States’ Build Back Better Plans For Affordable Housing Hinge On Innovators

Real Estate

The Biden White House’s Build Back Better moonshot shattered late last year. So, what’s to become of its zillion pieces, like the promise of upwards of $200 billion the massive social agenda had penciled in for a desperately-needed housing safety net?

As the question of whether a core slate of Federal social programs might ever get full Democratic Senator support, one of the BBB colossal fail’s cruelest impacts hits where it hurts most – housing affordability and access — where an unfolding crisis magnifies a slew of economic troubles, and where investment and commitment could turn multiplier-effect societal solutions.

The multi-trillion-dollar grand bargain fell short, leaving an abyss of un- and under-protected households and people whose wherewithal is no match for spiraling home prices and rents and new and remodeled and renovated housing costs. However, as Capitol Hill dithers, and Uncle Sam’s coffers remain off-bounds for the near future, a public-private sector venture at the state level is working fast to open a new door to the future – accessible, safe, healthy, and environmentally sustainable buildings — on the affordable housing front.

An inventive alliance – adapted from Energiesprong [Dutch for Energy Jump], a non-profit program that has retrofitted 6,000 thousand of affordable housing units in the Netherlands, France, the UK, Germany, and Italy since 2013, and built just as many new ones – has gotten moving through a catalyst commitment of $30 million from the New York State Research and Development Authority. NYSERDA’s Retrofit New York aims to kick-start a cascade of private sector and community investments, with ultimate sights set on the state’s more than 6 million unit stock of aging, deteriorating, and energy-wasting affordable housing units that together generate as much as 45% of the state’s greenhouse emissions.

And New York State — should the program pilot successfully — could be only the start of a desperately needed, upgrade of the nation’s sprawling, already-installed base of affordable apartment communities in need of refurbishment.

Central to the program’s success – super cost efficient, super high energy and resilient buildings – is innovative building technology, including high-performance, low-cost panelized exterior wall systems, low-cost roofing systems with integrated photovoltaics, integrated all-electric mechanical systems, and a turn-key project delivery model.

Scientific American contributor Willem Marx described Energiesprong’s version of a build-back-better approach this way, offering a sneak preview of New York State’s Retrofit New York program.

“The original windows and the very old brick walls had allowed cold drafts inside, and warm interior air to escape, wasting much of the energy used to heat the building. The new facade is primarily fire-resistant expanded polystyrene—essentially, hollow spheres that trap air to create a thick insulation layer—faced with hardened clay and sculpted into hundreds of very thin rectangles known as “brick slips.”

This new building skin, prebuilt in a factory, was one of a dozen such facades to be attached to local buildings when I visited the suburb on a rainy day in early summer, each structure measured to millimeter precision. The installation is part of a concerted effort to transform energy-inefficient public housing into a set of ultralow-emission homes—without having to open a wall or remake an attic. The building was being wrapped in the equivalent of a winter jacket—or summer beer koozie—avoiding the need to insert insulation inside dozens of walls, lofts and attics. A similarly premade, lightweight, highly insulating material, complete with solar panels, would be installed on the roof, too.”

There’s no discounting the public sector political will and private investor financial muscle it takes to ignite such initiatives. However, only newly applied construction technology can spread the decisive distance between the past and the future, both for its ability to bend cost curves downward, and arc energy and carbon-reducing capability upward. To date, four building owners, three turnkey project design, engineering, and construction solutions providers, and three component manufacturers qualified for NYSERDA’s $5 million gap-funded second round of projects as the agency proves out [link] its use-case “pathway to carbon neutral buildings through replicable whole building solutions.”

Specifically, NYSERDA’s initial aim is a proof case for an offsite-manufactured, high-performance wall panel system that suits its low- and mid-rise affordable housing community portfolio, achieving cost parity with what low-income housing owner-developers currently spend on renovations. The organization surveyed about 150,000 buildings in New York City alone, as part of its discovery of the project pool and requirements.

Earlier, Passive House Accelerator contributor Mary James reported:

“A prefabricated retrofit panel is another critical product that is receiving NYSERDA support. In this case NYSERDA’s Advanced Buildings team, which the RetrofitNY team works closely with, released a solicitation in the fall of 2020 that included a challenge for panel solutions. NYSERDA received a number of very strong proposals and expects to announce the awards in the second quarter of 2021. The team anticipates new panel solutions to be introduced into the market in 2021 and 2022, in addition to those currently in the Advanced Buildings R&D pipeline.”

Among the pilot’s component manufacturers, Washington, DC-area Dextall, Inc. – a young and growing construction technology pioneer in synchronizing fully-integrated exterior wall panel design, engineering, pre-fabrication, and vertical assembly — emerged as one of the three go-to providers in a second cohort of NYSERDA test-case projects. Dextall’s ramp up momentum as a NYSERDA qualifier recently got an additional adrenaline shot in the form of investment funding from Winklevoss Capital Fund, family office of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

Dextall qualified to provide wall panel components in five different NYSERDA building types, ranging from low-rise pre-1940s masonry buildings to mid-rise and low-rise buildings dating as recently as 2006. Its vertically-integrated software and unitized prefabricated exterior wall panel system retrofits these masonry and concrete and steel structures into maintenance-free buildings that are cost-efficient, sustainable, and resilient. Dextall’s retrofit solutions can achieve a Net Zero or Passive House standard, which is necessary for states such as New York to reach aggressive climate initiative goals.

“At Winklevoss Capital, we believe in determined entrepreneurs and their ability to positively affect the human experience for the better,” said Thanh Nguyen, Investment Manager at Winklevoss Capital. “What drew us to Dextall was its unique technology that is reshaping New York State’s affordable housing landscape. Dextall has developed a carbon friendly solution that is transforming new and existing buildings into high-performing, maintenance-free, cost effective alternatives to what exists today,”

“Winklevoss Capital’s investment in Dextall signifies a stepping stone of advance for the construction community,” said Aurimas Sabulis, founder and CEO of Dextall. “Dextall’s solution is a perfect match for innovators and trendsetters in the construction industry.”

In a 20-plus year career in construction, Sabulis focused on technology to advance the fields of design and construction, and built a track record of groundbreaking projects. Dextall wall systems complete with windows, exterior cladding, and integrated mechanical systems reduce on-site labor impact and reduce construction timelines. Its retrofit solution minimizes the current tenant disturbance, and it allows for an installation process — with no scaffolds — that runs 70% faster compared with traditional onsite construction, resulting in improved construction schedules and skilled labor saving. The retrofit projects then become scalable, cost-effective, and can lead to high-energy performing buildings.

Dextall’s digital system – capable of eliminating up to 24 months of project design coordination and construction inefficiencies – yields predictable and transparent end-to-end project cost analysis for the entire building lifecycle, starting with the earliest design stages that tap instantly into bill of materials level architecture and building detail. ls are installed

“Our technology improves efficiency in every stage of the design, as it minimizes waste, and reduces carbon emissions in construction and building performance.”

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