In August 2011, Affordable Housing Associates (AHA) celebrated the completion of Harmon Gardens, a multifamily apartment building that provides shelter and supportive services for 15 transition-age youth, ages 18–24, which are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Designed by HKIT Architects, and constructed by Midstate Construction Company, Harmon Gardens aims to be a model for sustainable design. Located in Berkeley, California, the development utilizes existing infrastructure and PV panels to provide energy needed for lighting the common areas and heating and hot water for common areas and residential apartments. Additional green building measures include the installation of energy saving appliances, low-flow plumbing fixtures, and improved indoor air quality through the use of no VOC paints, adhesives and natural and recycled flooring materials.

Home Energy was invited to take a tour of Harmon Gardens upon its completion, and we also got a chance to sit down with the people behind the project. Below is a conversation with Aubra Levine, senior project manager in the Housing Development department of AHA, who shares with us the lessons learned in completing this multifamily unit.

Q&A with Aubra Levine, Senior Project Manager, AHA

Home Energy: What were the project’s goals from the outset?

Aubra Levine: AHA has seven over-arching design principles that mesh with our energy conservation and environmental sustainability goals:

  1. Long-term affordability;
  2. community-oriented and user-friendly design;
  3. high-quality design, materials, and construction;
  4. cost-effective development and operations;
  5. durable and easy to maintain buildings and grounds;
  6. energy and resource-efficient buildings, equipment and operations;
  7. and healthy and safe environments.

We continually want to build on our “green” experience and are always looking for new green features to adopt. For instance, at Harmon Gardens we have both PV solar and PV thermal, where previous projects only had one or the other. We wanted the project to achieve a higher implementation of green techniques and we used several green rating systems to help guide us in that effort. Our goal was to achieve at least 150 points on the GPR score and to use the LEED for Homes rating system for the first time and to achieve at least Gold rating. We also wanted to use the Bay Friendly Landscaping (BFL) rating system. All of these programs helped us to substantially increase implementation of green features in all aspects of the project.  We exceeded our goals in all areas: GPR 172; LEED platinum; and an above average BFL score.

HE: How was Harmon Gardens funded?

AL: Harmon Gardens was financed with funds from the City of Berkeley, Alameda County, California Housing Finance Agency Mental Health Services Act Program, federal stimulus funds in the form of low-income housing tax credit exchange funds from the CA Tax Credit Allocation Committee, a construction loan from Northern California Community Loan Fund, a Affordable Housing Program grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank and Torrey Pines Bank (member bank), a predevelopment grant from the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a green building grant from Alameda County Stopwaste, and Section 8 rental assistance through the Berkeley Housing Authority.

HE: Were there any obstacles you ran into along the way with building to green/energy efficient standards? If so, what were they and how did you overcome them?

Overall the biggest obstacle was the high up-front cost to install certain items. However, since we own and manage our properties for the long term, we are always sensitive to the long term cost to our operations and to our tenants and thus for AHA the added costs on the front end are worth the savings in energy, maintenance, and replacements over time.

Beyond that, there were often challenges to implementing all the green goals but not necessarily obstacles. Here are a few examples:

  1. Translating green requirements into project specifications during the design phase. We were fortunate to have the expertise of and BFL to assist the design team with writing project specifications that incorporated the green requirements for GPR and BFL. This was very important because it meant that the green standards were included as part of the contract and not added at a premium later on. Similarly, experience has taught us that contractors will try to add a premium to any green product as long as they are labeled as such. Given that, we’ve learned not to add a separate section on “green” specifications but instead to write the specification carefully so they include the standards spelled out in the rating manuals. BFL has some standard spec language that is very helpful.
  1. Adding LEED rating system post design phase. We decided to participate in the LEED for Homes High Rise Pilot program at the beginning of construction, instead of earlier in the design phase as is typical. Consequently several of the pre-requisites had to be added to the scope just to meet the minimum LEED for Homes and specifications had to be modified to incorporate the LEED requirements.
  1. Keeping track of several different rating systems and changes. Participating in so many rating programs and especially keeping up with changes in those rating systems over the life of the project was definitely a challenge.
  1. Making sure the contractors understood the green requirements and provided the proper documentation timely and completely. This will continue to be a challenge as each new project will have a new set of contractors. The general contractor should have someone on staff that has real experience. A lot of GCs will say they are big on green but the organizational capacity varies quite a bit. There are some requirements, like demolition and construction debris recycling, Quality Insulation Inspection, LEED framing factor, that may require special attention and possible contractor on-the-job training.

For more information on Affordable Housing Associates, including future energy efficient projects, visit their website at

Photo Credit: Kate Henke

This blog originally appeared on

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Comment by Ryan Schuchler on August 27, 2012 at 6:56am

Thank you for clarifying that. It's good to hear that energy efficient windows were also part of the project. I'm really not sure why I included the word "replacement" in my original comment, since this was clearly a new building. Thanks for the response. 

Comment by Home Energy Magazine on August 22, 2012 at 10:10am

Hi Ryan! Thanks for your comments. Re: replacement windows, this is a new construction project so all of the windows were new - and energy efficient!

Comment by Ryan Schuchler on August 17, 2012 at 1:23pm

Thank you for posting this informative blog. It's great to hear about such a well-rounded project that supports an amazing cause. I'm really glad to see a wide variety of government agencies and local businesses joining together and participating in this selfless program. Obviously it's good enough news to know that these young people will have a safe place to live, but the fact that it incorporates so many green features is really icing on the cake. After reading about all of the different components that went into this project, the only thing I was surprised by was that there was no mention of energy efficient replacement windows. Perhaps there just wasn't enough room in the article to discuss everything, but it seems like almost every energy efficient construction technique available was incorporated into Harmon Gardens. I'd like to give a special "thank you" to Aubra Levine for managing such an admirable and vital project! Thanks again for posting this well-written article, and best wishes to all of the young people living at Harmon Gardens. 

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