How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities
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Green + Affordable = Sustainable. A seemingly simple equation, but one that is challenging to consistently and holistically solve for in practice. Sustainability is typically described as having three dimensions: environment, economy, and equity. Green building guidelines provide clear practical guidance on how to capture the environmental and economic benefits but are less clear on how to articulate and implement the equity aspects of sustainability. Equity focuses on the social aspects of sustainability. Evaluating equity from structural, procedural, and distributional perspectives can reveal how both burdens and benefits are distributed through a society, with the goal of eliminating unjust practices and detrimental disparities.
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Recognizing that affordable housing is part of the social infrastructure of cities, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 11 is an excellent starting point for exploring the multitude of opportunities and benefits that affordable housing developments can provide. It is also possible to identify the equity needs and opportunities of a community or housing development by examining equity from multiple lenses: structural, procedural, distributional, racial, and intergenerational. From this examination, communities might find that needs include:
- The ability to participate in decisions about the operations of the property through creation of a residents council
- To increase access to medical services or fresh food by bringing various service providers to the property
- Offering after school or evening courses
- Providing safe connections to public transit
- Opening communal spaces to members of the larger surrounding neighborhood on days with high or low temperatures
The Blueprint provides an overview of core equity components and how they can be addressed in the development and design of affordable housing. The Blueprint shows how green building strategies augment the core values of affordable housing, by reducing utility costs, increasing the health of the living environment, and increasing durability. When built in urban areas with good transit access, affordable housing helps cities and regions achieve their congestion reduction and climate action goals.
How do green building strategies get folded into the design and construction of affordable housing? There are several ways. First is through the integrated design process. This approach brings the team members together early in the process to set goals and performance targets for energy and water efficiency, use of environmentally preferable materials, the experience of the residents, operations and maintenance, and third-party certification. Starting with these high-level points of departure, the integrated design process applies tools such as design charrettes, energy modeling, benefit and cost analysis, flexible specifications, and green standards, like LEED Enterprise Green Communities. These tools work to methodically move a project from concept, to detailed design, to construction, and ultimately to occupancy and ongoing maintenance. Green opportunities are identified and captured at each step in the process.
Over the years, we have seen best practices evolve, while the fundamentals stay largely the same. Proper building orientation, massing, location of courtyards and open spaces, and inclusion of passive design strategies to enhance natural daylight and ventilation all remain viable and important today, as they have been throughout the history of building and architecture.
What changes is the availability of building technologies and mechanical systems. For example, today’s windows are vastly higher performing than the standard of just ten years ago. Similar improvements occurred with appliances and plumbing fixtures. But these are end of the pipe or end of the wire solutions. The more transformative opportunities are the sources of energy and water.
Increasingly, the electric grid is shedding fossil fuel generated energy in favor of renewables like wind and solar. With the cost of renewables continuing to drop, this trend is likely to continue. An outcome of this shift is the growing advocacy for all-electric buildings, from both the environmental and design communities. Standards such as the Living Building Net Zero Standard, the 2030 Challenge, and Zero Code, emphasize an all-electric approach so that new buildings are not locked into fossil fuel use. This allows individual buildings to reduce their greenhouse gas use as the grid moves to 100% renewables, as is required to occur in California by 2045.
Designing a cutting-edge green building is challenging, but perhaps not as difficult as it is to keep the building operating at full efficiency. Innovative design and equipment are pointless investments if they are not correctly operated and maintained. The Blueprint provides schedules, checklists, and numerous practitioner tips regarding how to set up a successful maintenance regime that includes clearly stated standards, training protocols, and the use of energy reporting tools like Energy Star Portfolio Manager or energy dashboards. This is of utmost importance when the project pro forma incorporates assumptions about utility cost reductions generated by the green measures.
Most affordable housing is financed with low-income tax credits that require projects to meet standards such as LEED or Enterprise Green Communities. While pursuing green certification does have additional costs, they are surprisingly small. On average, green certifications increase overall project costs by two to five percent. Integrated design is a way to keep costs down, and, in some cases, the reduced energy costs can be used to service additional debt, which provides the additional capital dollars needed for the higher quality green measures. The payback on these investments are typically no more than seven years, well within the fifteen-year compliance period for the tax credits.
The role of the green consultant is to navigate through all of these factors; equity, integrated design, healthy materials, building operations, and the vagaries of affordable housing finance, to arrive at a better outcome for residents, communities, and the environment. The Blueprint includes 14 case studies of projects from across the U.S. that show how green design looks, feels, and operates in practice. These exemplary projects both define what is possible in green affordable housing and serve as a template for future projects. Funding entities like state housing finance agencies and Federal Home Loan Banks are also looking at the growing number of green certified projects as they revise their requirements to make many green measures standard requirements.
What’s ahead? The Blueprint identifies several emerging themes that will shape green housing in the future. These are:
- The increasing focus on carbon reduction in both building materials and operation.
- Recognizing the value of affordable housing as a node in the community resilience network.
- Understanding the connection between housing, stability, and health; both physical and mental.
- The need to enhance social connection among residents, and to look beyond the building to meet needs of the greater neighborhood.
Which brings us back to equity. By seeing investments in green affordable housing as catalysts for positive change the buildings become microcosms of urban sustainability and contributors to the effort to mitigate years of disinvestment in communities. Everyone can and should benefit from green, healthy, and sustainable housing.
This article was originally published on January 4, 2021.
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