A new eight-story building called “Charlotte of the Upper West Side” has opened in New York City on Columbus Avenue between 82nd and 83rd Street.
As soon as I stepped into the building something felt different but I wasn’t sure why. After a few minutes I began to realize: it’s the air. There was a refreshing feeling with each deep breath.
Developer John Roe created this atmosphere by blending several different technologies together in a way that’s never been done before. For example, he fully implemented the concept of “Passive House,” which is a standard for energy efficiency that originated in Germany.
It includes wrapping the outside of the building air tight and doubling the amount of insulation, making it similar to a thermos – always retaining the temperature you want. The building also brings in air from the outside and continuously filters it fresh 24/7.
“Each room gets air taken out of it at the same rate that air goes in,” says Roe.
Plus there are 40 UV systems, “which basically kills everything like fungus, viruses (including COVID), bacteria, and any sort of mold,” he explains. It’s “quiet as a library” because of the quadruple-layer windows and only uses 10 percent of the energy that you would use in a normal building.
“Once we went in the direction of sustainability and Passive House, and as we kept designing, we just kept adding and adding more things.”
“The Air is Filtered”
Even though Roe carefully planned every aspect of the outdoor and indoor technologies, he and his wife Cherry noticed something unexpected. The hydrangea flowers in their sales office lasted over two weeks, twice as long as usual. Then they realized the bowl of grapefruits on the table remained fresh for over six weeks – without refrigeration. What’s going on?
“Well for one thing, the air is filtered,” says Roe. “It’s brought in and changed every single hour. Plus there are the UV systems throughout the building, so there’s nothing to harm the flower or there’s nothing to harm the fruit. The florist didn’t believe us about how long it lasted, so we brought him back in to see it. The second thing is that fruits naturally give off an ethylene and because the air is cycling every hour, the small amount of ethylene gas in the air that tells the fruits to start ripening gets removed.”
If the air extends the healthy life of flowers and fruits, what are the implications for humans?
“A study will start towards the end of the year to early next year,” says Roe. “We are still discussing it. ASHRAE is the organization but we have not finalized anything yet.” (ASHRAE was founded in 1894 and is a global society advancing human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment.)
After seven years of planning, building, and blending the best technologies for air and energy, Charlotte has been called, “one of the most sustainable structures in NYC” by Gotham magazine, and can be a model for what’s to come.
While the cost per condo might be out of reach for many New Yorkers, could the price for this kind of ideal home atmosphere for the average person get lower as the future unfolds, like we’ve seen with electric cars or flat screen televisions?
“The building industry is a much trickier industry than let’s say the car industry,” says Andreas Benzing, Executive Director of New York Passive House, which advocates energy standards. “The car industry has 10 big players and if you have Elon Musk who is very successful, then everyone else does electric cars. That competition drives the electrification and performance of cars. With buildings it’s different because we have a million architects and engineers and everyone is doing their own building, so to speak. Buildings go into all disciplines: they are connected to policy, politics, urban planning, society, and history. It’s a lot more complex. To improve the industry is difficult.”
Despite the complexities of the industry, will the price for leading edge living for buyers or renters come down at some point? Maybe stricter laws will help.
Buildings now need to get increasingly better on the energy and emissions front because of “Local Law 97.” It requires most buildings in NYC over 25,000 square feet to meet new energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions limits by 2024. The goal is to reduce emissions from large buildings 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.
It’s easier, with varying levels of costs for both developers and apartment dwellers, to have law-adhering and beneficial structures if it’s a brand new building going up, but trying to “retrofit” an existing building can be more challenging.
“You can retrofit but it’s expensive,” explains Vijay Modi, Columbia Climate School Professor of Engineering and Director of the Laboratory for Sustainable Energy Solutions. “For the Upper West Side, where property values are as high as $2,000 a square foot, spending $20 a square foot to retrofit is much easier for that population. It’s only one percent value of the home. But for those who can only afford $200 a square foot, spending $20 a square foot is more challenging for them to retrofit existing units. You will need local, state, and federal support – even with new buildings.”
The state-of-the-art Charlotte of the Upper West Side is named after John and Cherry’s three-year-old daughter, Charlotte, and was built with her “Alpha” generation in mind (those born from 2010 – 2022).
Little Charlotte will soon move into the building, and though she doesn’t yet realize it was named after her, she does understand construction.
“She knows that Daddy is always on a construction site and Daddy is building buildings,” says Cherry. “Her teacher told me that she always draws these huge blocks and then explains to everybody, here’s the door, here’s the window and other buildings.”
When John was his daughter’s age, he lived near 75th and Amsterdam. After spending the last 20 years in Tribeca, he has now returned to the neighborhood. “I’ve always wanted to come back to the Upper West Side to raise my kids,” he says. “I think it’s a great place for kids to grow up with the parks and museums. With this project, it was an opportunity to go back to where you were and build something significant that has a lot of meaning to it.”
The Charlotte, and other buildings like it, can greatly influence people, planet, and business.
“What John Roe and others are doing, adopting high performance buildings, is a business model in a way,” says Benzing from NY Passive House. “I always tell people, you better learn and get on board because it’s coming if you like it or not. In my opinion, it’s a business decision. If you want to be in business in 10 years, you better start today. I think New York City is a bit more ahead of the curve.”