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This Green House

PBS’s Kevin O’Connor tours BU’s first LEED-certified residence


Dump trucks rattle by while construction crews sand brick facades in the heart of South Campus on a recent bright fall morning. Kevin O’Connor parks his black SUV in front of the faculty and staff apartment complex at 85-87 St. Mary’s St. and steps out into the din. The Emmy-nominated host of the PBS hit show This Old House is ready for another day of work. This time, though, it’s pro bono and for his alma mater.

O’Connor (GSM’99) is here at BU Today’s request to give a tour of BU’s first green residence. The University is aiming for platinum certification, the highest category under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a program created and administered by the U.S. Green Building Council. The nine units—a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments—opened last month and run from $2,000 to $3,200 a month, depending on size and amenities. Two units have already been rented.

The residential complex, renovated over one year and on budget, at nearly $3.7 million, was stripped down to rafters, studs, and floorboards and methodically rebuilt under LEED standards. The century-old building is one of eight campus projects that have been granted or are currently seeking LEED certification. The others are the Medical Campus laboratory and research facility at 670 Albany St., the Medical School Student Residence at 815 Albany St., an interior makeover at Sargent College’s Makechnie Study Center, a pilot program on reducing energy consumption (also at Sargent College), the planned School of Law addition, a complete office renovation at 122 Bay State Road, and the new East Campus Center for Student Services at 100 Bay State Road.

“LEED is a rigorous program that ensures that we continue to pay attention to these issues throughout the planning and construction process,” says Dennis Carlberg, the University’s sustainability director. “Getting the certification is an acknowledgement that we really have done it.”

Blower door test

Mike Browne (left), of Advanced Building Analysis, and Kevin O’Connor (GSM’99) discuss a blower door test at 87 St. Mary’s St.

Dressed in jeans, beat-up work boots, and a brown cotton shirt rolled to the elbows, O’Connor chats briefly with Carlberg, a former neighbor, before the camera starts to roll for O’Connor’s introduction to the building.

O’Connor and an entourage of half a dozen BU staff file into the lobby of 87 St. Mary’s St. to film a blower door test, used to measure air leaks within the building. Mike Browne, a principal from Advanced Building Analysis, explains the test. But Browne is too jargony for O’Connor, who reminds him that everyday homeowners aren’t in the construction business.

“We call ’em civilians,” O’Connor says jokingly, the term he and other TOH staff use. “We’re working with civilians today. People understand heating and cooling bills.”

Browne nods, regroups, and prepares for another take. “I’m not supposed to look at the camera, right?” he says. Nope. He does anyway, and they do a third take. This time the message gets across: testing performed by Advanced Building Analysis helped BU find troublesome spots around doors and windows so they could be plugged with additional insulation, reducing air leaks in the building by half.

The group moves on to film a 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom apartment at 85 St. Mary’s St., where Carlberg, a LEED-accredited professional and an architect by training, shows off the unit’s Energy Star appliances, low-flow faucets, dual-flush toilets, and bamboo flooring. He brings O’Connor over to a sample wall cross section to show how spray foam insulation wraps each rafter “like a blanket.”

“You guys didn’t skimp anywhere when it comes to energy efficiency,” O’Connor says.

Boston University, St. Mary's Street LEED Certified

O’Connor and sustainability director Dennis Carlberg (right) tour a kitchen at 85 St. Mary’s St.

The two walk over to a set of doors that Carlberg opens to reveal a tankless water heater, a stackable washer and dryer, an air filter, and heating and cooling systems. He ticks off their green qualities. The tankless water heater alone promises to save residents money. Its yearly operation cost saves at least half the cost of a conventional tank heater. O’Connor coaches him on how to keep his message concise.

“All I do is steal other people’s information and make it shorter,” O’Connor says, his freckles rearranging with each grin. The former banker landed his hosting gig with TOH through what he calls “dumb luck.” He contacted the show for help on a remodeling project at his previous home, an 1800s Victorian. The visit turned into a job offer.

