Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rethinking the floors

So I have been going back and forth lately about what the best flooring material would be for the house. For a long time we have had our minds set on the carbonized strand bamboo. Please see our earlier blog post describing the difference between strand bamboo and regular bamboo floors. It's a really great product: durable, beautiful, (relatively) inexpensive, and ...sustainable. It's this last one that I am grappling with. The other day, a good friend of mine and I were talking shop and we got on the topic of how everyone thinks that bamboo is the best thing since sliced bread. But frankly speaking, there are aspects of it that aren't necessarily "green" (relatively speaking, of course).

As with many sustainable products these days, there are a few different ways to look at the aspects. One is that it is a rapidly renewable resource: extremely fast growing (by the day , no lie), versatile, durable, easy to harvest. But another side is that (now this only relates to growing bamboo in the US) is that it can be an invasive species that can take over a native ecosystem as fast as Kudzu. Now the reason I say "can be" is that not all bamboo is invasive. Check out this short article on the different types: clumping (non-invasive) and running (invasive), but not a lot of people know the difference and if you grow the wrong kind and don't maintain can out of control very quickly.

Yet another aspect (and maybe the most important to me) is the fact that it comes from the other side of the world. The carbon footprint left by us ordering these floors for our little house here in Philly is pretty substantial. Now there are more sustainable harvesting practices than others. I heard from our good friends at the Environmental Home Store (who have a great selection sustainably-minded floors, among the many other great products they sell, including a variety of non-toxic paints... which I will be discussing shortly) that it is often better to source bamboo from Vietnam rather that China. Well, in the end that is good knowledge to have and a responsible way to look at material sourcing. But we are still back to the same problem.

We have tried very hard to build this house sustainably as well as locally. So, in returning to the conversation between my friend and I, we asked ourselves...why do we need to look so far away? We must have options close to home. And we do. I am speaking of beautiful, FSC certified hardwoods grown where else than in the great state of Pennsylvania. Not too many people, it seems, know of the lumber company located in western Pennsylvania called The Collins Companies. Founded in 1855 in PA, they have been practicing sustainable forestry since the beginning and were "the first privately owned forest products company in the United States to be comprehensively evaluated and independently certified by the Scientific Certification System (SCS) under the principles and criteria of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)". And not only is their wood FSC certified...its "Single Source" (opposed to "Mixed Sources") and Collins will provide all the Chain of Custody paperwork you need for LEED. Additionally, they are Pennsylvania's second largest private land owner. From the Collins website:

"Kane Hardwood, a Collins company, manages the 126,000-acre FSC-certified Collins Pennsylvania Forest. These lands sit in the center of the finest black cherry hardwood forests in the world, the Allegheny Mountains of northern Pennsylvania. Mixed with red and white oak, soft and hard maple, ash, beech, yellow poplar, and basswood, this thriving hardwood forest is the result of the Collins family’s commitment to sustainable forestry, ecosystem management, and natural biodiversity.

How many loggers have you heard say things like that??

So you're now wondering...okay great,but how does the cost compare? It has to be more, right? After all it is Single Source FSC certified. Well, I just got the price quote for FSC T&G hardwood flooring options (including Oak, Maple, Ash, and Cherry). If you want it pre-finished the price comes in almost HALF the cost of the carbonized strand bamboo (which is more than your typical bamboo) per square foot. For unfinished (if you are up for the challenge) you can get it for about a 1/3 of the cost of the strand. Also, I am sourcing all the trim work from them too. FSC 1x3 and 1x4 Poplar from 6'-16' lengths is coming in around HALF the price of the big box home improvement stores. How is this possible and why do so few people know about it? Honestly, its beyond me.

Additionally, the folks at the Collins Companies are extremely nice and very helpful. And even though they ship their wood all over the US, they love the idea of keeping their products in PA. How can you beat the fact that it's grown (responsibly) in western Pennsylvania, milled on site, finished a couple of hours away, then put on a truck and driven only about 5 hours to arrive at our house in Philly.

