New green-roof housing development soaks up the sun

A new addition to the Melrose Commons community has just opened, and any green geek would be pleased with the building’s sustainability efforts. The new housing development has 12 stories and at its highest roof features solar panels that save power and energy, converting the sun’s rays to electricity. Lower down on the ninth floor is a smaller “green roof” of powerful soil, gravel and plants, held down for the time being with biodegradable netting. Even its name is unusual and matches its unique properties — the building is called El Jardin de Selene, which means “the garden of the goddess of the moon.”

The $110,000.000 building is at the corner of East 158th Street and Melrose Avenue, and was designed with the goal of achieving a LEED-Gold rating, which is a high honor in the world of environmentally friendly architecture. Its green efforts have indeed earned the building that mark, along with hard-to-get certifications from NYSERDA Energy Star and Enterprise Green Communities. The structure has 84 residential units, 16 of which are dedicated to the homeless. There are three green roofs, one solar panel roof on the 12th floor, and a complicated eco-friendly ventilation system that will provide fresh air and save energy.

Architects say that this building is just on more step in a larger effort to revitalize Melrose Commons. The plan, which will include the creation of other, similar housing developments, began in 1992 when Nos Quedamos (“We Stay”), a community organization, joined forced with Magnusson Architecture and Planning (MAP). Since then, architects at MAP have continued to erect new structures for low-income families and even some homeless in the area, but El Jardin de Selene is the first LEED-Gold certified building of its kind in the Bronx.

Said Jon Mark Bagnall, a MAP architect who worked on the El Jardin team, “All the materials are recycled or renewable.” The project was close to the heart for Bagnall, who grew up only eight blocks west, in Tremont. “To show that affordable housing doesn’t have to look like affordable housing, that’s a pleasure,” said Bagnall as he headed up to a beautiful garden on the ninth floor roof.

Hanna Packer, a senior designer with Town & Gardens, worked with Sustainable South Bronx to create rooftop greenery that will be both visually pleasing and functionally beneficial. “This roof will look fabulous in a year or two,” said Packer surveying her work on the 9th floor roof, which included perennials, grasses that will grow up to three feet tall, goldenrod, tough soil, drought-tolerant native plants, and other freshly planted elements, all of which was being held down for now by biodegradable jute matting. “The plugs we have in place now will grow into strong plants that protect the soil from erosion, and enact all the benefits of a green roof.” Those benefits, Packer said, include storm water retention, insulation of the building to save costs on heating and air conditioning, and production of fresh air.

Meanwhile, on the 12th floor roof, the highlight: solar panels. While checking out the big sun-eaters Marc Zuluaga, a sustainability expert, said, “The panels are the flashy stuff, but we’re even more proud of the boiler work we did, the guts of the building.” Jason Block, a colleague of Zuluaga, added proudly that even the lighting is energy efficient.

Congressman Jose Serrano’s Chief of Staff Paul Lipson beamed as he congratulated Nos Quedamos and said, “You’ve proven that being good to people and being good to the environment are not competing values.”

The other architects were elated as well. “We managed to achieve a lot here,” said Shefali Sanghvi with a smile. “The green roof, solar panels, quartz countertops and bamboo floors inside the units, we really did all we could. But the best is that it’s all affordable housing.”

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