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Net-zero energy apartments to open in Church Hill

Beckstoffer’s Mill in Church Hill might be the first net-zero apartment building in the city

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The Better Housing Coalition is giving green building a new meaning.

The housing group will open seven net-zero energy apartments Monday for low-income people 55 and older at Beckstoffer’s Mill on the 1200 block of North 28th Street in Church Hill.

The nonprofit, whose mission is to change lives and transform communities through high-quality, affordable housing, has built to energy efficiency standards since 2006.

This marks its first net-zero energy, multifamily development — possibly the first in Richmond.

The gray brick and corrugated metal building with high-performance insulation harvests energy through photovoltaic panels to produce electricity and solar thermal panels to produce hot water.

As a net-zero building, the building will not use electricity from Dominion Virginia Power unless the sun does not shine for several days and it has used up its surplus energy.

“Net-zero energy is the goal, but the determination as to whether the net-zero balance is achieved usually takes 12 months,” said Bob Newman, vice president and chief operating officer of the Better Housing Coalition.

“Much of the ultimate performance will be subject to the behavior of the residents,” he said.

“By Earth Day 2014 (in April), we should have almost a full year of experience to report.”

The electrical meter — a net metering system — runs forward on rare occasions when electricity is used.

But it also runs backward, providing a credit for energy that isn’t used. On sunny days when it is cranking out more electricity than needed, it returns electricity to the grid that other Dominion Virginia Power customers can use.

About 800 of Dominion Virginia Power’s 2.3 million customers have been connected to net metering systems, said Jim Norvelle, spokesman for the energy company.

The system, which was authorized in 2000, is relatively new. “Interest grew as the cost of solar panels began falling in recent years,” Norvelle said.

Each unit at Beckstoffer’s has an energy recovery ventilation system that brings fresh air in and takes stale air out. Heating and air conditioning is provided through ductless mini-split systems, eliminating cold or hot spots and providing a uniform temperature.

The building was designed to benefit from as much natural light as possible from southern exposure.

Windows are high-performance, double-glazed glass. Low-flow toilets preserve water and all the units come with Energy Star appliances.

“As with most new technologies, the cost for early adopters is higher than the cost for the mass market that swells later,” Newman said.

The total construction cost was $854,000. Federal renewable energy tax credits and tax credits for affordable housing helped make the project a feasible investment, Newman said.

“By being among the first net-zero, multifamily developers in Virginia, we hope these apartments will serve as a working model for other housing developers and help galvanize the net-zero market to lower future costs.”

The one-bedroom units average 700 square feet and rent for an average $645 a month, which includes water, sewer, trash and electricity but not Internet or cable TV.

The Better Housing Coalition didn’t stop with the building in its efforts to benefit from sustainable and renewable energy sources.

Landscaping is made up of native and drought-resistant plants Knock Out roses, firepower nandina, sweetbay magnolia and carissa holly.

Rain water for landscaping irrigation is collected in a cistern beneath the sidewalk.

“It’s one thing for an individual to build a $750,000 house focused on conservation and renewable energy, but it’s another for the Better Housing Coalition to provide it for affordable housing,” said Philip Agee, technical manager at EarthCraft Virginia, a green building program for builders.

The net-zero building is next to the original H. Beckstoffer’s Sons Lumber & Millwork, an adaptive reuse project by the Better Housing Coalition that transformed a lumber mill into 22 mixed-income apartments. It opened in November 2011.

Across the street from the net-zero apartments is a 32-unit EarthCraft-certified building that the agency is building, also for people 55 and older. It is set to open in June.

The block includes an undeveloped parcel and the coalition is exploring what type of housing to build there.

chazard@timesdispatch.com

(804) 775-8023

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