Staying Current and Healthy with Efficient Building Practices

Holistic, green building certifications are an increasingly integral part of affordable housing development. These certifications are often pursued by developers due to incentives in competitive funding allocations, requirements in formula-based funding, or internal commitments from mission-driven organizations.

For example, Enterprise Community Partners recently released a survey of state LIHTC allocations from 2013, Green Policies Build Green Homes (this report and survey was conducted by the authors of this post) showing that over 75 percent of projects nationwide committed to achieve some holistic green building certification program.
One key benefit of pursuing building certification is that the certification systems are regularly updated to incorporate new knowledge, increased product availability, and proven best practices in the industry. A development that was healthy, efficient and durable in 2004, 2008 or even 2011 likely missed opportunities that are now available and may even be widespread in 2015. As green building certification programs are updated nationally and locally, this process can help simplify the efforts of individual project teams to stay current.

As an example, earlier this month Enterprise Community Partners released the 2015 version of their Green Communities Criteria, designed especially for use in mission-driven affordable housing projects. The Green Communities criteria were originally adopted by Enterprise in 2004 and subsequently updated in 2008, 2011, and now in 2015. These regular updates each included an extensive public process and collaborative input from partner organizations to get input both on new opportunities and on regional or other unique challenges that can impact implementation. They also incorporate cost-benefit analyses conducted by Enterprise looking back at completed projects.

Key areas of renewed emphasis in the 2015 update include the following:

  1. occupant health;
  2. community resilience;
  3. location and energy data transparency, and;
  4. integrative design.

The structure of the criteria establishes both minimum expectations and a menu of project- and location-specific options in these and other key areas.

In particular, the occupant health focus of Green Communities is especially important for projects serving communities that experience widely disparate health outcomes from the wider population. Although multiple factors contribute to these disparate outcomes, research shows that the design, materials and maintenance of housing is a significant contributor. For example, Enterprise notes that over 20 percent of asthma cases are linked to home conditions that can be avoided by following the new 2015 Green Communities criteria. The 2015 update was conducted by Enterprise in close partnership with the American Heart Association, resulting in improvements regarding ventilation standards and “Active Design” criteria that promote physical activity both within the building and the surrounding community.

Another area of focus for Enterprise is the location of and neighborhood surrounding an affordable housing development. Too often, short-term “affordability” is achieved by locating sites far from community resources or public transit options. The result is often that housing affordability is offset by greater transportation costs in time and money. In the 2015 update, access to public transportation is mandatory for new construction projects. For this purpose, “public transportation” is defined as 60+ weekday transit rides within 0.5 miles of an urban project, or for rural/tribal/small town projects without such options, projects must have one of a variety of alternative transportation services within five miles.

Enterprise’s collaborative and public process involves subject area experts and is facilitated by housing professionals with an eye to achieving the larger community-development goals of affordable housing. Knowing this, the recently-released 2015 Green Communities criteria represent the most current and achievable standards for new construction, substantial rehab, and even moderate rehab of affordable housing developments nationwide.

(Photo credit: Flickr user StockMonkeys.com, CC BY 2.0)

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Lisa Hodges is an attorney with over 15 years experience in affordable and public housing, large scale urban redevelopment, and neighborhood revitalization. She has served as the director of Real Estate for the Boston Housing Authority and as development advisor to the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA). Prior to working with DCHA, Lisa was special assistant for Housing Policy to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development for the District of Columbia (ODMPED). Lisa is an adjunct assistant professor at the Howard University School of Architecture, and she holds a JD from Harvard Law School and is a member of the Maryland State Bar.
Casius Pealer is director of Tulane University’s Master of Sustainable Real Estate Development (MSRED) program and a professor of practice in the School of Architecture. In addition to these academic roles, Casius is of counsel in the New Orleans office of Coats | Rose, a Houston-based law firm, where he concentrates in the areas of affordable housing, real estate finance, and energy and water efficiency. He also maintains a separate consulting practice, Oystertree Consulting, supporting public agencies and developers using green building as an additional tool to achieve long-term affordable housing solutions. He can be reached at casius@oystertree.org.

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