Green in Action
Net Zero Heroes
How do you transform from building your first green project, to becoming a green organization? In the second episode of the Green in Action podcast, host Kimberly Vermeer shares RUPCO’s journey toward becoming a leading sustainable affordable housing developer in New York’s Hudson Valley. Guests Guy Kempe, Vice President of Community Development, and Chuck Snyder, Assistant Vice President for Real Estate and Construction, recount RUPCO’s organizational growth through stories of their increasingly ambitious green developments. This episode explores how RUPCO is building sustainably in a rural context, meeting the challenges of creating green communities, providing housing and cultural spaces for artists, building net zero energy homes, and more.
Featuring Karl Berger’s Musica Poetica live at the Lace Mill. Support their Patreon.
- Net Zero Energy
- Historical Preservation
- Community Development
- Organizational transformation
Net Zero Heroes Transcript
GUY KEMPE: I think that there’s been some real recognition of our values and the values we bring to our projects throughout the Hudson Valley. I think that communities, if they don’t demand that we do green buildings, they should. And I think they know that.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: I’m Kim Vermeer, the host of Green Horizons, where we celebrate stories of green leadership in affordable housing development.
Today’s episode finds us in the villages and small cities of New York State’s Hudson Valley. You might be surprised that we’re talking about green leadership in this area.
Most people think that green building is a big-city urban thing, and that doing green building in rural settings is too hard; and rare to see. And it is challenging!
So, our story today takes us to the scenic Hudson Valley, upstate New York, where a housing developer called RUPCO is determined to change that.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: RUPCO’s most recent housing development, Energy Square, opened its doors in 2020. This new 56-unit affordable rental complex is very green – seeking LEED Platinum certification. Energy Square, located in Kingston, is also Net-Zero Energy, which means that the building itself produces at least as much energy as it uses.
When people think of Net-Zero energy, they usually think of upscale single-family homes, or developments in dense urban areas. But RUPCO upended these assumptions! Energy Square serves lower income and formerly homeless residents, and is the first ever Net-Zero multi family development in the Hudson Valley.
RUPCO is doing advanced green building in a rural context, proving that sustainability initiatives are possible for everyone, even outside of big cities. So how did this small non-profit developer in the Hudson Valley become such a leader in green building? Let’s hear their story.
GUY KEMPE: My name is Guy Kempe, vice president of community development at RUPCO. I’ve been here for about 15 years and we work primarily in affordable housing and neighborhood reinvestment. We’re about a 40-year-old, not for profit agency located in Kingston, in the mid-Hudson Valley.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: We’ll also hear from Chuck Snyder, Guy’s colleague, and another key player at RUPCO:
CHUCK SNYDER: I’m the director of Real Estate and Construction. I’ve been with the agency for just over 13 years.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: With insights from Guy and Chuck, we’ll take a look at RUPCO’s organizational transformation, learning how this non-profit developer became a green leader.
CHUCK SNYDER: Before I started with RUPCO, I worked primarily in the commercial sector. And I can say I started to see a change, a dramatic change in the industry right around the millennial.
KIMBERLY VEERMEER: Let’s go back to the early 2000’s, where RUPCO’s green building journey starts. At the time, green building was hardly standard practice. The United States Green Building Council, or USGBC, was just getting started. Today, it’s the main organization setting sustainability standards for real estate development, through their green rating system, “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design,” or LEED. But when RUPCO was beginning to pursue green building, USGBC was still in its infancy.
CHUCK SNYDER: I would say that when that stuff started to started to come out, it was met with some resistance just because nobody knew what it was. And we didn’t need to make our lives any more difficult than they already were.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Many housing developers, especially in the conventional market, balked at new methods and the upfront costs of this green building. But others saw it as an opportunity.
Guy’s introduction to sustainable building came from his experience in community development in his own backyard, where he served on the planning board for seven years.
GUY KEMPE: “The notion of having green and sustainable development opportunities was something we aspired to in my community. So it was natural for us to pick that up and want to use some of those techniques at RUPCO.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: And so, RUPCO embarked on its first foray into green building, Woodstock Commons. And completed it in 2013. [Music]
GUY KEMPE: A lot of people that don’t live in Woodstock think that that’s where the festival took place.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Woodstock the festival, it turns out actually took place in Bethel Woods, in a neighboring county. But the Hamlet had a bigger problem than confused tourists on a Woodstock pilgrimage:
It had a housing problem.
