The Duffie Companies
Just as restaurants like Starbucks and Subway list the calories in their menu items, Shane Pollin predicts the building industry might one day list Energy Star ratings. That disclosure, he hopes, would get people to look at buildings differently.
While it may sound farfetched, this isn’t the first time one of Pollin’s ideas has sounded overzealous. In 2006, when Pollin, director of development at Ralph J. Duffie, Inc., first suggested that Duffie build to the most common environmental certification program, colloquially known by its acronym LEED, the family-owned business said “no.”
The company, which operates in the Washington D.C. metro area, was embarking on the construction of a new suburban office building. Pollin wanted to build the area’s first LEED Certified project at a time when LEED certification wasn’t well-known or required.
“We can be the first of the new generation of buildings, or we can be the last of the old generation of buildings,” Pollin told his family.
With some convincing, the company agreed to give it a try. Duffie achieved the second-highest level of certification, LEED Gold, on both the shell of the building and the interior. While it planned to occupy a portion of the building with its own offices and rent the rest of the space, it ended up leasing the entire space to the General Services Administration (GSA), which provides administrative support to federal agencies.
“I think in the future, the buildings are going to get more and more efficient, and to the degree that we’re already building this way and have chosen to go there not kicking and screaming is something that sets us apart,” Pollin says.
East of Market LEED community
Its first project was so successful Duffie decided to seek LEED certification on a 160-unit apartment community in Frederick, Maryland.
It wanted those apartments, called East of Market, to also achieve LEED Gold and be Energy Star certified, accomplishments no one in Frederick had ever obtained.
Those East of Market apartments have since earned the company a Maryland Building Industry Association Award of Excellence, an Energy Star Partner of the Year Award from Potomac Edison and an Apartment Community Excellence (PACE) Award from the Property Managers Association.
“We actually brought this property to 100 percent occupancy, which usually we don’t do but there was that much demand,” Pollin says. “We’re at the highest rent in the entire market, and it’s worked. We just like building this way, and as a small business it’s become our differentiator.”
It’s paying off for residents too. Tenants’ annual, combined gas and electric bills are averaging just $65 per month. The property management team that oversees East of Market has seen tenants in other similar, but not energy-efficient, buildings pay more than $200 per month on cooling bills.
The details that make this possible include factory assembled wall panels and exterior walls so well-insulated that Pollin compares it to living in a Styrofoam cooler—only more efficient. That level of insulation, combined with significant air sealing, translates to optimal energy efficiency. Advanced building techniques and details also help block the transmission of noise and odors—real concerns for residents in a multi-tenant building.
The apartment homes are heated with hydronic heat, which runs on highly-efficient and affordable natural gas. Nearly all of the light fixtures Duffie installed are LED and tenants can opt for ceiling fans to offset air conditioning.
Duffie knew its target tenants would appreciate these green features and suspected they’d appreciate other amenities it incorporated into the project, including an onsite dog park, a pet grooming station, private garages with electric vehicle charging, bicycle garages and a no-smoking policy.
Quality materials and attention to detail also make the buildings durable, which is especially important to a company like Duffie that holds onto its buildings and doesn’t flip them.
What “green” means
The green building “story” is one that resonates for a lot of different reasons, Pollin says. Some care about green for the energy savings or the environment. Some prefer green because it reduces dependence on fossil fuels and foreign countries.
“Green means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Pollin says, “but it’s essentially the same green, fortunately.”
For instance, to a parent with a newborn, saving energy might not be the only concern. Clean air and chemical-free building materials might mean a lot too.
“Obviously the codes are getting more and more stringent,” Pollin says. “LEED has to keep raising the bar, and I don’t know what the future will hold, but for now, this is working for us, and it creates a niche for us. It’s something that we can show has worked.”
Duffie’s commitment to and experience with high performance, green building helped it secure one of its next projects: a partnership with the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, its local affordable housing authority.
Duffie is also planning to build its first LEED certified hotel, a 100-room Hilton Home2 Suites.
The company is targeting LEED Gold for New Construction for that project.
Duffie also plans to build itself a new office, as the last time it tried to do so, it ended up leasing the space to the GSA. This time it’s striving to achieve LEED Platinum (the highest certification) for both the building’s core and shell and commercial interior.
“I think it’s good that we’re ahead because as the building codes and energy codes become more stringent, companies and builders who don’t understand the new building techniques are going to be at an inherent disadvantage,” Pollin says.
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