Issue #103, January/February 1999


Building Green

Innovative builders work to change low-cost green housing from an oxymoron to an achievable goal.


One of the earliest experiments in ecologically aware affordable housing took place in Roosevelt, New Jersey, a WPA-era suburb, in the late 70s to early 80s. Architects of Roosevelt Senior Citizens' Housing, a HUD-assisted project and 1985 National Honor Award winner, set out to incorporate energy-efficiency within traditional designs. "Chimneys" housed rotary ventilators and south-facing windows captured the sun's energy for heating. Energy-efficient water heater designs and recycled materials were used for insulation. Site-planning insured optimum heating/cooling properties of location and natural landscape elements. Shading screens and solarium controls moderated energy flow within individual units. While Roosevelt, a low-scale and low-density project, was praised as "sensitive, innovative and imaginative," most tenants did not regularly operate the various energy saving devices, and so energy savings dependent on user-interaction suffered. The Roosevelt project demonstrated that to be most effective, conservation devices must be user-friendly, and preferably integral to the design and operation of the unit.

Low-cost green housing has long been an oxymoron that affordable builders have struggled to change. Until recently, ecologically-oriented construction has mostly been limited to high-cost developments and individual construction geared to people with deep pockets to fund superior technology and avant-garde solutions to environmental problems. To date, the most dedicated environmentalists build the most effective green housing, and commit time and effort to maintenance. Green building may require more up-front cost to attain long-term sustainability goals, and as such it often does not address low-income housing needs. Further, there are few concrete examples with which to develop overall strategies of production.

But exceptions do exist. A number of eco-conscious builders and organizations are tackling these problems with strategies designed to minimize energy and materials consumption and maximize efficiency and conservation. Building Innovation for Homeownership, a publication by HUD's Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing and the Building Innovation for Homeownership program, profiles 63 award-winning low-cost housing developments that include innovations such as modular construction, energy-efficient design, structural insulated panels (SIPs), innovative site design and development, steel framing, panelized construction, masonry construction, "green" design, and HUD-code manufactured housing. Many of these strategies produce more cost-effective housing with sustainable elements. For example, steel framing is economical, conserves trees, and is recyclable; modulars can be sensitively designed and customized to take advantage of siting for energy and land conservation while being especially airtight and efficient. Good site management reduces waste, and factory construction enables cost-controlling measures for reinvestment in "green" materials. City Life, an infill development in Portland, Oregon, used structural insulated panel construction to achieve higher energy efficiency than a conventional stick-built house could. Unconventional, low-cost on-site materials like adobe, straw bales, and rammed earth have been used to eliminate transportation costs (no fuel), and provide excellent insulation. In some cases, salvage material was reused to build the lowest cost and arguably the greenest homes – epitomizing the green motto, "reduce, reuse, recycle."

On another front, the co-housing movement, a trend toward integrated village-like shared housing, has demonstrated that achieving high levels of sustainability is possible through dedicated community decision-making and planning. Some co-housers have accepted government funding that opens units within the development for lower-income households, but these are a rarity. A Cambridge, Massachusetts, 85-unit co-housing development includes two units purchased for low-income rental by the Cambridge Housing Authority. Going one step beyond conventional wisdom, the group is committed to a super-healthy indoor environment, the re-use of industrial sites for housing, solar energy, access to and use of public transportation, and diversity. Their energy costs are projected to be 60 percent less than the average. This complex is under study by Harvard University's School of Public Health and the U.S. Energy Department, asking, "what makes the most difference, the person or the house?"

Energy Efficiency

In some ways, the mainstream of ecological thinking has not changed much. Energy efficiency is the number one route to conservation and green ends. Energy efficiency has become the mantra on all levels of the building industry and has been embraced by government and private enterprise as a means to affect the costs of running a household, making housing more affordable.

The Energy Efficient Mortgage (EEM) is a federally-recognized program that finances energy saving improvements as part of the initial mortgage or in stretching the debt-to-income qualifying ratio on loans. Lowered monthly energy cost savings can be applied toward a larger loan repayment for more slender pocketbooks. The program is particularly effective in the resale market but can apply for new construction as well. A U.S. Department of Energy recommended Home Energy Rating (HERS) must be conducted to determine eligibility for an EEM at a cost of $100 – $300. Since mortgage interest is tax deductible, the cost of energy improvements is doubly cost-effective.

The State of New Jersey has just initiated a far-reaching, $5 million program called the Sustainable Development/Affordable Housing Pilot Program with the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in collaboration with Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) to promote this agenda. Other agencies involved are the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the New Jersey Energy Office and the New Jersey Commerce and Economic Growth Commission. Sustainable development criteria include many aspects of building that incorporate principles of sound land use planning: minimize impact on the environment; conserve natural resources; encourage superior building design to enhance the health, safety, and well-being of residents; provide durable, low-cost, low-maintenance dwellings; and make optimum use of existing infrastructure. The pilot program is soliciting designs meeting these standards that, with the application of reasonable public subsidy, may be widely replicated by affordable housing developers. An integral component of the Pilot Program is the current PSE&G 5-Star program, based on the EPA's Energy Star Home program that provides financial incentives to builders whose construction incorporates energy-efficient features. The HERS rating method determines eligibility, which typically entails improved insulation and air sealing, better windows and mechanical systems, as well as efficient lighting, appliances, and ventilation improvements.

