Daily Archives: October 27, 2012

Indoor Air Quality: Low VOCs, High Reward

By Barbra Murray, Contributing Writer – MultiHousingNews.com

Strictly defined, as per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are pollutants that permeate the air as gases from certain solids or liquids. Substantial VOC content in products is, of course, a bad thing from both an environmental and health standpoint; but when it comes to indoor air quality, it is the VOC emission level that is most important in terms of monitoring impact. High levels can have short- and length-term health consequences ranging from the triggering of asthma and allergies to neurological disease.

“It’s incredibly important to make sure you’re limiting the chemical emissions in your apartments because they are such a small space and you spend a lot of time in them, so you are very susceptible to problems with indoor air quality,” says Mark Rossolo, director of public affairs for GreenGuard Environmental Institute, the certification body of UL Environment. According to the EPA, levels of several volatile organics average two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. And the list of potential sources of VOC emissions in multifamily buildings is a long one. This classification of toxins can rear its ugly head in products ranging from the paint on the ceiling to the carpet on the floor and any number of points in between.

For most, paint and lacquer are the offending products that come to mind as the most obvious potential source of unwelcome emissions indoors. As Rossolo points out, “Everybody understands that paint emits; you can smell it typically.” Yet today, in a growing number of cases, the “smell” can be deceiving. Paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore & Co. recently emerged from the lab with a new coloring method that, when integrated with coatings, adds nothing to the mix in terms of emissions. It’s a zero-VOC tinting method. “The gist of it is, we didn’t just make a low-VOC paint, we made a low-VOC system,” says Carl Minchew, director of Environmental Health & Safety at Benjamin Moore. “We had to take the time and make the investment in that technology, but now we have this platform of no-VOC colorants that are made for water-based coatings, and they actually enhance the performance of the coatings that they go into.”

Jim Carrillo, vice president of residential properties with commercial real estate company The Towbes Group Inc., eyes the potential long-term advantages of such a product for his company, whose 14 apartment properties became 100 percent smoke-free zones as of June 1—lobbies, fitness facilities, 2,000 residential units and all. “The turn cost—the cost that we incur to turn an apartment when a resident moves out—is a huge expense, and I believe that using low-VOC paint over a long period of time, combined with the fact that residents will not be smoking in the apartments, will help us reduce those costs,” Carrillo explains. “Also, we have a fair percentage of both seniors and children in our communities and just like going smoke free, it looks like all of the research is pointing to the fact that using low-VOC paint is also beneficial to the most vulnerable of the populations. I think we have to consider it.”

The walls are not the only culprits indoors; floors can also emit VOCs. Carpets can emanate 4-phenylcyclohexene and some vinyl floorings give off styrene. As is the case with paints, there are low-emitting alternatives, including modular carpet.  It’s not just the carpet itself that can be a problem—the glue utilized to attach the carpet is a potential source of high VOCs as well—but some modular products essentially kill those two birds with one stone. Environmentally friendly modular carpet and flooring manufacturer Interface Inc.’s carpet tiles all meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED low-emitting carpet criteria, and its TacTiles connectors allow for glue-free installation. “Its use in multifamily properties is a growing area for us,” says Mikhail Davis, manager of strategic sustainability with Interface. “There have been projects where we’ve done the common areas because of the heavy wear issues; we’ve gotten more traction there.” Still, the modular carpet concept in general has yet to really catch fire in the multifamily industry. “I think it’s mostly just the first-cost versus use-cost challenge,” he suggests. “Developers are looking at their capital budgets, which include buying the carpet. They are not necessarily looking at the lifetime cost of maintaining the carpet and having it look good longer.” The long-term savings come from the fact that modular flooring allows for spot treatment, so to speak, of stains as well as wear and tear. An individual tile can simply be disconnected from the group, removed, replaced and recycled. It’s the realization of the future costs savings in replacement that is slowly leading to an increase in the use of modular, low-VOC carpeting. “The green part of it hasn’t come that much into play,” Davis notes. “It’s not the primary buying criteria, but people are really excited when they find out about the low-VOC emissions after they’ve decided based on cost and performance and the other traditional carpet attributes.”

You can’t have it all; rather, you can’t get rid of it all. A property completely void of VOCs is akin to a picnic sans ants; they’re going to show up, so the real issue is keeping their presence to a minimum. The variety of low-VOC offerings provides numerous means of diminishing emissions. Even signage, like the “Management Office” plaque in the lobby, can be a contributor, as can cabinetry. GreenGuard has certified products in both categories. Low-VOC kitchen and bath countertop materials are readily available. The lovely couch in the lobby can also emit toxic chemicals. As reported in a 2010 issue of Japan’s Bulletin of National Institute of Health Sciences, a study of 10 residential furniture items and electrical appliances—including sofas, desks, refrigerators and desktop computers—concluded that sofas produced the highest emission rate of total VOCs.

