The New Environment for Housing

Starting out, Rick Goodemann was a Minnesota construction worker hired to refurbish a dilapidated building that had served as low-income housing for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He remembers feeling a sense of waste in hammering away at a project that should have been properly built in the first place but, because of poor design, had disintegrated into disrepair. Further frustrating him, the houses hadnft appreciated for the buyer nor become an asset to the community. Instead, he said, he was merely putting a Band-Aid on a bigger problem.

The experience motivated him to get involved in local planning boards. Recognizing that developers had created high-end gated communities with highly e‡cient use of space and materials, Goodemann thought of applying similar design elements to affordable housing when he helped launch the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit community development agency, in 1992. An early student of environmental products, he also wanted to utilize systems that reduced heating and cooling costs and conserved water.

His first major project, Nicollet Meadows in St. Peters, Minnesota, was unveiled in 2003 and got a big splash of publicity. Its success snowballed into many new developments that have earned him lasting respect and financial reward. Now the partnershipfs executive director, Goodemann has built 5,800 housing units with a $210 million investment. gWe found that building these houses reduced energy consumption by 30 percent, and that money could be applied to other parts of their life -- including, from a builderfs perspective, affording a more expensive house,h he says. gSounds like a no-brainer, right?h

More affordable housing developers are starting to think the same way. Affordable developments incorporating energy-efficient technologies, healthy building materials, and environmentally smart site planning are coming on line in urban and rural areas across the country. Enterprise has, to date, supported more than 8,500 green units in 139 developments in 23 states, including one with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. Referring to the early green pioneers as gheroes,h environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. notes that git takes someone to lead and believe, and then others will follow.h

gLow-income families and communities are especially likely to benefit from lower energy bills, healthier environments and better planned communities,h according to Dana Bourland, who directs Enterprisefs sustainable development activities through the Green Communities initiative. gEnterprisefs goal is to make green the mainstream in affordable housing. We shouldnft settle for anything less.h

Such a market transformation will take time. Green building is still a new concept to many in the affordable housing industry. One big obstacle can be finding professionals to apply the green technology. Sheila Greenlaw-Fink, executive director of Community Partners for Affordable Housing in Oregon, remembers the early resistance from architects and contractors to change the way they did business. Unfamiliar with materials such as fly ash in concrete or engineered lumber, many builders werenft sure how it would affect their installation or warranties.

Even before choosing technologies or materials, affordable developers need to adopt whole new ways of thinking. gIn the past, architects made plans, contractors built them, and rarely did their consultants and subcontractors ever come face to face,h says Greenlaw-Fink. gWith green building, you need the team integrating design strategies from start to finish.h A wetlands scientist may have to make their case directly to a civil engineer designing storm management systems, and contractors may be asked to modify parking lots and grading to protect trees. gItfs far more complex, but also far more rewarding,h Greenlaw-Fink says.

Her group recently completed a green development called Oleson Woods. Located in a suburb near Portland, the development had to overcome initial resistance from some in the community who held negative stereotypes of affordable housing. Going green helped, and now Oleson Woods is widely seen as a community asset. Its 32 townhomes all have energy-efficient appliances, superior insulation, and state-of-the-art ventilation systems. The project also enhanced the surrounding environment, expanding a wetland, and preserving the mature tree canopy.

gOleson Woods is a national model in a number of ways,h says Bourland of Enterprise, which provided assistance and funding. gMost notably it shows that sustainable development encompasses both better-performing buildings and smart land-use solutions for the surrounding site -- maximizing benefits for families and the environment.h

Ripple effects

The rise of green building in the affordable-housing sector is at the leading edge of growing interest among market-rate builders. A survey by McGraw-Hill and the National Association of Home Builders says 2007 may be a turning point for the green-home market, with construction up 30 percent over 2006 alone. By 2010, 5 to 10 percent of all new home construction should be green, they predict -- or as much as $38 billion of the market.

This expanding interest in the larger residential real-estate industry is likely to create ripple effects among architects, contractors, and suppliers -- boosting todayfs momentum toward broader green design, experts say.

The affordable housing market has also benefited from Hollywoodfs brigade of enviros -- as well as from forward-thinking business leaders who embraced and financed innovative green design early on at a premium price. These affluent customers ghelped transform the market by purchasing the more expensive products,h says Dennis Creech, one of the pioneers in green residential development and the executive director of the Atlanta-based firm Southface. Green prices have come down as demand increases -- like theyfve done for plasma TVs. The well-heeled gtest-marketersh also found kinks in the system -- things like the problem of mold in overly insulated houses, which led to better ventilation technology thatfs now being used in more modest homes, too.

To accelerate industry change, Enterprise and the U.S. Green Building Council have announced a partnership to expand education, provide training, and cut the costs of green affordable housing. gEnterprise and USGBCfs partnership is a sign that affordable housing is an important part of the green building movement,h Bourland says.

Similarly, benefactors like Bank of America and the Home Depot Foundation have been out front -- variously providing business leadership, financing, technical assistance, and more.

Another frontier for green housing proponents is quantifying the bottom-line financial benefits with more precision than has been possible to date. Enterprise is capturing data from its Green Communities portfolio to make the case to mainstream financial institutions that green affordable developments are economically superior to conventional projects.

Green housing champions see the tide turning their way because they say their approach is both the right thing and the smart thing to do. gSaving the world is hard to measure quickly,h said Greenlaw-Fink. gBut with green building, you can see results in the short term. It just makes sense.h

Jill Brooke is a freelance journalist and former cnn correspondent. Her first book, Donft Let Death Ruin Your Life, was published in 2001.