GUY KEMPE: Woodstock had plenty of affordable housing, but all of it costs too much.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: That insight from a Woodstock Town supervisor from some ten years prior still rings too true today. Poor quality and high monthly utility costs makes housing expensive for residents, even if the rent seems cheap. Another problem was the type of available housing.
GUY KEMPE: Often it was in the form of seasonal cottages that had been converted into residential units. And the problem was that that it was just not sustainable. It wasn’t comfortable for the residents and it was just an inadequate supply of it.
The problem in Woodstock is that they were experiencing some of the significant costs that come from a community that hasn’t really experienced any development of affordable housing in many, many years.” [02:40-2:57]
KIMBERLY VERMEER: So RUPCO was invited to meet with members of the Woodstock Affordable Housing Committee to address the issue.
Together, they decided to go ahead with what became Woodstock Commons.
GUY KEMPE: We designed and built for, uh, fifty-three units of housing, all rental, affordable, 20 of those are for seniors and the balance are for families.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: While the development footprint itself is about 9 acres, the project had a lot of natural space around it: the other acres of the site were left in a conservation easement:
GUY KEMPE: What’s exciting about the site is that it was twenty-eight acres and infill site, one of the rare ones that you might find sort of nestled between two traditional suburban subdivisions, but just off of the main drag.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: RUPCO went to great lengths to connect Woodstock Common to nearby neighborhoods. An integral part of their sustainability vision was connectivity: connecting both the buildings and the residents to the surrounding community.
GUY KEMPE: It was really designed with a series of a trail system to connect it using non-motorized transportation down to the shopping areas, and that those things of civilization that, that our tenants would need to get to.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Those trails connected the suburban residential neighborhoods on either side of Woodstock Commons and added a parkours fitness trail that serves as a community exercise amenity that’s available to everyone.
At that point, LEED was not a well-established program in New York State. Many developers were not eager to participate, given what they perceived to be the added costs to their development.
But driven by its focus on community, RUPCO participated in the LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot certification program. LEED ND is for projects that combine residential and non-residential uses, with the goal to look beyond the scale of buildings to apply green principles to neighborhood planning.
Although LEED ND was largely aimed at more urban developments, RUPCO saw how the focus on walkability, community connection, and green infrastructure was worthwhile in their rural context. Despite high initial costs, RUPCO took a leap, and Woodstock Commons was one of the first projects to participate in the pilot program.
And the project has many green features besides being LEED ND certified: it has Geothermal Heat Pumps that provide heating and cooling in each apartment along with good ventilation. Onsite stormwater management and wetlands protection were priorities, including during construction.
CHUCK SNYDER: The access road into the project is via a bridge that jumps a small stream. And we built the bridge with a prefabricated system that pretty much spanned the entire streambed without encroaching upon it at all during construction.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Woodstock Commons was a success! Residents were happy, utility bills were low, and all members of the community benefited from the public conservation land and amenities.
With the Woodstock Commons experience under their belt, RUPCO was ready for their next opportunity. And this time, it was closer to home, not far from RUPCO’s office in Downtown Kingston:
CHUCK SNYDER: The next project directly following Woodstock Commons is our Lace Mill project, which was the conversion of a 1903 factory building in the center of Kingston.
GREGG SWANZEY: We’re standing at the corner here next to the Lace Mill, and this anchor project here in the arts district here in Kingston. As we look down the corridor here behind me, Cornell Street connects to Broadway, and of course that’s a commercial center of Kingston.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: That’s Gregg Swanzey, Development Director at the City of Kingston from 2012 through 2016.
RUPCO worked with the city to identify the need for low-cost artist housing with plenty of community space. They wanted to build a place where artists could live affordably and have easy access to space for collaborative projects, exhibits, and performances, like this one from Karl Berger’s Musica Poetica group:
[Musica Poetica Music]
KIMBERLY VERMEER: But avoiding gentrification and preserving the historical character of the century-old building was also a big priority.
CHUCK SNYDER: I happen to have an affinity for old buildings. I love the conversion.
