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

Along West 4th Street in Boston, just past I-93 and the MBTA train yard, there’s a big brown apartment building with an odd sloping roof. I live about a mile away, and I’ve gone past this building several times on walks and bike rides without thinking much about it, except that it’s unattractive in an early-1970s sort of way. It reminded me of the work of the late Josep Lluís Sert, the architect responsible for such aging modernist eyesores as Harvard’s Science Center and Holyoke Center, the Peabody Terrace apartments in Cambridge, and the George Sherman Union complex at Boston University.

I was surprised to learn this week that not only is the brown building brand new, but it’s being celebrated as an example of green design. It’s called the Macallen Building, and it’s the subject of an independent documentary, “The Greening of Southie,” that’s currently making the film-festival rounds; I caught the movie this Tuesday at a screening hosted by Atlas Venture, a Boston-area venture capital firm. (Update 11/20/08: Here’s a video about the screening prepared by the filmmakers themselves.)

A 140-unit luxury condominium complex, the Macallen Building has garnered warm reviews from architecture critics, including no less a figure than Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe writer Robert Campbell. It’s also the first residential building in Boston to win a Gold-level LEED rating, something that can only be achieved through serious effort on the part of architects and developers. (LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary certification system devised by U.S. Green Building Council to encourage sustainable building practices.)

So I’ll probably sound like an unenlightened, anti-environmentalist crank when I say this, but the Macallen Building strikes me as a sorry excuse for the “greening” of anything, let alone South Boston, the working-class neighborhood over which it looms. If this project comes to be seen as a model for green development in Boston and other cities, the green-building movement is in big trouble.

Macallen Building, South BostonI do give the developers of the Macallen Building, Pappas Enterprises, credit for deciding to pursue LEED certification in the first place. As the film makes clear, the decision led to a thousand headaches that the company could have avoided by doing things the old-fashioned way. Construction crews had to set aside scrap metal for recycling, for example, rather than tossing all of the project’s construction waste into landfill-bound dumpsters. They cheerfully tried unproven but “sustainable” materials—such as the non-toxic glue holding down the condo units’ bamboo floors—that wound up causing costly complications. And you can’t argue with green design’s benefits: features like double-flush toilets, rainwater-trapping systems for landscape irrigation, and extensive natural lighting through double-paned, floor-to-ceiling windows mean that the building will save 600,000 gallons of water per year and use 30 percent less electricity than a non-green building.

I also have no objection to the way Pappas has made the building’s green design into a selling point with environmentally conscious condo buyers. Because the building is LEED-certified, the company is able to charge about 10 percent more than developers are getting for similarly sized condos in this corner of the city, according to the real estate review site ApartmentTherapy. That’s fine with me. After going to so much trouble, the company deserves to earn a bit of profit—and who’s going to finance the green-technology overhaul this country needs, if not capitalists? “Green is not about sacrifice…it is about understanding that doing good and doing well often go hand in hand,” the Macallen Building’s website intones. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

But there are several aspects of the Macallen project that bother me. One is the unfortunate symbolism in the fact that Boston’s first green residential building is a luxury condo. You have to be doing pretty well, indeed, to afford a one-bedroom, one-bath unit for $600,000 or a three-bedroom for $2.1 million. According to this 2005 Boston Globe article, the Pappas brothers—Tim, Andrew, and Jay—design their urban properties for city-loving young professionals like themselves. “We look at our peers and we look at our friends,” Andrew Pappas, then 26, told the paper. Another Globe article described Luke Peterson—a 25-year-old mortgage banker who put down $685,000 for a townhouse at First+First, another Pappas project in South Boston—as the ideal Pappas client.

I’m going to hazard a guess that 25-year-old mortgage-banking tycoons are in shorter supply these days. Indeed, there are still 20 empty units at the Macallen, even though the company briefly tried giving away a Toyota Camry Hybrid with each purchase. But at least the penthouse may soon be occupied; at last report, Tim Pappas, the 34-year-old real estate heir who heads Pappas Enterprises and drives racecars in his spare time, was close to persuading his girlfriend that 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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