Low Rent High Tech

Affordable housing advocates build green and inspire innovation


| November / December 2007



Low Rent High Tech by Chris Lyons

Illustration by Chris Lyons

The Viking Terrace apartment complex in Worthington, Minnesota, is outwardly unremarkable. Its long, two- and three-story buildings, with their banal palette of tans and beiges, blend seamlessly into a neighborhood of cozy ramblers set on well-tended lawns. On the complex’s playground, next to a field of soybeans, kids giggle their way down slides as their mothers keep watch from shaded picnic tables. Residents file in and out of their apartments on their way to work or the nearby shopping centers, some stopping in the administrative office for a quick hello.

What makes Viking Terrace remarkable is what you don’t see. There are no stereotypical signs of “income restricted” housing; no crumbling structures, cracked sidewalks, or unsightly graffiti. And there are no clues that this once decrepit ’70s-era complex has been reinvented as an ecofriendly development. Geothermal units that draw the earth’s natural heat or coolness from some 200 feet underground are hidden below blankets of grass. Heavy-duty, superinsulated panes look like run-of-the-mill windows. A carefully planned ventilation system, hidden in the walls, keeps moisture in check.

Viking Terrace’s green upgrades, which were completed last summer, offer its melting pot of low-income and formerly homeless residents access to a world commonly reserved for companies and individuals with the financial means to go green. Affordable housing developments like this one are springing up across the country, showing that green homes can and should be built for everyone, not just because they’re good for the environment, but also because they’re healthier, more comfortable, and—yes—more affordable.

 

Popular conceptions of green building peg the movement as the domain of hippies or hipsters. A “green” house is either an off-the-grid backwoods cabin built by an aging boomer who organically grows his own out back, or else a futuristic, airy rectangle inhabited by a thirtysomething yuppie with the disposable income to spend on a solar-powered iPod. In both cases, living green comes across as a lifestyle whose extra costs are worth paying for the sake of the earth, not to mention one’s own conscience.

But if you ask the people at Viking Terrace what green building has meant to them, you’ll get answers that don’t seem particularly ecoconscious.

bakari kafele_3
12/14/2007 12:00:00 AM

One form of affordable and green housing which everyone always over looks is the RV park. RVs as transportation are woefully inefficient, but keep one in one place... RVs are designed to be able to run off of their own battery power and propane tanks off the grid for weeks or even months at a time. Things like absorption cycle fridges and a tankless toilet (which have high premiums in home versions) come standard. An RV uses less than 1/25th the electricity of the average American home, and around and 1/15th the average water. At the same time, it is by far the least expensive (non-subsidized) form of housing. Both in the San Francisco Bay Area and 10 miles out of Manhattan (two of the most expensive areas in the country, where 1 bdrm apts can go for over $1500 a month) an RV space (with full hook-ups for water, electricity, phone, internet, cable, sewar, plus garbage and mail service) can be had for just over $400.