Solar panels can be expensive. So can sustainable building materials and other energy-efficient upgrades.

Not one to be dissuaded, an eco-conscious developer in New York City is taking a row of historic apartment buildings in Harlem and turning it into one of the first blocks of affordable housing to go green.

With construction set to begin by the end of the year, developer Jonathan Rose plants to retrofit 10 six-story buildings with solar panels, efficient boilers and energy-saving appliances and materials, the New York Daily News reported. Old floor tiles and wood will be replaced with sustainable materials, and 32 old boilers will be replaced by 10 energy-saving models. An LCD screen in a storefront will display how much energy the buildings’ solar panels are producing.

"We're hoping our project will be a model for the entire country," said Wendy Rowden, managing director for the Rose Smart Growth Investment Fund, which bought the buildings, including 198 residential units, last year.

Rowden said the Fund got a 15-year extension on the complex’s low-income housing status through the city’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. She also hopes to receive up to $3 million in federal stimulus money through the Green Retrofit Program. Construction will take place with nearly full occupancy.

Over the years, the row of apartments — located from 107 to 145 West 135th Street — have fallen into disrepair, with leaky sinks, chipped paint and rodents (hey, this is New York).

The project’s principal architect, Bill Stein, said the retrofit would preserve the “original architectural fabric” of the buildings. "It's really a fantastic place to live and a great place to make a statement about the possibilities of sustainable design," he said.

"It's a nice capstone,” said Andrew McNamara, a consultant from Bright Power, Inc., who is working on the project, “something that people can gravitate towards, something that's tangible and measurable."

Not only a trailblazer for the future, historians said this particular block has historic significance for African-American artists and property owners who settled in Harlem in the 1900s.

"They have some beautiful ceramic detailing and wrought-iron fire escapes," said Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem historian. "But their true glory is their true history as a unique instance of African-American self-determination."

Harlem block goes green
Historic apartment buildings in Harlem are being retrofitted for energy efficiency, creating affordable green housing.