Our Ideas

Improving Affordable Housing, Part 2

    Previous Next
    • Blog post

      This week 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.

    • Site
    • Water
    • Energy
    • Health
    • Materials
    • Equity
    • Beauty
    • About the Author

      Paul C.N. Mellblom

      • Architect / Principal
      • paul@msrdesign.com
      • 612 209 7787
      • View Bio