Monday, October 6, 2008

Blades Over Boston

What do polluted soil, wind turbines, and high-end kitchens have in common? You can find them all at Forbes Park in nearby Chelsea. An early autumn evening found a group of Second Wind employees clambering over makeshift footbridges to view the construction on this eco-friendly, brownfield conversion loft project.

We got interested in it, naturally, because of the 240-foot-high, 600-kilowatt wind turbine that sits on the bank of the Chelsea Creek. If you're driving up Route 16 you can probably see it in the distance and may have wondered what was going on.

My colleague Julie Arnold arranged a tour for a group of Second Wind employees and some of our sidekicks mostly because she thought it would be cool to see, and she was right. So we piled into our Priuses and our Zipcars and swam through the rush-hour traffic to meet the project's developer, Blair Galinsky, for a tour.

Blair is an architect/developer whose firm recently completed the Davis Square Lofts near Second Wind's headquarters. He drove up in a Mini Cooper and explained that he would rather be driving in a Smart Car if a way could be devised to power the Smart Car using the turbine's energy.

For our out-of-town blog readers, Chelsea is one of those communities that has struggled with poverty, poorly managed industry, and even a couple of spectacular fires (1908 and 1973), but has been settled by artists and urban renewal types over the last couple of decades. Chelsea has a scenic waterfront, a bunch of working-class and poor neighbhorhoods, and now a Belgian-made wind turbine.

Forbes Lofts is named after the Forbes Lithograph Manufacturing Company, once one of Chelsea's largest companies and the industry mainly responsible for the area's designation as a brownfield. Blair picked up chunks of coagulated ink that had been deposited on the site during a 100-year peroid and explained that the ink had been dumped, indiscriminately mixed with ball bearings, pieces of broken equipment, and other byproducts of the printing process, until it hardened into unusable chunks of junk. The turbine sits atop the part of the site that was the most unusable.

The Forbes Lithograph factory is being converted into luxury lofts, and the turbine will power the lofts and sometimes sell power back to the grid. Our three most rugged employees had been offered the chance to climb up the ladders. Somehow I thought the ladders would be on the outside and I could climb up and see Boston the way you see Paris from the Eiffel Tower. But the ladders are mounted on the inside, and the lights weren't working, so ixnay on the climb. We all were given a chance go to inside. It's pretty much what you'd expect -- you are standing in a round enclosure, with no espresso bar, no bathrooms, no ticket window, just a concrete floor and the light coming in the door, and you look up into a dark tube that gets darker and skinnier as it goes up. There's a control box (which we didn't touch) and that's pretty much it.

After not climbing the turbine, Blair took us over to the luxury lofts. This was many people's favorite part of the tour simply because the landscaping and architecture were so beautiful and well thought out. They have converted a four-story concrete structure that used to host the printing company into sixty-eight luxury live/work lofts.

As we entered the building and were offered a beverage, Blair explained to us that an atrium had been created in the middle of the building so that there would be natural light on both sides of the lofts. Concrete was used extensively in the design, partly because it retains heat and aids in passive heating and cooling. Inside, the model unit loft was so cool that I can't describe it without sounding dorky. The architecture is open plan, and super chic. I caught more than one person drooling in the kitchen.

The developers seem to have thought of every possible idea to make the project environmentally sustainable and to contribute to the community. Blair talked about plans for a covered bridge that would cross a largely industrial landscape from the lofts to a local school, so that the students could visit the park's planned environmental exhibitions. He showed us a manmade salt marsh that is being developed by one of the two living people capable of doing that kind of work. He also showed us a lighting system: inside each loft a lightbulb glows blue when electricity is free (meaning the turbine is supplying all the building's needs at at particular time) and glows yellow or orange to signify periods of high or peak usage, when electricity would cost more. He discussed plans to light the turbine in similar colors so that people in the surrounding community could learn about peak electrical usage times as well, and time their activities to take advantage of non-peak usage times.

These are just a few of the building's green features . . . for more on the "smart design" of the Forbes Lofts visit

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