Brightcore Brings Geothermal Heating to DC’s Barry Farm Redevelopment

The long-contested site will help pioneer a cheaper, greener form of heating in the district

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Brightcore Energy President Mike Richter wants everyone to consider geothermal heating systems — even for projects where the technology was once prohibitively expensive.

Case in point: the New York-based sustainable energy company has been tapped to implement its geothermal HVAC technology in Washington, D.C.’s Barry Farm redevelopment, a large-scale, if somewhat controversial, public and affordable housing overhaul project in the Southeast corner of the District. 

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Brightcore provides various clean energy systems for commercial buildings, though geothermal heating and cooling is its specialty via what it calls “UrbanGeo,” which uses a compact drilling rig that can operate in confined spaces. 

Brightcore’s first foray into D.C., via two new buildings at Barry Farm, also marks the District’s first implementation of a large-scale community geothermal heat pump system. Once the project is completed, Richter hopes it will help ignite a rush for geothermal in urban commercial and multifamily buildings, as the once generally infeasible technology becomes less intrusive, quieter and cheaper

“This is one of those rare times where a project is capable of a win-win-win, in terms of lower cost, lower environmental impact and the improved health of occupants,” Richter said. “Barry Farm is a special project for us, because it’s a kind of kick-the-tire type project for other developers and residents out there to see that this is viable.”

The Barry Farm-Hillsdale neighborhood was established after the end of the Civil War as a community for formerly enslaved and free-born Black Americans near the southern bank of the Anacostia River. It has a long history as a hub for community and civil rights activism, particularly in regards to desegregation. In 1943, the National Capital Housing Authority built a 442-unit public housing community in the neighborhood, appropriately dubbed Barry Farm Dwellings. Many activists and cultural icons would call the community home over the decades, including Etta Horn, a welfare rights activist; Georgiana Simpson, the first Black woman to receive a doctoral degree in the U.S.; and legendary D.C. go-go artists the Junk Yard Band. 

Although Barry Farm has long been a target for redevelopment, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that a true plan began to materialize for the deteriorating neighborhood under the city’s New Communities Initiative. By 2013, the nonprofit  and Preservation for Affordable Housing (POAH), a Boston-based development firm specializing in low-income projects, were selected as the city’s development partners. The following year, the city’s zoning commission OK’d a Planned Urban Development (PUD) plan that would allow the developers to exceed the area’s density cap to create 1,000 mixed-income units, 380 “replacement units” for existing residents, plus commercial space and a park. 

But then things stalled. Zoning approvals, a historic designation effort, and lawsuits and appeals from Barry Farm residents concerned over evictions and the number of replacement units delayed the redevelopment over the ensuing years, with the latter causing the city and the developers to eventually withdraw the PUD plan and go back to the drawing board. Yet by 2019, the relocation of residents (via other D.C. public housing or vouchers) and the demolition of Barry Farm had hit full swing — until the  COVID-19 pandemic hit. Construction was again delayed, with ground finally broken on the first new building at the property in September 2022. 

Once completed this spring, that five-story building, dubbed The Asberry, will feature 108 affordable housing units slated for seniors age 55 and older, along with 5,000 square feet of commercial space. 

The Asberry kicked off Phase 1 of the redevelopment, which includes two more multifamily buildings with 432 apartment units in total, as well as 115 townhomes. Phase 2 will include an as-yet unspecified amount of additional multifamily buildings and townhomes, as well as a new community center and park. 

The city clarified after construction began that The Asberry would constitute the first wave of replacement housing at Barry Farm, along with about 100 others previously constructed off-site. The remaining 250 or so units will be added later.

Sustainability is a tenet of POAH’s development philosophy, according to Maia Shanklin Roberts, POAH’s vice president of real estate development for the mid-Atlantic region. The firm is utilizing “passive house” designs for the new buildings at Barry Farm, which aim to decrease the amount of energy required to heat and cool interior spaces, and is seeking LEED Silver and Energy Star efficiency certifications from the federal government for the project.

This is where Brightcore comes in. The Barry Farm developers partnered with engineering firm Engenium Group to provide mechanical, electrical and plumbing services for the redevelopment, which then brought Brightcore to the table to help meet those efficiency goals, Shanklin Roberts said. Yet even with Brightcore’s more cost-efficient drilling technology, implementing geothermal heat pumps still has high upfront costs, especially for a publicly owned affordable housing project — unless government grants come to the rescue.

In November of last year, POAH, Brightcore and Engenium were awarded a $2.5 million grant by D.C.’s Public Service Commission to implement the geothermal systems. By exchanging traditional air-conditioning units for geothermal systems, which pump heat from the temperature-stable interior of the Earth, Brightcore expects to reduce power consumption and maintenance costs, which in turn will lead to lower utility bills for residents. 

But despite the long-term cost savings, the use of geothermal energy simply wouldn’t have been tenable without the city’s grant, Shanklin Roberts said. 

“I think affordability is necessary in a project like this,” Shanklin Roberts said. “When you’re building affordable housing, there’s definitely cost constraints because there’s only so much revenue we can generate. So I think the future of geothermal in these cases is, one, education, continuing to educate folks about the benefits of this system. The second is cost … we need to have other sources of funding that are able to support more green technology.”

The geothermal pumps will be used in two upcoming buildings at Barry Farm, assuming permit amendments for the designs are approved. The Edmonson, named after the famed Edmonson sisters who attempted to flee slavery in a mass escape that became known as the Pearl Incident (Emily Edmonson also helped found the Barry Farm-Hillsdale community after the Civil War), will have 139 units. An as-yet unnamed rental flats project will have 98 units. The geothermal systems for both buildings are expected to be completed by early 2026, Shanklin Roberts said. The rest of Barry Farm is expected to be completed by 2030. 

“It’s been a great learning experience for us, especially because as far as I know there’s no other affordable housing project in the district that has geothermal in the way that we’re doing it,” Shanklin Roberts said.

For Richter, the project is important for its own sake, but also in potentially proving the thesis that geothermal can be widely applied.

In regard to promoting geothermal’s benefits, “We want to be an arrow in the quiver, not a hammer hitting everyone over the head,” Richter said. “But the reality is that these are closed-loop systems, very robust and reliable, straightforward and long lasting. And it’s not just about being green. It’s a dollars and cents thing, too.”

Nick Trombola can be reached at NTrombola@commercialobserver.com.