Low Rent High Tech

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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.

“In the wintertime now, you can get warm and stay warm,” says Dave Cummings, a physical education and health teacher and 14-year resident. Cold winds don’t blow through the windows anymore, and neither does dust. The place is simply cleaner, he says, and the air is healthier. 

Del and Kathy Konakowitz, who have been managing the property for 14 years, talk about maintenance calls. These days, they’re more likely to hear from a resident who needs a refresher on how to work a dual-flush toilet than from someone whose air-conditioning is busted.

Jorge Lopez, senior project manager for Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, the nonprofit developer of Viking Terrace, marvels at the new gabled metal roof. “It was leakage after leakage after leakage,” he recalls of the previous flat roof. “This roof, we know it’s going to last 50 years.”

Then there are the lower utility bills. Everyone likes those.

“Folks who have less money aren’t less concerned about the environment, but their concerns are practical,” says Ed Connelly, the president of New Ecology Inc., a Massachusetts nonprofit that promotes affordable sustainable development. “Health, costs, comfort . . . those are very important, powerful environmental issues.”

They’re also tangible personal issues that have the potential to appeal beyond the save-the-earth contingent. What’s more, addressing one of those issues often helps with the others.

Take, for example, air ventilation, says Connelly. Making sure that ducts are properly sealed lowers heating bills by saving energy. It also helps keep out the bugs and other unwelcome critters that can cause asthma and allergy flare-ups. Similarly, using building materials free from formaldehyde, which is in various finishes and paneling, and from other volatile organic compounds, like those found in many paints, is good for both the environment and the health of residents.

It’s not surprising that advocates of affordable housing are the ones bringing such synergies to the fore. People who are surviving on low incomes are at a far greater risk than others of suffering from asthma and other serious, costly respiratory ailments. And unexpected medical bills can wipe out the budget of a family that’s living from paycheck to paycheck.

Creating housing that avoids common illness triggers, uses less energy, and saves on utility and maintenance costs–all while using ecofriendly materials and strategies–is a win-win for affordable housing proponents, and it can be for the rest of us too. Before that can happen, though, we need to overcome more than a few misperceptions. Foremost is fear of the “green premium.”

There’s no getting around the fact that, at least for now, building green typically costs more. Green building materials still have a way to go before they’re lining the shelves at home-improvement shops. And the technical know-how among builders, developers, and architects is still on the lower end of the learning curve.

But, advocates say, there’s good reason to believe that modest up-front costs will pay back in dividends over the course of a building’s life. Take, for example, Viking Terrace’s biggest-ticket item, a geothermal heating and cooling system. The $480,000 price tag almost got the system nixed from the blueprints. Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit focused on affordable housing, stepped in to help with funding through its Green Communities program, an initiative that’s allocating $555 million to build some 8,500 green affordable housing units by 2009. The geothermal system is now expected to pay for itself in just a decade through energy savings.

Though industry-wide data are limited and still coming in, players in the affordable housing field cite a green premium that hovers around 2 percent per unit (or around $2,000 to $3,000). In a 2005 study, New Ecology researchers calculated an average 2.4 percent increase in development costs to cover the green features in affordable housing developments. But when researchers modeled the 30-year life cycle of the projects, taking into account factors like future equipment replacement expenses and operating costs like maintenance, repair, and utilities, they projected an average expected savings of $15,000 per unit for 14 of the 16 developments sampled.

Those are impressive numbers for any building venture, let alone an affordable housing project, which Green Communities’ senior director Dana Bourland calls the most difficult type of housing to build. Funding is scarce. The clientele is, by definition, underserved in the marketplace. And multiple interested parties, from municipalities to granting institutions, keep developers jumping through myriad regulatory hoops.

There is much, though, to be learned from affordable housing’s venture into green territory. There’s the crucial lesson of understanding green building’s goals holistically. It’s not just about building a structure that’s easier on the earth. Green building is also about building higher-quality, longer-lasting structures, ones that create healthier and more comfortable environments for the people who live in them. Then there’s the importance of evaluating green building strategies through the lens of cost and ditching what Bourland calls “green bling,” investing instead in systemwide changes that save money and energy over time.

“If we’re able to do this cost effectively for affordable housing,” says Bourland, “then I can do this in my home.” And you can do it in yours.

Want more? Read the rest ofUtne Reader‘s November/December package on the Green Building:

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