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You Won't Believe Who's Building Our First Big Net-Positive Building? (Hint: It's Not a Giant Developer)

Boston Office

The East Coast’s first net-positive energy commercial building begins construction this fall. And where does one put a pioneering project that produces more energy than it consumes? In Boston’s Innovation District, aka the waterfront, of course.


While many of the new structures at the waterfront are LEED certifiable, none claim to include a net-positive energy building. The 24-year-old, nonprofit Artists For Humanity will build such a structure, featuring new technology to continue its tradition of sustainability and to teach the 250 community teens it works with about the importance of dealing with climate change, says AFH founder and Executive/Artistic Director Susan Rodgerson (above, with co-founder Jason Talbot). The expansion will allow AFH to increase employment of Teen Artists to 500.


In November, she expects 12 to 14 months of construction to start on the 52k SF addition to AFH's HQ. They've raised about half of the $30M needed to develop and maintain it, Susan tells us. The designer is Stuttgart-based Behnisch Architekten, which several years ago created the region's first LEED Platinum building, the Genzyme corporate HQ in Cambridge. In 2001, AFH purchased its first site in the busy Fort Point arts community (where it had long been located) for $1.2M. Since then, it’s become the largest single employer of Boston youth, she says. AFH pays the teens to create artistic products for government and businesses: bike racks for the city, T-shirts and furniture, and fine art for Vertex and Troy Boston, which just opened.


AFH’s new addition at 100 W Second St will use 80% less energy than a traditional commercial structure because of its design, new technology being developed by companies in Fort  Point and AFH’s willingness to change some of its habits, says Behnisch project leader Jill Kaehler (with AFH’s Andrew Motta and her colleague Heinrich Lipp).


Design features:

  • A high-performance envelope in a honeycomb sawtooth shape composed of transparent glazing and translucent aerogel panels. The envelope will bring in more daylight but less heat because the aerogel panels will have a thermal resistance of R-25 versus the current standard of up to R-18. Facade integrated photovoltaic cells will produce energy.
  • The shading will allow diffused north light in while blocking the direct south light. Operable windows offer natural ventilation; for about half the year no mechanical ventilation is needed.

  • An air-to-water radiant heating & cooling system embedded in the slabs between floors allows for better temperature control. It requires less space and gives more acoustical and architectural comfort.

  • A computerized maintenance system will signal when the manually operated windows should be opened or closed, and when they should be opened for night cooling. Ceiling fans will help circulate air.

  • A flexible, lightweight PV wrapper will maximize the roof and southern surfaces and help generate all energy on-site, while withstanding Boston snow and wind.
  • Every year, the building will use about 80% less energy than Boston’s average office building, and half as much as many high-performance offices built in the last five years.

Susan, once a painter herself, is a lifelong environmentalist who had the nonprofit’s first building built as sustainable as possible, she says. Working with creative youth like AFH apprentice Louis Perez provides them with important “life information,” including how to tackle climate change. The new project makes a point: there are good designers and technology available to develop net-positive energy buildings that even a nonprofit with a modest bankroll can make happen.