The long-term goals of the project are to transform the market by raising the standard of development to reflect these criteria. Creative approaches using proven techniques and market-ready technologies with potential for wide distribution are encouraged for both urban and suburban application. The concerted effort to produce a template and consensus of best available options and technology is a critical element defining the challenge to affordable builders: make it commonplace, universally accepted, globally available, and locally applicable so the technology becomes cheaper and easier to use. As the guesswork of a holistic approach lessens, options to increase efficiency will dominate the marketplace, driving costs down and quelling criticisms that sustainability is for an upscale market only.

These methods are now being used in a series of rehabs of 18 New York City-owned multi-family buildings by architect Chris Benedict and mechanical systems designer Henry Gifford. The Enterprise Foundation, the Joyce Mertz Gilmore Foundation, and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development also participated in this project. Working closely together, the team of architect and mechanical engineer adopted a "Total Systems" approach to energy conservation. The building shells were dilapidated, century-old energy sinks. The $4.3 million budget for renovation included about 1 percent additional funds for energy-improvement: from features such as cellulose-blown insulation (a 100 percent recycled paper product) to individual room thermostats and trickle ventilators to control temperature, energy use, and airflow into the airtight buildings. The improvements in some cases added to the initial cost but were projected to pay their cost within two years – a high-efficiency boiler/water heater, for example. As for the ventilation system, some costs were eliminated (ducting and chimney work) by careful planning and variances granted by the buildings commission, for work that was unnecessary for the "total system" to function. The architect even incorporated such healthy materials as exterior grade plywood indoors to control formaldehyde releases and hardwood flooring to eliminate chemical releases from carpets. The sophisticated "total systems" design and close collaboration between architect and engineer resulted in a comparable-cost rehab that enhances the occupants' homes while saving energy and insuring good health.

The materials and rationale are readily duplicable. Benedict explained in "Taking a Remodeling Beyond Skin Deep," an article by Jay Romano in Nov. 22, 1998, The New York Times, "As an architect my role changed from being just the artist to hands-on, really understanding everything that was happening in the building. And we're finding that by making energy efficiency our focus, we can't help but end up with healthier, more durable housing." Gifford elaborated, saying that architects are not noted for working closely with mechanical systems designers to improve the overall function and efficiency of their buildings – and are paid a percentage of costs, no matter what materials they employ. Collaborations like these will lead to more innovative and truly effective solutions to energy needs.

What the Future Holds

Many more such innovative solutions to complex issues of affordability and ecological sustainability are now available. In 1995, a group of architects, environmentalists, and builders met in Atlanta under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity, the Department of Energy, Global Green USA, and several private foundations to discuss the future of affordable sustainable housing. That June, Habitat established the Environmental Initiative Partnership, a resource library and outreach arm, to share information and promote creative problem-solving. A database of Construction and Environmental Resources documents the work of Habitat's affiliates in implementing its mission "to promote good stewardship of natural resources in the elimination of substandard housing and to raise awareness of the impact of human habitation on God's creation." As organizations like Habitat for Humanity make it an intrinsic part of their mission to incorporate ecologically sound materials and methodologies, a standardized template is being created to enable more builders to embrace green products. Habitat, the 19th largest builder of single-family homes in the U.S. in 1994, with 50,000 homes to its credit by 1996, is driving a movement towards responsible practices. Groups like Habitat and other nonprofits are challenging the for-profit housing industry to meet their standards. The equation of saving high-cost time while wasting low-cost materials is one many for-profit builders have employed to enhance their bottom line. While Habitat is able to circumvent the high costs of labor with a largely volunteer work force, even high-end builders have seen the economic benefits of fundamental changes like energy conservation enhancements.

Fewer than one percent of architects in the latest survey of the American Institute of Architects (500 of 58,000 members) listed affordable housing as a primary interest. It takes vision, innovation, and dedication to reconcile good environmental practices with cost-consciousness. Knitting person-centered and earth-conscious values together with affordability and universal access is not unattainable or frivolous. Low-cost housing developers are beginning to accept the creative challenge of finding sustainable solutions to good design, good health, and affordability.

Copyright 1999


Michelle Dean is a freelance writer living in the Northeast.


Contacts:

  • Chris Benedict, registered architect: 212-353-2296
  • Habitat for Humanity International, Construction and Environmental Resources, 912-924-6935; email: Const&Env@habitat.org
  • U. S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy-Star hotline, 888-STAR-YES for builders' information package and mortgage information; Energy-Star web page for approved materials,
  • Green Village Co., 617-491-1888