Improving affordable housing

Author: Paul C.N. Mellblom

I spent last Wednesday discussing the intersections of design, equity, and affordable housing with a group of people focused on improving the lot of affordable housing. MSR’s clients Aeon and Hope Communities organized the event. MSR is working on a $22 million, 90-dwelling unit mixed affordable and market rate housing project for these clients at the intersection of Franklin Avenue and Portland Avenue in Minneapolis. Our clients’ ambitious goals include building a cohesive community of residents, net zero energy use, and achieving Petal Recognition from the Living Building Challenge, all while designing a building prototype for a better way of providing affordable housing. But the issue of equity in all of its many dimensions remains foundational to all of these ambitions.

Equity has many definitions. The Living Building Challenge divides the Equity Petal into three parts: Human Scale + Humane Places, Democracy + Social Justice, and Rights to Nature. Most dictionaries have a seemingly tighter definition centered on fairness and justice in our human relationships. Famously, Martin Luther King said: “…where there is injustice for one there is injustice for all.” Not really a definition; but more of a declaration of the principal of equity. I particularly like a more broad based definition that combines means and methods, ambitions and results: in order to have true equity, we need inclusionary processes that lead to broad-based results that balance individual and community health, educational opportunities, environmental factors, living standards, access to healthy food, clean water and air, self-determination and fair access to job opportunities.

At the table Wednesday were folks from institutional investors, policy influencers, sustainable design resources, social scientists, a couple of affordable housing gurus, and several affordable housing advocacy groups all talking about equity. It is an inspiring group of folks and a good group to advance the state of affordable housing.

Chris Velasco, president of PLACE (an ethical nonprofit building sustainable communities) stated that one of the most important tasks for us to accomplish is to understand how we can bring highly sustainable housing principles down to the cost structures available for affordable housing. To paraphrase Gina Ciganik, vice president of housing development at Aeon, we need to do so in a way that is affordable and replicable across the industry in order for this to be equitable and useful to our industry. Amy McCullough of Local Initiatives Support Corporation talked about the need to make equity applicable outside of our community by making our gained knowledge available to a wide audience by providing the vision and tools for others to learn from our success and failures. Finally, Billy Webber, senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research, stated that we each can contribute to an equitable community by understanding and taking into consideration affordability, housing choices, access to services, and location as we think about our projects.

To sum up, as Sunshine Mathon, design and development director of Foundation Communities (a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin, Texas), said: “We need to think about how the actions taken serve those who are served.” Truly, this objective is at the core of what we are trying to achieve in the affordable housing world. What are we making available to everyone, regardless of income or ability? How is equity best achieved for the greatest number of people? And finally, who gets to define equity and validate that we have gotten there?

Some days the potential in design is as rich as the solutions. Wednesday was one of those days.

The Rose project team has been talking about the difficulty of meeting the Living Building Challenge’s (LBC) requirements for the Materials Petal recognition on a project for our clients Aeon and Hope Communities. The project is a new 90-unit apartment building in Minneapolis. The dwelling units will be an equal mix of market rate rentals and subsidized (or, affordable) housing units. Studio, 1-BR, 2-BR, and 3-BR units will accommodate a wide range of family types and living situations.

LBC clusters their requirements into seven categories, known as Petals, using the analogy of a flower to demonstrate the elegance and simplicity of the LBC ideal, while acknowledging the complexity of meeting these ideals. The LBC Petals include Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. They touch on every aspect of the design, construction, and operations of a building and site. LBC describes its purpose as a “tool for transformative design, allowing us to envision a future that is Socially Just, Culturally Rich, and Ecologically Restorative.” It is an ambitious call to action for the combined design, construction, property management, and development community.

Aeon, Hope Communities, and MSR chose to concentrate our resources and efforts on building healthier apartments because people in poverty are at greater risk for chronic health problems. The 2012 Gallup Well-Being Report indicates that:

  • 31% of people living below the poverty line are diagnosed with depression at one time in their lives, almost twice the rate of depression in the general population.
  • Rates of adult asthma and obesity are 50% and 19% higher, respectively, for people living in poverty than for the general population.

So not only is poverty a social ill, it is also detrimental to one’s physical and emotional health. People living in poverty (annual income of $23,550 for a family of 4 in MN) are often shunted to neighborhoods with poor air and water quality, according to many studies (internet search keywords: environment poverty risk). Together we seek ways to provide healthier living environments that are cost effective to build and maintain.

The LBC Materials Petal guidelines help us design healthier living environments by identifying and specifying materials certified as devoid of Red List ingredients. Red List items do not contain toxic materials such as formaldehyde, neoprene, and phthalates, to name a few chemicals commonly used in construction materials. According to Rhys MacPherson, The Rose project manager for MSR, these carcinogenic chemicals and materials release toxic chemicals continually over their lifetime. They are legally used in everything from toys to building materials to cars to makeup. Creating healthy environments means never using any Red List items.

Eliminating Red List materials is difficult. Phthalates, the softening agents that make PVC pliable, for example, are in everything from PVC plumbing pipe and wallboard joint compound (or, mud, as many of you may think of it) to many types of make-up and lipstick. Phthalates are known carcinogens, though their toxicity at very low rates of absorption over long time periods is unknown. But for people commonly living in areas with elevated levels of air pollution, degraded water quality, polluted soils, eliminating Red List items can provide a safe, clean refuge from the negative environmental impacts outside their door.

Finding cost-effective healthy materials that meet durability requirements for use in the rental housing market is a challenge. It requires extensive research, ongoing advocacy with manufacturers and persistent verification once the materials come on-site to ensure what was specified is what is installed. We’re just beginning this task on The Rose. Rhys and Simona Fischer, a sustainable materials researcher at MSR, are digging into it with gusto. This enlightening process will inform our future work and help the greater region’s design community as we share our process and results. So join us over the next few months as I describe what Aeon, Hope Communities, MSR, and our design team are doing to improve residents’ lives.

I was intrigued by Tim McDonald’s presentation at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo on Wednesday. He discussed net-zero energy capable residential projects built by his company, Onion Flats. He reported that over the past few years the firm has worked towards the creation of high performance residences by utilizing the Passive House standard. Passive House relies on three basic design philosophies:

  1. Reduce annual energy used for heating and cooling a home to near zero.
  2. Design the building envelope (roof + walls + slab) to be super tight to eliminate all possible sources of air leaks.
  3. Achieve the goal of a net-zero total annual building energy usage.

The Passive House standard is derived from the German PassivHaus concept. To meet Passive House standards, homes must be designed so such great energy efficiency that they require little or no furnace capacity. This goal is met by utilizing super airtight walls with very high R-values, typically in excess of R50. Passive House also has a healthy homes aspect to it, requiring 100% fresh air so that no used air is returned into the home. Typically a home’s forced air system only supplies about 10% fresh air as per code, so Passive House is truly a jump forward. Successful Passive House designs use the saved cost from providing a very small HVAC system to offset the increase in cost for the building envelope.

Tim asks, “Why are we putting a premium on sustainability?” By rethinking home design and reallocating funds, the efficiency of a home can be significantly raised without added cost. Innovative concepts include:

  • Exploring sunlight penetration for both light and heat when needed and shading the windows when direct sunlight is not needed.
  • Considering cross ventilation and using convective cooling strategies, both of which work well for modern, open, airy homes.
  • Assessing how we use energy for daily needs, such as home electronics, appliances, and conveniences.

Designing healthy, energy-efficient buildings requires a lot of thought and skill. Finding occupants willing to adjust their living patterns to fully take advantage of all the possibilities for a net-zero energy lifestyle is a bigger challenge to tackle.



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