Tuesday, February 15, 2011

LOCAL GREEN NEWS: Castle Square upgrade

South End apartments built in 1960s to get green makeover

The Castle Square Apartments building was never a showcase. Built in the 1960s, the 500-unit low- and moderate-income apartment complex on Tremont Street offered its South End neighbors a bland brick-and-concrete exterior. Inside, the smells of cooking would spread among units.

But by the end of this year, the structure will sport a new, more appealing exterior, units will be sealed more effectively, and energy bills for residents will be lower — a lot lower.

Castle Square is undergoing a renovation designed to update the building’s aesthetics and achieve radical energy savings — a 72 percent drop from current consumption. Key to the project is a new “skin,’’ a 1-inch super-insulated shell that will be laid over the building’s dated facade.

The revamped look of the building is a point of pride for members of the Castle Square Tenants Organization. “People coming off the highway, this is one of their first impressions of the city,’’ said Tony Stark, a resident and a member of the association’s board.

Deborah Backus, executive director of the tenant group and a former resident, said the new shell “is going to bring the building’s look into the 21st century,’’ a goal echoed in the efforts to reduce energy consumption at the complex. In addition to the external insulation, the building will get solar-heated hot water, energy-efficient appliances and lighting, and new windows.

“We wanted to create a precedent that showed how to create dramatic carbon savings in existing buildings,’’ said Heather Clark, an energy efficiency consultant who is working on the project.

Green renovations typically result in an energy savings of around 20 to 30 percent, according to Clark. “At the scale we’re at, there’s no other building in the US that’s saving the type of energy we are at Castle Square,’’ she said.

The project also brings quality-of-life upgrades for residents. Every apartment will get a new kitchen and bathroom, as well as an energy-efficient window air conditioner. The complex is also getting a new community center, and workers are sealing air leaks between apartment units and on outside walls. That is expected to go a long way toward improving air quality.

As it is, residents can smell the food when neighbors cook, and “if someone is smoking in their unit, the person next door can smell the cigarette,’’ said Backus. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will analyze asthma rates before and after the project to see if the air sealing has an impact on residents’ health.

Most residents will continue to occupy their units during the renovation, with workers out of the apartments by 5 p.m. each day. Stark, however, will have to leave his unit for another within the complex. He uses a wheelchair and his apartment is being renovated to make it more accessible — the sink will be lowered, for example, so he can reach it more easily.

The project is a partnership between the Castle Square Tenants Organization, the majority owner of the building, and the Boston-based WinnCompanies, its minority partner.

“It’s kind of an unusual role for a developer not to be in the driver’s seat,’’ said Lawrence H. Curtis, president of WinnDevelopment, a division of WinnCompanies.

Curtis said a chief reason for the renovation was to keep the housing units affordable. “Higher utility costs mean higher rent for residents, the proverbial money out the window,’’ Curtis said. “It truly has, we believe, a meaningful impact on the lives of all these families.’’

Calvin Hennick Boston Globe February 5, 2011

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