GUY KEMPE: RUPCO’s a rural preservation company, so historic preservation is sort of our
our middle name. And the important thing about the Lace Mill, from my perspective, is that we preserved a factory that laid fallow for about 30 years and it had at one time been a significant hub of activity in the city of Kingston. I’m told that the noonday whistle for all of Kingston was attached to the to the smokestack at the Lace Mill. [Whistle noise]
KIMBERLY VERMEER: In our book, Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, Walker Wells, my co-author and I, featured the Lace Mill, because we were so impressed by RUPCOs ability to build sustainably for the future while respecting the past.
Saving and re-using existing buildings is a very green strategy — the Lace Mill won a Preservation Action Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With the smokestack, brick exterior, and exposed beams, the building looks just like it did in the 1950s, when the factory produced lace curtains. But there are many more green features hidden behind the beautifully preserved façade.
For example, there’s a large solar electric system on the roof, that produces almost two-thirds of the energy needed for the common area electricity – including the galleries and artist collaboration spaces. But the solar panels are hidden from view. If you were walking by, you would never know they’re there.
The solar panels are just one piece of the emphasis on energy efficiency at the Lace Mill.
RUPCO insulated apartment walls to keep the heat in the winter, and out in the summer. They installed water source heat pumps, and specified ENERGY STAR qualified lighting and appliances. All of these measures put the residents first, focusing on cost and comfort.
Historic preservation and green building are not at odds. In fact, the opposite is true. At RUPCO, Guy and Chuck could see that building sustainability means more than the latest flashy green features. It meant thinking holistically about the entire process:
GUY SNYDER: the most sustainable approach to revitalizing our urban core in all of our cities is to keep our existing building stock from going to the landfill. And here we had a significant masonry building that was eligible for listing on both state and federal historic registers. And to not do that would have been a crime.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: After the break, we get to RUPCO’s newest and most challenging project yet: Energy Square.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: RUPCO’s latest project opened its doors to residents in 2020: the ambitious Net-Zero project mentioned at the beginning of this episode, Energy Square.
PAT RYAN: In so many ways, this is an absolutely transformative project. Right in the heart of midtown, in a place where everyone can afford to live, I hope this emanates out and ripples across our whole county.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: That’s Pat Ryan, Ulster County Executive.
At the Lace Mill, the solar panels provided much of the energy for the building’s common spaces. But Energy Square is Net Zero, taking things to the next level. That means that the building itself produces at least as much energy that it uses, including residents’ apartments as well as common areas.
Energy Square is a mixed-use, mixed-income development on the former site of the Mid-City Lanes bowling alley. The 56 new units include mostly one bedroom and studio apartments, along with some two-and three-bedroom homes for families. Nine apartments have been set aside for homeless adults and young adults. And rents range from just under $500 a month to about $1,500 a month.
With a limited pool of green building designers and contractors in their rural area, RUPCO met this challenge by building their team over time and bringing them along on each new project.
CHUCK SNYDER: I think we’ve gotten better at what we’re trying to do. I think the industry has gotten better as well. I’ve been blessed with, with a core group of architects that I work with that have essentially drank the Kool-Aid. And I have a contractor that has done most of the projects that we’re talking about, that has done the same. And as a team, if everybody’s on the same page, it it’s much easier than if, if you’re fighting that resistance along the way.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Getting more ambitious with every project, Energy Square was made possible by RUPCO’s growth as an organization: all hands were on deck, the team was in place, to tackle even larger green projects.
CHUCK SNYDER: Unlike the Lace Mill, which was a historic preservation project, Energy Square is brand new ground up construction, so we had full control over detailing of the construction of the building.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: RUPCO was eager to provide affordable housing to vulnerable populations in their community. But as always, paying for it is a challenge! To finance this ambitious project, they needed to get creative about where they got their funding.
GUY KEMPE: There’s no question in my mind that the state of New York really wanted to build their first affordable zero-net energy project, and they were delighted that we proposed it.
KIM VERMEER: RUPCO saw an opportunity to harness the state’s enthusiasm for net zero energy and qualified for a million-dollar grant from the Cleaner, Greener Communities program at NYSERDA, the state’s Energy and Development Authority.
They broke ground in September 2018, building Energy Square to standards similar to Passive House. The idea behind Passive House is to limit the escape of heat with good insulation and air sealing, so that buildings don’t need a lot of energy for heating or cooling. Energy Square has a very well insulated and airtight building shell, and it has a large array of solar panels that generate power for the building.
