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by Tracy Will
Wed, Jul 15th 2009 09:15 am


Rock Harbor Commons (RHC) is the beginning of what Newell Nussbaumer of Buffalo Rising hopes will be a demonstration in sustainable college living.  Nussbaumer is Community Liaison for the project spearheaded by developer Ed Hogle of Atlas Steel.  RHC, a privately-funded student housing complex with the capacity to house 350 local college students, is phase 1 of the "eco-friendly, collegiate living and learning village" scheduled to open in August of 2010.  Located in Buffalo's Black Rock neighborhood where Tonawanda Street meets Niagara Street, the Scajaquada Expressway and the I-190 interchange, Rock Harbor Village (RHV) has the potential to attract students from all over the city who are interested in a greener way of life.

The adaptive reuse of this industrial site and the buildings that occupy it is the foundation of this sustainable development project.  Reusing the existing structures saves a considerable amount of energy, from what would be required for demolition to the energy required to produce new materials and transport them to the site.  The embodied energy[1] of building materials accounts for approximately 18 percent of the energy input into a building over its useful life of about 50 years[2].  Reusing buildings and building materials significantly reduces a building's embodied energy and its overall energy use.  In addition to energy savings, building reuse saves natural resources and avoids the pollution and habitat destruction associated with the mining and manufacture of building materials.

According to Nussbaumer, they've been looking to the standards laid out by the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System to guide their sustainable development efforts, but are uncertain as to when certification of the project will take place.  However, what is certain is that building reuse is just the beginning of what makes this project green.

Energy is a big ticket item, whether you're talking about green buildings or operation and maintenance costs.  In Buffalo the largest portion of that "ticket" in any residential building is space heating, at about 55 percent[3], which is why RHV will be heated by recycled vegetable oil (RVO) or as they like to call it, "French Fry Fuel."  Also referred to as waste vegetable oil or WVO, RVO is a renewable energy source that will be used as heating fuel in the building's modified boiler system.  Nussbaumer says that they hope to add other on-site renewable energy sources like wind and solar in the future, but RVO was the best option to start with because it accounts for such a large portion of their energy consumption.

RVO is more commonly known as a form of biodiesel, a cleaner, renewable fuel alternative for diesel engines.  Compared to petroleum diesel, when RVO is burned as fuel, it releases 78 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2), the main contributor to climate change, and no sulfur dioxide (SO2), the leading cause of acid rain[4].  Needless to say, RHV will also be using RVO to fuel its fleet of private shuttles that will provide shuttle services for student residents, one of the various alternative transportation options that the Village will provide.  In addition to shuttle services, RHV is partnering with Buffalo CarShare to have a car-share hub on-site.  This will give students that don't have cars, or choose not to bring a car, easy access to Buffalo CarShare's low-cost car rental services when they need them.

Another sustainable feature incorporated into the RHC reuse design is a central atrium that will allow for natural light and ventilation in the interior spaces.  Daylighting and natural ventilation design strategies reduce energy consumption by reducing the need for artificial light, ventilation and cooling, especially when combined with a building control system.  In addition, studies have shown that buildings designed with these strategies provide increased occupant comfort and satisfaction, among other benefits.

Measures are also being taken to conserve water and sustainably manage storm water run-off on the site.  Parking on the site will be limited and permeable pavement will be used to better enable storm water to filter through the ground and limit run-off.  Swales will be used to collect any run-off around paved surfaces, providing a holding area for the storm water until it can be absorbed and filtered through the ground.[5]  RHV will also have a greywater system that collects storm water to be used for applications such as toilet flushing and landscape irrigation, providing considerable water conservation.

RHC will also have a roof patio for students to enjoy during favorable weather.  Nussbaumer says that they plan on getting the students involved in making it a green roof, which has many added benefits including increased storm water management.[6]  In fact, they hope to have the students involved in virtually every aspect of RHV's day-to-day operations, so that the facility is student-run as much as possible.  It's all part of the active learning experience they wish to create.

RHV isn't just about the village itself, the goal is to bring sustainable living full-circle.  Typically when a student lives on a college campus, they never have to leave, aside from breaks and summer vacations.  They live in the dorms, eat in the campus restaurants, and get their supplies at the campus stores.  Their experience of college life may never include the city or region that their school is in.  But RHV will change all that!

First of all, they're teaming up with a variety of local businesses and organizations to provide a variety of products and services on-site.  The key here is the balance of products and services available.  To encourage students to go out and further support local businesses while developing a connection with the surrounding community, RHV will limit the range of things offered in the Village.  Instead, they will provide shuttle services throughout the surrounding neighborhood, making it easy for students to patronize the local businesses and see what Buffalo has to offer.  Aside from their shuttle services, other transportation services will be offered on-site, like Buffalo CarShare, to help students get out and explore the community.

In addition to being located at a transportation node, RHV also borders the Scajaquada Corridor section of the Regional Bikeway Network that connects Delaware Park to Squaw Island Park and the Buffalo waterfront.  To enhance this feature for both recreation and as an alternative transportation option, RHV is partnering with Buffalo Blue Bicycle to provide on-site bicycle rental and storage.  But they aren't stopping there.  With the Black Rock Channel within walking distance, Buffalo Blue Bikes will also be offering storage and rentals for kayaks and canoes.

For those who prefer indoor fitness and recreation, RHC will have a fully equipped fitness center and an indoor recreation center including pool tables, foos ball and ping pong, among other things.  After all, a healthy, active lifestyle is part of the sustainable living experience that RHV aims to offer its residents.  Since that wouldn't be complete without healthy eating, each resident room will be equipped with a kitchenette, making it a little easier to eat healthy.  For the more ambitious cooks, a there will be a full kitchen available for student use.  Of course, RHC will have a restaurant and a juice bar on-site, or students can hop on the shuttle and visit a local eatery.

Sustainable development is about a delicate balance between environmental health, social equity and a viable economy, and as such various aspects of each of these issues are addressed in the process.  Broadly defined, it "seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future."[7]  In the plans for RHV, Hogle, Nussbaumer and other team members set out to create a sustainable college living experience.  In doing so, they addressed environmental, social and economic issues, producing a plan for a residential college community that truly is sustainable development from the inside out.

[1] As defined by the Pew Center on Climate Change, "Embodied energy refers to the energy required to extract, manufacture, transport, install, and dispose of building materials, including those used in the building envelope. Efforts to reduce this energy use and associated emissions, for example through the substitution of bio-based products, can be made as part of a larger effort to reduce emissions from buildings."  Retrieved from on 7/9/09.

[2] Source: Brown, Marilyn A., Southworth, Frank, Stovall, Therese K. (2005). Towards a Climate-Friendly Built Environment: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Figures derived from embodied energy statistics on page 29 of report, based on 50-year building life.

[3] Source: 2005 Residential Energy Consumption Survey, Table US12 Total Consumption by Energy End Uses (Revised January 2009). Retrieved 7/06/09, from Energy Information Administration:  Figures derived from Northeast Census Region, Middle Atlantic Division data.

[4] Source: Recycled Vegetable Oil - RVO.  (2008). Retrieved from

[5] Storm water run-off from parking lots and other impermeable surfaces collected in storm sewers often contain many pollutants, such as motor oil or other chemicals that are released directly into our waterways.  When measures are taken to allow storm water to filter through the earth, pollutants are effectively "filtered out" and deposited in various layers of the earth, with essentially purified water being deposited in underground aquifers.

[6] See our feature on Green Roof Blocks at for more information about the benefits of green roof systems.

[7] Source: Brundtland, G. H. c. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our common future: United Nations General Assembly.

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