“Energy efficiency is great but it really has dominated the green discussion and things like indoor air quality have kind of fallen by the wayside a little bit,” Rossolo says. But a low-VOC crusade, just like the green movement, could ride on the coattails of a much grander trend. “For owners of multi-housing units, if they can position their buildings as healthy or healthier, as opposed to green, we think they’re going to see a lot more traction because everybody can relate to a health message; not everybody buys the green message.”

The Changing Landscape of Affordable Housing?

By Sathya Moorthy, RA, LEED-AP – Senior Project Architect, MTFA Architecture – MultiHousingNews.com

According to US Census Bureau, America is trending towards population growth in cities, and that means a trend in multifamily housing. As a result, the construction of multifamily units is growing faster than single-family homes. The past decade has seen a flurry of high-rise apartments in Washington, D.C., and this trend is rapidly spreading across the suburbs such as Arlington and Tysons Corner, Va. While the supply of condominiums and high-end apartments are in line with the demand, it is not so the case with affordable housing. In fact, the supply of affordable housing in this region has dwindled by more than 50 percent in the past decade, and the existing stock of affordable housing is in such bad shape that many are undergoing major renovation efforts. Even after major renovation efforts, affordable housing clearly distinguishes itself from its wealthy cousins by location, architecture, amenities and access to public transit.


Affordable housing programs mixed with market rate units in the same building and nestled in the midst of an affluent transit oriented development has been a dream for county officials in the region. That dream came true with the completion of “The Views at Clarendon” (currently called as the “vPoint”), in spring 2012.

The goal of the project was to preserve and rehabilitate the church’s sanctuary, steeple and education building for increasingly flexible use respecting the architectural heritage of the campus and buildings, while converting and expanding the remainder of the existing structure into a 10-story multifamily affordable housing development with underground parking.

vPoint is a multiuse project that has transformed the current site of the First Baptist Church of Clarendon into a true civic space. The new building supports 21,000 square feet of church space on the first two levels including a new sanctuary, narthex, administration and educational spaces. The 116 multifamily housing units, ranging from efficiencies to three bedroom units, are located on the upper floors. More than 60 percent of the units are dedicated for affordable housing to support the need in the area. The existing three-story education building continues to house a childcare center for 185 children along with a seminary for liturgical studies. The new and existing buildings are connected with an enclosed light filled walkway providing accessibility from the street to all levels.

The Architecture

Located on a triangular site wedged between the existing church steeple and the education building, the building form that rises from three-stories below grade is carefully chiseled to fit within its urban context. The architecture of the new building is contextually contemporary with finely detailed brick façade punched with glazed openings, cast stone and steel, and comfortably fits in with the existing church steeple, the education building and other nearby development. The building steps back on the upper floors to create a gradual transition between the single-family residential neighborhood on the north and the commercial development abutting other sides of the property. The interior of the building is filled with natural light, which is achieved by strategically sized and placed windows. The attractive elements of the building’s design and the streetscape improvements complement and enhance nearby revitalization and redevelopment initiatives.

Sustainable Design

It is extremely rare that sustainability and affordability go together. At vPoint, sustainability was an integral part of the project design process. Located at the heart of Arlington—a transit oriented development (TOD), yards away from the metro station, bus lines and various other amenities, the project is imbued with green amenities like hi-performance mechanical systems, high-performance windows, energy efficient/water saving appliances, energy efficient lighting, reflective roof, electric car charging stations and green power. These are just a few examples of how this development pushes the green envelope. The most sustainable quality is the diversity of use on site from church to day care, office to education, along with affordable and market rate units.


In addition to the green features mentioned above, vPoint is abound with amenities like designer kitchens, stainless steel appliances, in-unit washing machines, high-end fixtures, wood flooring, a resident’s lounge and business center, an outdoor space that includes grill and lounge seating, and a conference room that can transform into a mini-event space. The existing onsite amenities like the church and day care center adds to the appeal.


The project recently earned the LEED Gold Certification. It also won the Urban Land Institute Smart Growth Award, and the 2012 Washington Building Congress Craftsmanship award.


With minimal amenities and less than inspiring design of their buildings, affordable housing has never been fully integrated with their neighbors, and this has been the status quo for decades. vPoint is clearly a game changer for affordable housing that co-exists with market rate units and other civic uses, offering features, location and amenities that used to be the exclusive domain of high-end condos. vPoint certainly defies the existing status quo of affordable housing and sets a strong precedence for other communities to follow suit. Whether the luxuries that vPoint brings to the affordable housing is an anomaly or a changing trend, is yet to be seen.

Sathya Moorthy is a senior project architect at MTFA Architecture in Arlington, Virginia. He has more than 12 years of experience, with a strong inclination for mixed-use high-rise buildings and sustainable design. 

Photo credit: © Todd A. Smith, www.tasphoto.com