CHUCK SNYDER: We have enough solar PV generation, which is a three hundred- and twenty-KW system, to offset the electric usage of all the residential portion of the building. We can pinpoint that we’re producing about 20 percent more power than we’re using on the residential side of the building.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: The residents at Energy Square will not be billed separately for their utilities. The heat, hot water, and electricity are all included in the rent. But RUPCO is planning to submeter the building so they can track the energy use over time.
Initially, the project was aiming for LEED Gold certification, but through the emphasis on energy efficiency and other green measures, the project has exceeded expectations, and they now are achieving LEED Platinum.
And maintaining RUPCO’s commitment to community development, Energy Square includes 11,000 square feet of space for an elevated urban park, a retail market, café, and office space for a community-based nonprofit, the Center for Creative Education which provides art education and job training for young people.
GUY KEMPE: It feels really wonderful to accomplish some of this. The opportunities that we have are going to be impactful, I believe, for the future. And, you know, I think that it’s great if other developers can imitate some of these techniques and bring them into their communities too.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Energy Square is a reflection of RUPCO’s long commitment to equity and sustainability.
RUPCO demonstrates green leadership by redefining the definition of what sustainable development can be, and for who. Their commitment to green building shows that the benefits can be enjoyed by everyone, from overlooked populations like low income artists and homeless youths, to a broader rural community as a whole.
RUPCO shows that green is not just for city people, but with commitment and planning it is possible to rise to the challenge of bringing green practices – and green benefits! – to rural communities.
But Guy and Chuck are not content to rest on their laurels after the completion of Energy Square.
We asked them how they’re looking at the future for affordable housing and sustainability:
CHUCK SNYDER: Me? [Laughs] What do I see? So, we know a couple of things, the affordable housing market right now there is no there’s no end to it, we could build from now through the next 50 years and not get everybody housed that needs to be housed.
GUY KEMPE: No amount of money, and not in this decade could we build our way out of the circumstance we’re in that the supply is not going to meet the demand for the foreseeable future.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: With these problems in mind, Guy and Chuck see the importance of RUPCO’s work in pushing the envelope of what is possible in affordable housing, especially in their rural context.
GUY KEMPE: We’re going to have to do some things that are kind of innovative. We’re going to have to look at single family homes that are perhaps overbuilt and out of scale for modern families that tend to be smaller with fewer children. We’re going to need to figure out how to make them work harder and be smarter. So that’s sort of off in the horizon for us.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: Guy advocates for density and sustainability not only in big cities, but small cities like Kingston, and rural areas like the Hudson Valley as well. This means more multifamily homes, energy efficient design, and connective amenities including broadband and access to transportation.
GUY KEMPE: All of the challenges that we see in the urban environment are going to really be important up here and in the suburbs.
KIMBERLY VERMEER: RUPCO is leading change in New York State, and it looks like they will continue to lead by example in the future.
How do they do it? As Chuck told us: one brick at a time. We’ll give Guy and Chuck our last words:
CHUCK SNYDER: In my mind, the sustainable building measures that we implement on affordable housing project are married. You can’t you can’t build healthy, affordable housing and not have it be energy efficient and sustainable.
GUY KEMPE: It became a part of our mission and a part of our operating guidance for all projects going forward.
KIMBERLY VERMER: This was Green in Action, where we explore green leadership in affordable housing development. This episode, “Net Zero Heroes,” was hosted by me, Kimberly Vermeer, and featured the voices of RUPCO’s Guy Kempe and Chuck Snyder. If you would like to learn more about RUPCO’s work, visit their website at: www.rupco.org.
You can get more insights on the Lace Mill and other innovative affordable housing developments in my book, Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing, co-authored by Walker Wells. The book is available from publisher Island Press – you can also search for “Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing” at www.Bookshop.org, to support an independent bookstore near you.
In this episode, you can hear soundbites from YouTube videos by RUPCO, Central Hudson, and Dr. Marsupial, with a recording of Karl Berger’s Musica Poetica live at the Lace Mill. We do not own these recordings.
This episode was produced by Kimberly Vermeer, and Klara Kaufman. Sound engineering and audio editing by Carl-Isaak Krulewitch. Music by Matt Vermeer. Kimberly Vermeer is the Executive Producer. The Green Pod is an Urban Habitat Initiatives production.
Brought to you by Urban Habitat Initiatives Inc. of Green in Action