So, we are now awaiting a few samples so we can choose a species and a finish. In the end, the bamboo is still a great product and we look forward to using it in another project but we feel this could be the right avenue for us go for this project.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Philly's Green Roof Tax Credit

Turns out that in April of 2007, Philadelphia passed its first 'green roof' tax credit program. Who knew? Not a lot of people, it seems. In the 18+ months since the legislation was approved, only one application has crossed the desk of the Philadelphia Department of Revenue. Due to a recent change in leadership, it's not even clear whether that initial application was ever approved.

Last week, I attended an AIA Committee on the Environment/DVGBC event at the Center for Architecture with Joe Procopio from Philadelphia's Dept. of Revenue. From this point forward, he will be the primary reviewer of all incoming green roof tax credit applications. Interestingly enough, this program is not being coordinated through the Office of Sustainability. If there are any future modifications to the bill, I hope the two offices will coordinate as it would make sense to consider the effect of tax incentives from a broader perspective.

While it's encouraging to find out that the City is providing sizable incentives for installing vegetated roofs, it was disappointing to find out that the program's scope isn't very broad. According to the program requirements, the tax credit is applied to the Business Privilege Tax. Most applicants will likely be either developers or landlords. A typical homeowner or condo association will NOT qualify for the credit since they don't pay BPT.

Here's the deal:

1) To qualify, first you must own or operate a business within the City of Philadelphia and therefore pay the Business Privilege Tax. This is required because the incentive is issued in the form of "a credit against the Business Privilege Tax of 25% of all costs actually incurred to construct the Green Roof, provided that the total credit shall not exceed $100,000."

2) Next, you must follow all normal procedures in regards to obtaining a building permit from L&I and an engineer's certification that the structure can support the weight of a green roof.

3) The green roof must cover 50% of the building's rooftop or 75% of 'Eligible Roof Top Space', defined as the total space available to support a Green Roof, as certified by a structural engineer.

4) After the building permit and engineering report are in hand, the Green Roof Tax Credit Application can be filed with the Revenue Department.

5) If the Revenue Department approves the application, the taxpayer must agree to maintain the Green Roof for 5 years after its completion (this applies even if the property is sold, so it's advisable to include a provision and/or additional fee for maintenance in the sales contract).

This bill was originally sponsored by Councilman Jim Kenny, and Mr. Procopio did mention that any concerns about the legislation should be presented to City Council for consideration. It seems that if there is enough support, an expansion or modification of the bill might be possible.

In our discussion about the typical costs of a green roof, the concensus was that "all costs actually incurred to construct the Green Roof" would potentially include structural improvements, design/engineering fees, and other soft costs in addition to the actual cost of materials and labor.

So, how does this affect us? Well, it appears that Southern Liberties, LLC (that's us) should qualify for the green roof tax credit on the Montrose project. We already have all of the required certifications, so all that is left to do is submit the application. We totaled up all the expenses involved with the green roof and determined that it cost us about $10K start to finish. Our green roof covers 80% of our 600 SF roof (480SF) which works out to about $20/SF. (The materials and labor alone were $15/SF). This means that we should qualify for about a $2,500 credit towards our BPT liability, which can be spread out over a number of years if desired.

Download a copy of Philly's Green Roof Tax Credit application here.
View the Department of Revenue's summary of the program & application process here.
Read the original legislation here, Bill #070072 and Resolution #070079.
Read related testimony here, including a mention of other potential green roof incentives (i.e. reduced stormwater fees and homeowner inclusions).

Questions? Comments? Ideas? Post them for all to see.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Snow-covered Green Roof

Ever wonder what a green roof looks like in the dead of winter?

This photo was actually taken last week, so there should be a few additional inches of the fluffy white stuff after last night's storm. We hope the sedum plants are surviving these frigid temperatures and being blanketed by all this snow. The plants seemed pretty established after several months of moderate weather last fall and were planted at what is considered an 'ideal' time of year- September. We'll find out for sure come spring.

More project updates to come soon. Promise.