DENVER - Talk about a gold star: The 18 affordable apartments at Central Park at Stapleton here have met the toughest residential green building standard on the books—the gold certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Until recently, very few affordable projects earned LEED certifications at all, much less gold.

“We have been doing green building for 10 years,” said Getabecha “Gete” Mekonnen, executive director of Northeast Denver Housing Center (NDHC), a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable, affordable development. “This is our first LEED building.”

Until recently, the only LEED standard NDHC could attempt to meet, LEED for New Construction, was tailored to the needs of large office buildings.

The new LEED for Homes standard is much better suited to smaller residential projects like Central Park. It costs $50,000 to be certified for LEED for Homes, a third of the cost to certify for LEED for New Construction. LEED for Homes is also more flexible. Unlike LEED for New Construction, it does not require a developer to enforce a ban on smoking, said Mekonnen.

Going for the gold earned NDHC bragging rights for being one of the first affordable housing developers to meet the standard. NDHC also made its LEED ambition for Central Park part of its application for funding.

Central Park’s location also encouraged the developer to try for LEED’s gold certification. Central Park is in the midst of the redevelopment of Denver’s old Stapleton International Airport into a new mixed-use neighborhood served by light rail and within a half-mile of shops and services. These amenities make residents less likely to rely on cars and earned Central Park points on the LEED criteria.

To meet the standard, Central Park also met federal Energy Star requirements, earning the program’s highest fivestar rating, in addition to meeting high standards for air quality and the conservation of resources like building materials.

NDHC spent an extra $100,000 to make the cut, a 4 percent premium that brought the hard cost of construction up to $2.7 million. That doesn’t include the $180,000 cost of solar panels on the rooftops.

The hardest part of the process was paying for it, said Mekonnen. NDHC received a thick stack of grants, including $68,000 from Energy Outreach Colorado and $18,000 from Enterprise Green Communities. The developer also chipped in $64,000 of its own equity.

Completed in November 2007, the $4.1 million project received another set of grants just in time to pay for the solar panels, including a $90,000 rebate from Xcel Energy, the local utility, and another $73,000 from the Governor’s Energy Office.

Most of the benefits of these green improvements will go to Central Park’s low-income and very low income residents, which fit right into the developer’s mission.

All of the electricity generated by the solar panels goes to offset electricity used at the apartments.

The other efficiency measures also benefit the residents, who pay for their own heat and hot water. Each apartment has individual thermostats, compact furnaces, and hot water tanks. Their utility bills should be less than half the costs at comparable apartments, provided tenants don’t waste water and leave their windows open on cold nights.

Each apartment also has a digital meter that shows the energy being used in dollars, minus the dollars in electricity generated by the solar panels, so that residents can see exactly how much they’re spending every day and make smarter decisions about the energy they use.

“Part of the energy conservation package is to educate the tenants,” said Mekonnen.