Sustainability and Affordable Housing

South Quarter Phase IV rendering

MS&R Architects‘ rendering for South Quarter Phase IV. A sustainable affordable housing development in Minneapolis, a partnership of Aeon and Hope Community

Going “green” may seem like a popular trend. Green building, however, is more than a trend in affordable housing — sustainability is a critical aspect of affordable housing development. It helps ensure that the buildings not only have a minimal impact on the environment, but that they continue to be affordable for residents and owners for years to come.

Naturally, one purpose of building sustainably is to reduce harm on the environment. Incorporating sustainable structures decreases the affect buildings and residents will have on the environment by reducing the building’s amount of energy consumption. A study by New Ecology Inc. and the Tellus Institute found that buildings with a green design could use 30-50 percent less energy for heating and cooling, 20 percent less electricity, and 10-20 percent less water than buildings without a sustainable design.

These benefits to the environment provide economic benefits to the community. With less heating and cooling energy, electricity, and water being consumed by a building’s residents, operations costs drastically drop. The same study by New Ecology Inc. and the Tellus Institute estimated that an average $12,637 benefit per unit (benefits that outweigh costs) over the lifetime of the property (or 30-year cycle) (study, page 166). By paying less on utilities, residents living on lower incomes will be able to purchase other necessities.

In addition to the residents and building owners, the nearby community also saves. Sustainable buildings exert less demand on the local power grid and water supply, preserving energy and water for future use in the community.

Another important aspect of a sustainable approach to affordable housing development is the preservation of the natural environment – another benefit to the local community. This usually means walking paths, play or gathering areas, rain or community gardens, or other recreational green areas are incorporated into the development plan. A small or large area where nature is preserved is ecologically responsible and creates healthier living spaces.

If a sustainable approach to affordable housing development is proven to benefit the environment, the economy, and the community, why isn’t green building more prevalent in the housing industry by now? Too often, sustainable development is passed over because the immediate costs are perceived to be too high. However, according to the New Ecology and Tellus study, its 16 case studies, or green developments, showed only an average 2.4% “green premium” compared to conventional development costs. With such a small cost increase and the knowledge that green building lengthens the life and durability of a building, using green design and sustainable building practices are clearly essential and smart for long-term viability.

Submitted by Kelsey Arens, student intern, University of St. Thomas

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