“Everything has really been win-win,” says Tom Rossi. “Especially the solar system. Ready to see the roof?”
Rossi is eager to show off the solar panels he and his partner, John Blackburn, had installed on the roof of their latest venture, River Street Lofts in Troy. Rossi originally believed that solar panels would be a prohibitive expense but, at the urging of Blackburn, agreed to consider the option and found that the idea in fact made economic sense. The pair now even lament the limited rooftop space available to them; they would gladly invest in more.
“We didn’t go cheap,” says Rossi. “We got really good German panels.” Taking the long view, as is their philosophy, both men firmly believe that making the extra investment now will pay off in coming years. “Those panels have crazy warrantees,” says Rossi. “They’re covered for 20 years.”
“We’re always thinking in terms of sustainability,” Rossi says. “Not just from an environmental standpoint but from a human standpoint. If I was working there or if I was living there, what would I want to see?”
Rossi and Blackburn, graduates of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, have made global names for themselves as eco-friendly innovators and engineering wunderkinds. In 2004—at the ages of 23 and 21, respectively—they already were establishing a successful multinational business venture in firefighter training technology. “At BullEx,” says Rossi. “We really did things differently than how everyone else thought about them. We would think about things in the long term. We were even on the New York health exchange way back in ’05 or ’06 because we believed health care for our employees was an important long-term concern.” He adds: “It had a different name back then.”
The duo met while in school at RPI where, according to Blackburn, they were “both fans of invention and innovation.” Rossi and Blackburn then teamed up with another college friend out of school and founded BullEx, born of an erstwhile school project. “We were in at least 15 countries around the world,” says Blackburn. “Shanghai, Melbourne, all over Europe. We grew that business to the number-one firefighter training business in the world.”
“And the products we invented at BullEx helped the environment,“ continues Blackburn. “They significantly reduced the environmental impact of firefighter training. The U.S. Navy did this big study on our first project and found that we reduced fire-extinguisher emissions by 94 percent. That was kind of where it began.”
“They saved money too,” says Rossi. “They were more sustainable and more economical. You may not be able to do everything, but there are ways to save money and be sustainable. And I think that has really become our mantra and mindset.”
And that is how they approached their latest project, River Street Lofts—a venture that is bringing hip, urban, professional living together with hip, urban, environmental idealism. “We’re taking a long-term view,” says Rossi. “I know that John and I share this, but I also think a lot of our generation really does care about the environment and sustainability. Even if it does cost just a little more money, a little more time to do something that is going to make a real difference, it’s kind of silly not to. There may be some scenarios where it’s an enormous mountain to climb, but a lot of what we do just takes a little more time and effort to make a significant impact.”
Blackburn talks about their desire to echo the design of contemporary high-end lofts in New York City, while Rossi points to historical aspects of the building that have been retained. Both men are dedicated to proving that comfort, style and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.
The walls and roof of the building have been heavily insulated, and each unit boasts a high-efficiency air-conditioning unit and natural gas furnace. The appliances in each of the contemporary railcar kitchens are energy-efficient, as is the European-style washer-dryer machine that comes in each apartment. For a mere third of the energy and just half the floor space, a tenant can throw his or her dirty clothing into a single machine and pull that same clothing out of that very machine five hours later, dry and ready to wear. Blackburn and Rossi say they encountered and grew to love these machines while living in Europe; Blackburn has had one in his stateside home for three years.
Each unit—all one-bedroom, with the sole exception of a ground-floor studio apartment—has been designed to ensure plenty of natural light while also ensuring that all of the windows remain true to the their original design.
Currently, they project that 40 percent of the building’s energy will be provided by the newly installed solar array, and the rest will continue to come from National Grid. They will bill their tenants for electricity along with their rent—something they say took some legal finagling. Tenants still will be responsible for paying National Grid directly for gas.
“We’re not promising any savings to our tenants as of yet,” says Blackburn, even though it seems clear that the energy-efficiency built in to each unit would all but guarantee some instant cost reductions. “This is a new system and a new way to put technology together. We’re confident that it will save money, but we don’t know how much yet.”
The whole endeavor might have been less economically feasible, admits Blackburn, “if it hadn’t been for the technological advances that we came up with for this project. . . . We didn’t reinvent the wheel, but we have managed to take pieces of existing technology and put them together in a way that works for us.” Both men are reluctant to elaborate on this new system, and say that River Street Lofts will provide a model.
“It’s our proprietary energy management system,” smiled Rossi. “Of course we’ll be willing to consult.”
The ground floor at 172 River St. eventually will host a Paint & Sip Studio and an adjoining martini lounge. Tenants began moving in last week, but a few spaces do remain available.