By Matthew Fenton
photos by Robert Simko
Earth Day was celebrated in fitting fashion (and a few days early) last weekend by the Visionaire, the eco-friendliest condominium in America that, in 2009, became New York City’s first residential building to be awarded Platinum status under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification system.
The party included rides in an electric vehicle for adults, face-painting for kids, organic food from local vendors (like Battery Market) for everybody, and information kiosks sponsored by environmentally conscious and local businesses like Whole Foods, Origins, Benjamin Moore Paints, Holton Farms, California Wine Merchants, People’s Garden NYC and Ciao Bow Wow.
But the most intriguing item on the agenda was a behind-the-scenes tour of the building’s technology, which cuts electricity and water usage by double-digits percentage points (and accrues a corresponding savings for residents), provides free hot water, heat, and air conditioning, and makes the building refreshingly devoid of many pollutants that we have taken for granted for so long (such as particulate matter, glare, and noise) that we scarcely notice them anymore.
The tour began with a ride to the building’s rooftop in the high-tech elevators, which harvest kinetic energy from the friction created by the elevator’s brakes, in much the way that hybrid automobiles do. Above the penthouse level, visitors were taken behind the solar cells that generate electric current from sunlight. (A meter on the control panels that monitor these photovoltaic cells tracks how many pounds of carbon were not pumped into the atmosphere as a result of creating power this way: Each of these dozen-plus meters gauged more than 10,000 pounds.) Alongside, a natural gas micro-turbine silently spun out more voltage, which goes to power elevators, common areas, and climate control systems.
“We’re very proud of this system,” said Jeff Ditaranto, who helps manage the building for its developer, the Albanese Organization. He went on to explain the mechanical redundancy that keeps extracting power out of energy that would otherwise go to waste. “We have a system devoted entirely to pulling heat out of hot-air exhaust,” he said. “That heat becomes more electricity, which creates more hot-air exhaust, from which we pull more heat, and start the process over again.” This combination of systems generates more than 70 kilowatts-hours.
In the Visionaire’s basement, visitors got to see a waste water recycling system that takes whatever comes out of an apartment’s drains, toilets, and laundry pipes and treats it with chemicals, filters, and ultraviolet light. The result is water so pure that you could safely drink it. “But nobody drinks it!” Mr. Ditaranto adds quickly. Instead, this former “blackwater” (meaning any water contaminated by waste) is now considered “greywater,” which means that it can be cycled back through pipes that lead once more into the building’s toilets (but not its faucets), saving tens of thousands of gallons each day of fresh water that would otherwise be needlessly flushed away. These savings are bolstered by a catch basin on the Visionaire’s roof, which adds to the building’s water supply, while cutting consumption from the City water system.