it."

For his part, developer Spikell says he'll be adding one more option in the next few years. He believes buyers and renters at the development-which will include 150 to 160 condos, more than 400 apartments, 80 to 90 low-income elderly apartments, and retail, including a new 71,000-square-foot Giant-will be enticed by LEED certification. He's also looking into installing central heating and cooling systems, as opposed to individual units. This time, he'll have support. Every engineer and architectural firm he's collaborating with has employees that have gone through LEED training "that's qualified them to understand environmental issues and specifically how the LEED point system works," he says.

"Everyone's interested it. It's just amazing the change in attitude."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • http://www.beardenarts.com Neil Takemoto

    Check out http://www.livegreen.net and look in the top left corner. 'Green apartments' are rare in DC because the market has never been formally connected to the developers... until now. My role is to interface between the developers and the green community that's demanding attainably-priced green housing.

  • joe developer

    a) LEED certification only went mainstream 3 years ago.

    b) it take 3-5 years to plan and build an apartment building

    why aren't there more green buildings? do the math.

    there will be many many more to come.

    LEED certified buildings in and around DC have had a more positive environmental impact than all of the hybrid cars combined.

  • huh?

    leed certification is a scam. it costs money to get this certification, it's not just handed over to a given building after an inspection.

  • joe landlord

    Many times the historic district requirements conflict with "going green" because the cost of retaining historic elements is very high when combined with new, high-tech non-historic non-traditional materials. I am an owner/operator who rents out several apartments. "Going Green" sounds very nice, except when it will cost an extra five cents in rent increases, then forget it, prospective tenants will go elsewhere.

  • http://www.greenrenter.com Marti Frank


    I'm a co-founder of a new site trying to address this issue by helping renters find green buildings and encouraging owners to go green: http://www.greenrenter.com.

    We're just coming to the Washington, D.C. area and would love suggestions for owners and renters about what buildings to list.

    If you're looking for a place, check us out too!

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  • Wrong Number

    He obviously sent his checklist to the wrong architects. He should have sent one to Bonstra/Haresign!

  • http://www.KFMArchitecturalDesign.com Apartment Plans

    For apartment plans, architectural designs, custom house plan, custom house plans, take a look at KFMArchitecturalDesign.com

  • http://www.auto-craigslister.com Johnson Gauger

    It isn't all that referring to the topic, however my wife just walked by and seen the text blogger on the monitor. In her eyes, she actually seen booger, and asked me why I was looking up boogers. I haven't laughed so hard in a few weeks.

  • http://www.portlandproperty.net.au/ Portland Property

    Green apartments are hard to find anywhere in the United States. They aren't the most environmentally friendly nation going around!