Is Brown the New Green? Why Boston’s Ugly, Expensive Macallen Condos Shouldn’t Be a Model For Green Buildings

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they should move out of their Court Square Press loft and into the $8 million, 5,600-square-foot top floor at the Macallen, which comes complete with a retractable roof over the lap pool.

The anonymous author of the local blog Bostonia Rantida puts the question exactly right: “It’s nice that it’s a green building, but isn’t there a way to have green buildings for, I don’t know, the NON-ultra rich?” There may be—but somehow I don’t think you’ll see the Pappas brothers building green housing for the 50 percent of Boston families who earn less than $46,000 per year.

It’s also distressing that a such a high-profile green building wound up looking so forbidding. The architects—Monica Ponce de Leon and Nader Tehrani of the Boston firm Office dA—gave the building an aluminum skin that was supposed to shimmer like bronze but turned out to be a flat, unsavory shade of brown. According to Campbell’s review, this skin was conceived as a “pliable curtain” weaving its way basket-like among the tips of the steel trusses that hold up the building, but to my untrained eye, it looks like it’s simply peeling and buckling.

To passersby, the building is anything but friendly-looking. The grass-covered roof, one of the building’s most unusual and remarked-upon features, is invisible from the street. Instead, pedestrians get a lovely view of the parking garage. The lobby entrance is hidden away on a private alley between the Macallen building and Pappas’ other residential project, the Court Square Press building. Video cameras loom over the sidewalk, signs warn of 24-hour surveillance, and one side of the building is protected by a curtain of spikes that looks like the perfect place for a row of severed heads.

The Macallen Building\'s LEED Gold PlaqueThe Macallen is also remarkably noisy. The double-paned windows may keep the condo units as quiet as a morgue on the inside—but if you’re outside, the two giant ventilating units facing West 4th Street, one at each end of the parking level, generate more of a racket than the locomotives rumbling through the adjoining train yard.

A final criticism, based on what I learned from the movie—which is surprisingly unbiased, considering what intimate access the filmmakers had to Pappas Enterprises and the job site—has to do with the sometimes self-defeating logic of green design. Is it really “sustainable” to use double-flush toilets if you have to bring them all the way from Australia, on container ships that burn huge amounts of diesel fuel? Are bamboo floors still green if you have to bring the wood from China? How much sense is there in using special glues that are free of volatile organic compounds if it means that those bamboo floors buckle and have to be ripped out (and new bamboo ordered from China)?

The fault here doesn’t lie with the architects or the developers but with the LEED checklists, which award points if builders include certain features (e.g., locally-mixed concrete, recycled steel, cotton-based insulation, and you guessed it, bamboo floors). The system almost seems set up to encourage point-mongering—often at the expense of a project’s actual carbon footprint. Indeed, the LEED system is under fire from some quarters for putting too little emphasis on measures that could reduce carbon emissions and help to arrest climate change.

Of course, Boston’s green building movement doesn’t begin and end at Macallen. In August, Boston Mayor Tom Menino decreed that all new affordable housing funded by the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development must obtain a LEED Silver rating. “We want to keep the working class in the city,” Menino told a Globe reporter after a press conference in Fields Corner, where the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative had just announced a $2 million grant to help six Boston housing projects meet the standard.

So, the same $2 million that will get you a single three-bedroom condo in the Macallen Building will help six housing projects in the heart of Dorchester go green. I wonder which one does more good?

Continue to Page 3 for more photos of the Macallen Building.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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