Redefining public housing

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    The layout of the property offers an inviting space for residents and allows for greater foot and vehicle traffic, with updated street patterns. Photo: Courtesy of Andy Ryan

    During the last 10 to 15 years South Boston has experienced more redevelopment than any other part of Boston. Once known for its shipyards and warehouses South Boston has become a trendy place for young professionals to live and a home for the city’s burgeoning start-up community. But it still retains many of its public housing communities including Old Colony one of the nation’s oldest public housing communities.

    Originally built in 1940, Old Colony had become the most physically distressed property in the Boston Housing Authority’s portfolio and was considered one of the worst examples of public housing in the country. To put it simply, it was in desperate need of redevelopment. After receiving federal funding, the Boston Housing Authority selected Beacon Communities Development to undertake the project, and they in turn selected The Architectural Team as a design partner and Suffolk Construction for Phases One and Two A + B.

    The goal was to renovate and rebuild Old Colony into “The Homes at Old Colony” — a new type of public housing that would feature sustainable design elements; a learning center; and apartments for individuals, families, and people with disabilities.

    The project began in 2010 and took four years to complete. And now, in its first year of occupancy, The Homes at Old Colony have become a national model for sustainable, public housing projects.

    Project overview

    Squarely located on 16 acres of land, the original Old Colony property included 873 apartments within 22 separate, three-story brick buildings. Redevelopment efforts were designed to overhaul all of the apartments through a combination of new construction and renovation of certain facilities.

    During Phase One of the project, which kicked off in September 2010, Suffolk Construction was charged with managing demolition of 164 units and construction of 116 affordable housing units. The new units were housed in a midrise building and four clusters of wood frame townhouses. In addition to the new residential facilities, Phase One also included development of a 10,000-square-foot learning center.

    After successful completion of Phase One in February 2012, the team began Phase Two A + B of construction in September 2012. Phase Two A + B was completed in April 2014 and consisted of the demolition of 223 old units and construction of four, three-story townhouse-style buildings and two mid-rise wood-frame structures for a total of 129 more affordable housing units.

    To date, every apartment has been rented and approximately 440 residents call The Homes at Old Colony home.

    Focus on green building
    A newly constructed 10,000-square-foot learning center that provides social service and educational programs for community members achieved LEED Gold certification. Photo: Courtesy of Kate Hensley

    When designing the master plan for the Old Colony redevelopment, The Architectural Team and Suffolk Construction placed a special emphasis on green building and energy efficiency.

    Prior to the renovation, the Old Colony facilities were crippled by aged systems and rundown infrastructure. So much so, that each unit’s energy and water costs soared above average; the annual rate per unit was more than $4,000, an astronomical fee for residents of a public housing facility.

    By introducing sustainable design principles and low-impact development strategies into the construction process early on, the team was able to design and construct the new facilities to achieve LEED Gold certification for the learning center, LEED Platinum certification for the residential buildings, and LEED for New Development as their overall goal.

    In demolishing the existing facilities, Suffolk Construction saved, reused, and repurposed elements of the old buildings into the new. Recycled content was used in construction materials such as drywall, flooring, steel and metals, cement, and aluminum.

    The Homes at Old Colony have become a national model for sustainable, public housing projects. Photo: Courtesy of Andy Ryan

    In addition, the Suffolk team was able to use its value engineering process on the foundation system. Through this process, they preserved and retrofitted the existing foundations to meet the new building requirements. On average, these efforts saved the project more than $1 million without sacrificing any of the original green building design features.

    Energy conservation was another critical part of the construction and design considerations. As the new buildings were erected, Suffolk worked with its subcontractors to optimize the levels of insulation and air sealing throughout the buildings. The higher-rise buildings used exterior spray-foam insulation for thermal protection as well as air sealing, while the townhomes used a medium-density spray to fill the wall cavities and rigid insulation blankets on the exterior to minimize flow of hot and cold air through the buildings.

    These insulation efforts were coupled with building components — central heating, air conditioning, hot water, etc. — that are high efficiency and Energy Star-certified. Additionally, each living unit is equipped with a heat-recovery ventilator (HRV) or energy-recovery ventilator (ERV) that continuously exhausts a steady, but small stream of air from bathrooms.

    By introducing sustainable design principles and low-impact development strategies into the construction process early on, the team was able to design and construct the new residential buildings to achieve LEED Platinum certification. Photo: Courtesy of Andy Ryan

    The owners also wanted to take advantage of the property’s location along Boston’s coastline by maximizing solar exposure. New construction was oriented in such a way that the building’s 140 kW photovoltaic panels would be collecting power and generating energy throughout the day. The panels were installed on all of the buildings constructed during Phases One and Two A + B, and the electricity and power generated from the panels is used to power the common areas.

    Neighborhood-friendly design

    Beyond the building design itself, The Architectural Team and Suffolk worked closely with the project team to transform the neighborhood around The Homes at Old Colony. The look of the buildings better fits with the surrounding South Boston neighborhood and creates a more welcoming atmosphere to residents and neighbors. Additionally, the new roads helped to knit the community back together.

    The layout of the property also offers an inviting space for residents and visitors alike. It allows for greater foot and vehicle traffic, with updated street patterns, and provides greater access to the nearby park and beach.

    Alongside the living facilities, a newly constructed 10,000-square-foot learning center provides social service and educational programs for community members.

    Impact

    The Homes at Old Colony have become a national model for multifamily housing and sustainable urban living. In fact, the project was awarded multiple times. In 2012, Phase One was recognized as the “Best Urban Project” Readers’ Choice Award from Affordable Housing Finance magazine, and Phase Two was honored in 2013 with the Boston Society of Architects Design Award. It is also designed to EPA’s Energy Star and HUD Healthy Homes Guidelines.

    Information provided by Suffolk Construction (www.suffolk.com).