Chris Parker just finished construction of a zero carbon apartment building, with 70% of the units considered affordable housing, for less than the cost of building a similar traditional apartment building, and he is on his way to completing a second phase. Now, he’s ready to share what he learned so others can do it, too.

Parker, executive director and founder of Giv Development, is the creator of Project Open, a $16 million, 112-unit, 5-story, zero carbon apartment building in Salt Lake City. His vision was to create a development that is both a solution to global carbon emissions and local air pollution, – an issue especially problematic for residents in the Salt Lake City area – and to make this housing available to low income residents. This project addresses both air quality and affordable housing challenges by reducing the building’s energy use, saving building costs so rents can be low, and making it easy for residents to live without fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

Parker believes that it is crucial that his solution be fully replicable by other developers – immediately. In support of that, he will be making his zero carbon plans and strategies available to other developers by the end of the year to show how all new apartment projects can be zero net carbon and improve their bottom lines. (You can be among the first to hear about it by subscribing to the Zero Energy Project newsletter.)

Parker has a unique strategy for achieving net zero carbon that can be applied easily by developers everywhere. He helped convince his local utility, Rocky Mountain Power, to build a subscriber solar power plant to supply the energy needs of his and other Utah buildings. His apartment building gets 100% of its electric needs from solar power generated at a 20-megawatt solar farm in Southern Utah where there is better solar exposure than in the Salt Lake City area.

Multifamily buildings have limited space on the roof for solar panels which has been an obstacle for larger projects wishing to reach zero energy status. Obtaining renewable energy from a subscriber solar farm solves this problem. Acquiring solar power from an offsite location allows for greater unit density and a taller building, since there is no longer a need for rooftop solar or to utilize valuable urban land for an on-site solar array.

“This is not a Blue Sky program,” says Parker. “You can literally sign your name to the panels that supply our energy.” The electric rate of $0.11 per kWh is midway between the base and the peak rate. On his next project the rate will be even lower because Rocky Mountain Power is building an additional, larger-scale field to expand the program. The electric rate for the program will drop with the added scale.

Additionally, there are no capital costs for the building’s renewable energy since it is coming from subscriber solar. This approach removes one of the biggest obstacles to building dense, high-rise net zero energy or zero carbon buildings. Where subscriber solar is not available, Parker simply recommends that developers “demand it of their local utility.”


Construction Savings

In addition to the economy of scale from a larger building, Parker was able to make significant savings on construction costs by powering all the appliances and equipment with electricity. The building uses electric heat-pump space heating and cooling along with point-of-use electric water heaters. Installing all electric, distributed equipment saves construction costs over using a large, central mechanical system because it requires less ducting and piping, eliminates most penetrations and vents, and avoids cladding issues around penetrations and vents. Omitting natural gas infrastructure also reduced construction costs.

While the shell of the building is similar to standard buildings, it is very airtight and well insulated meeting both Enterprise Green Communities and Energy Star 3.0 certification standards. Using this strategy, he has saved $50,000 on his first apartment building compared to a similar standard building, and he projects he will save close to $200,000 on his second phase.


A Low Carbon Lifestyle for Residents

Project Open’s apartment building also promotes a complete low-carbon lifestyle among its residents. The apartment building is designed so that residents do not need to own a personal vehicle. It is adjacent to both light and commuter rail and includes ride share programs with building-owned electric vehicles and electric bikes powered with renewable energy. Food options that use no packaging or reusable packaging will be available on site or in walking distance. Parker considers Project Open to be “a complete no-brainer solution allowing it to become the new normal.” He maintains, “If you are building a multi-family project tomorrow to be zero carbon, you can do it this way – and save money.”

Project Open is a mixed income building, with 70% of the 1-bedroom apartments considered affordable housing and rented for as little as $350 per month. The low income units are made possible by federal tax credits and the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund. Parker concludes, “Our low income apartments clearly demonstrate that affordable housing can be carbon-free housing with residents empowered to lead a carbon-free lifestyle. It is doable today!”

Chris Parker is a founder and executive director of Giv Development and Giv Communities in Salt Lake City.