85-87 St. Mary’s Street

LEED Gold Logo

This Green House

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

By Leslie Friday, Video by Alan Wong


Kevin O’Connor (Questrom’99), host of PBS’s This Old House, walks through 85-87 St. Mary’s St., in Brookline, BU’s first LEED-certified residence. Photos by Cydney Scott

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 (Questrom’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.”

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.

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.