Harlem Welcomes Manhattan’s First Passive House

The building is slated to be move-in ready this month.

On the first Earth Day in 1970, a young Chris Benedict picked up trash in her Connecticut hometown—but little did she know the impact it would make on her future architecture career. “I couldn’t understand how people could just throw stuff away out into the woods, and I thought, Aren’t there any adults in charge of this?” Benedict recalls. “So when I was able to start my own firm, I thought, I’m an adult; I can be in charge of this.” And take charge she did: Benedict has been working on environmentally conscious architecture projects since her firm opened in 1995.

Her latest undertaking? Perch Harlem—Manhattan’s first multifamily rental building constructed to the Passive House standard, a rigorous environmental model that requires buildings to be completely air-sealed, so they demand less energy for climate-controlled interiors. Located in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem, Perch was developed by Synapse Development Group, which already owns several properties in the area, and Taurus Investment Holdings. The ground-up building contains 34 residential units and is slated to be move-in ready by mid-August, according to Synapse.

PerchHarlem-LobbyA rendering of the Perch Harlem lobby. Interior design and renderings by Me and General Design.

Though Synapse group seeks to make all of its projects environmentally conscious, this is the team’s first official Passive House project. Justin Palmer, the group’s CEO, explains that building Perch from the ground up made it easier to adhere to the Passive House standard. “It’s always harder to retrofit an existing building,” he says.

Buildings created in the Passive House standard have an “envelope” that’s completely sealed to stop air leakage, Benedict explains, which is achieved using highly insulating materials. “Passive House, as a general rule, relies on the enclosure of the building to contain heat—or to not allow heat in—so that the mechanical systems can be substantially smaller, and then substantially less energy is needed to make these spaces comfortable for people,” she says. “So every move we make influences how that end is achieved.” (However, even though the building is air-sealed, residents can open their smaller windows for outside air.)

PerchHarlem-CorridorA rendering of a corridor in Perch. Interior design and renderings by Me and General Design.

Though Benedict and her team have already completed projects to the Passive House standard in Brooklyn, they utilized a different mechanical system to power Perch called Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF). “There are some machines up on the roof that provide either hot or cold refrigerant, which runs through the building unit inside of every apartment and provides heating or cooling,” she says. Benedict lauds the VRF system for giving each unit personalized thermostatic control—though the system powers the whole apartment building, each unit has the ability to control its own heating and air conditioning. And Perch’s triple-pane windows mitigate the need for excessive usage. Palmer likens each unit to a refrigerator; even if unplugged for a few hours, a fridge will still keep food cold.

In addition to its obvious environmental improvements, multifamily Passive House buildings feature luxuries rarely seen in the New York City housing market. Since each apartment is air-sealed from its neighbors, there is no noise transfer between units. “You’re not getting the smells, the noise, or bugs and mice running back and forth between apartments because the apartments are literally sealed from each other,” says Benedict. This compartmentalization also results in units that have exceptional temperature control. “A typical New York City apartment dweller has a very leaky apartment,” Benedict notes, which results in a loss of cold air from air conditioners in the summer and heat in the winter. Perch’s triple-pane windows also eliminate almost all outside noise. “When the windows are closed you can barely hear the garbage trucks and the traffic and other things going on outside. That is priceless in my mind!” Benedict says, laughing.

PerchHarlem-LoungeA rendering of the Perch Lounge. Interior design and renderings by Me and General Design.

But these perks don’t come cheap—Perch studios are asking $2,150 per month and 2-bedroom units $3,720. (Comparably, the median rent for a two-bedroom in Hamilton Heights is only $2,500, according to StreetEasy.)

Palmer notes that perks like Hello Alfred, an on-demand butler service, add to Perch’s value. “We’ve developed a product that’s superior in the marketplace,” he says, explaining the team’s philosophy: “If you design right and design with efficiency in mind, people will pay the asking price.” Palmer says that Perch is competing with apartments closer to Midtown Manhattan—he explains that many Hamilton Heights residents commute to Midtown West—making Perch a much more affordable option. “Our apartments are relatively affordable compared to the neighborhoods to the south of us, and we feel strongly that we are competitively priced, especially for the product that we’re offering,” he says.

PerchHarlem-KitchenA rendering of a kitchen. Interior design and renderings by Me and General Design.

Unfortunately, a tone-deaf note in its marketing campaign renders Perch a bit out-of-touch with its landscape. A page on Perch’s website reads, “Over the last decade, as Harlem has once again become a cultural hub in NYC, Hamilton Heights has blossomed as a unique pocket of Manhattan.” The web page describes Harlem as a newly exciting “cultural hub,” though it’s long been a beacon of artistic achievement, especially for African American communities. Calling the neighborhood only recently noteworthy either reads as an overt praise of gentrification or a careless oversight of the neighborhood’s history.

Despite this branding misstep, Perch’s positive environmental impact is indisputable. Both Benedict and Palmer hope that the standard begins to take off nationally. “We got the view that designing with social impact in mind is a big opportunity in every city across the country,” Palmer says. And Benedict anticipates that the Passive House concept will encourage more architects to delve into environmentally conscious works. “While the Passive House movement is incredibly geeky and scientific, it somehow has had a secret sauce that’s managed to capture the attention of architects,” she says. “If you talk to architects in general about energy efficiency, their eyes glaze over, but somehow Passive House has really captured their imaginations.”

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