O’Connor winds up his tour interviewing Jay Fiske, vice president of business development and marketing for Powerhouse Dynamics, developer of a system called eMonitor, which measures the amount of energy used at each circuit within a home. All residents will soon be able to access this information in their own unit and use it to make informed decisions about how to cut electrical costs.

Two hours after he arrives, O’Connor shakes Carlberg’s hand and hops back in his SUV. Technically, his workday is just beginning.

Read more about the 85-87 St. Mary’s St. green renovation project, and University going green.

For more information about BU’s apartments, visit Rental Property Management here.

Alan Wong can be reached at alanwong@bu.edu.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

9 Comments on This Green House

  • Gabriella Campozano on 11.14.2011 at 10:04 am

    Thanks! I’m so glad that our campus has decided to take even further initiative in going green!

    I”ve recently signed up to become one of BU’s Sustainability Liaisons, we’re growing in numbers.

  • PK on 11.14.2011 at 11:27 am

    Great article and video, guys! It’s always great to see KO back on campus.

  • IAM on 11.14.2011 at 11:29 am

    Do you think President Brown and the Trustees spent $3.7 million on this building out of pure passion for environmental issues? It’s much more likely they did it for the tax breaks and the positive PR. It’s commendable that the administration is taking on an important issue but let’s not canonize them just yet.

    • Nathan on 11.14.2011 at 11:45 am

      Then let us thank the politicians who made the legislation that showed the BU Trustees they could save money by being sustainable.

      And let us thank Dennis Carlberg for his commitment to pushing for maximum sustainability under a BU typical budget.

      Let us thank the children of the 60s and 70s who have shown a commitment to sustainability in the reduce, reuse, recycle model.

      And let us thank our democracy which allows us to create a regulatory environment that burdens corporations with the opportunity to be profitable AND do what is believed best for the planet we all live on.

    • Sigh on 11.14.2011 at 11:51 am

      Did you watch the entire video? If you didn’t, you should.

      The video clearly states that the budget was in place for renovation of the building without any concern for LEED-related work and that they made their desire to be eco-friendly work with the existing budget.

      Unless people are now liars until proven otherwise, I’m going to take the statement at face value. Unless you didn’t watch the video.

    • Anon on 11.14.2011 at 1:43 pm

      BU doesn’t receive the tax breaks that you think they would.

      Also, Positive PR? No offense to BU Today or other BU outlets, but this project is hardly bringing any positive PR to BU. $3.7 million is an awful lot to spend on good PR.

      Maybe this is one case where cynicism doesn’t apply…maybe Brown and trustees did hire a Sustainability Director for addressing environmental issues. He did it because the BU community has been demanding it for years.

  • Overlord of the Underclassmen on 11.14.2011 at 10:04 pm

    Them saying that the project was under budget for what they would have done without a leed certification doesn’t surprise me.
    If the Management House on Bay State is just student housing…I imagine that the budget for faculty housing weighs in a quite a bit more… (The doors in this place cost at least a thousand dollars each….I’m not exaggerating).

  • BU Undergrad on 11.15.2011 at 10:43 pm

    I’ve actually been on a tour of this particular residence when I was working for BU Facilities. It is really nice on the inside, and the sustainability@bu team have been doing a phenomenal job paying attention to the small details. From the large efficient appliances and instant hot-water heaters to energy-efficient LED lighting and insulation, they took a holistic approach to sustainability. I think that the residents will also enjoy the units quite a bit.. I know I definitely wouldn’t mind living there! The top unit also sports an awesome rooftop deck, which has a great view of South Campus and the Boston Skyline.

    Overall, I hope to see more of this at BU! Sometimes the first step towards sustainability can be protracted and expensive, but you have to start somewhere. I’m looking forward to seeing more new LEED projects on campus.

  • Nathan Phillips on 11.16.2011 at 8:00 am

    This story makes me proud to be associated with BU!

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