A New Shade of Green in D.C.

Floor-to-ceiling windows let in ample daylight.
Floor-to-ceiling windows let in ample daylight. (Artist's Rendering By Interface Media)

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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Alta at Thomas Circle offers the high-end features buyers have come to expect in a new condominium building: granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances, a lounge.

But after construction of the Northwest Washington building began in 2004, developer PN Hoffman decided to add details not commonly found in residential buildings: a green roof, appliances that use 10 to 50 percent less energy and water, floor-to-ceiling windows that make turning the lights on during the day unnecessary, and bicycle racks to keep people from using their cars.

The changes earned the Alta the distinction of being the first new residential building in the District to be LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable building design and construction.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

"We felt like the condo market in the District was getting oversaturated with condo developers from D.C. and outside the area coming in, and we were looking for ways to differentiate the PN Hoffman condos," said Shawn Seaman, vice president of acquisitions and development for PN Hoffman.

Builders of commercial and government projects throughout the country have increasingly sought LEED ratings. In fact, the D.C. and Montgomery County councils both passed laws in the past year that would require many public and private buildings to have energy-efficient features.

The Green Building Council judges the buildings in five areas: proximity to public transportation, water savings, energy efficiency, selection of materials and indoor environmental quality. In the District, there are 13 LEED-certified commercial or government buildings, said Taryn Holowka, communications manager at the Green Building Council.

But residential developers have not embraced the green movement as readily as their commercial counterparts. There is just one residential development with LEED certification in Virginia, none in Maryland.

Some builders, said Charles Barber, president of the D.C. Building Industry Association, are turned off by the expense of making a building energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. Studies have shown that it can add 2 to 5 percent to the cost, he said.

"This could be a trend," Barber said of the Alta developer's decision to seek LEED certification. "We'll see how this one goes. It's an interesting development."

Seaman said the environmentally friendly features increased the cost of the Alta's construction by only 1 percent, bringing it to $24 million. In addition, the green features did not mean it took any longer to finish the building, he said. The Alta's 126 units, most of which have been sold, cost $200,000 to $800,000. PN Hoffman plans to seek LEED certification for future projects, Seaman said.

"We think it's an amenity we're providing the purchasers," he said.

Renelle Rae would not have bought her two-bedroom, top-floor condo if the building were not green, she said. A federal government employee, Rae had read about green buildings, she said, and knew she wanted to live in one someday. She thought it would be good for the environment but also good for her financially; utility bills in green buildings tend to be lower.

She rented a smaller apartment near the Alta while she searched for a green residential building. She moved into the Alta in March. "I was just waiting," she said.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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