Multifamily Challenge Partners Lead the Way in High-Efficiency Affordable Housing

By Better Buildings Beat Team on Mar 12, 2021

America’s cities face several urgent and compounding challenges: climate change and lack of affordable housing for low-income households. And over the past year, resident health has also emerged as a more critical issue than ever. To address these multiple challenges, four Better Buildings Challenge multifamily partners have contributed to the 2020 edition of “Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing.” The book examines how green building principles can be incorporated into affordable housing design, construction, and operations to provide housing stability while reducing environmental and climate impacts.

Jonathan Rose, CEO of Better Buildings Challenge partner Jonathan Rose Companies, frames the topic in the book’s foreword. Rose, whose 361-unit Sendero Village property in the Bronx is featured as a case study in the book, describes green affordable housing as an example of restorative environmental justice that addresses human needs for both housing and a healthy environment. Better Buildings Challenge partners REACH CDC, Rural Ulster Preservation Company and Aeon share detailed case studies on innovative technical approaches, the latest financing strategies, and meeting green building certification requirements to provide high-performing, healthy buildings for low income families.

The authors devote a chapter to the challenges of financing green features. Affordable developers are limited in their ability to recoup costs with income-restricted rents, and standard utility allowances do not factor in more energy efficient appliances or building features. The authors provide six steps to mitigating these barriers, including minimizing added costs through integrated design, capitalizing on lower operating costs, and leveraging rebates, incentives, and grants wherever possible.

Case studies

REACH CDC: Orchards of Orenco

REACH CDC’s Orchards of Orenco in Hillsboro, Oregon, is the largest multifamily building built to Passive House standards in North America and a Better Buildings Implementation Model. The 57-unit building is expected to achieve a nearly 90% energy reduction for heating and 60-70% reduction for overall energy use compared with buildings of similar size in the region. The property takes advantage of solar orientation, triple pane windows, a heat-recovery system, air source heat pumps, and a super-insulated and extremely airtight building envelope. Two central, ultra-high efficiency boilers provide hot water, and an energy monitoring system helps improve tenants’ energy-use habits. With energy savings 68% below a typical apartment, tenant savings are expected to be $30 to $45 per month per unit. The Passive House cost premium for this project was 11%, or $17 per square foot.

Rural Ulster Preservation Company: The Lace Mill

Previously an abandoned factory, the U.S. Lace Curtain Mill in Kingston, New York is now a Better Buildings Showcase Project and has been transformed into 55 units of affordable housing with incorporated artist’s gallery and studio spaces by Challenge partner Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO). Energy performance had to be balanced against preserving the historic character of the building. Working with historic preservation experts, RUPCO expects 43% energy savings from the following energy efficiency measures: solar photovoltaic panels on the building’s roof, state-of-the-art thermal heating and cooling, energy recovery ventilation, roof and wall insulation, and ENERGY STAR® appliances. The $19 million adaptive-reuse project used 4% low-income housing tax credit equity as well as federal and state historic tax credits, several secondary income sources, and a substantial commitment by the sponsoring non-profit.

Aeon: The Rose

The Rose is a mixed-income housing project in Minneapolis developed by Challenge partner Aeon and Hope Community. The Rose’s energy use intensity (EUI) is expected to be 30, a figure that is 72% more efficient than the building-code baseline. Water use is expected to be half that of a similarly sized multifamily building; the building’s façade is a solar wall with solar thermal panels that provide 35% of the hot water. Total project cost for the 90-unit project was $36.1 million, of which construction costs were $23 million, or $151 per square foot. Rooftop solar panels were added to the property in 2020 to help offset remaining electrical use.

The Rose is the first affordable multifamily housing project to take part in the Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge certification program. LBC’s green building certification approach is based on actual, rather than modeled performance. Buildings must meet seven performance categories, or petals, in key sustainable performance areas—place, water, energy, health & happiness, materials, equity, and beauty.

Using The Rose as a model, Aeon developed a Learning Laboratory, a Better Buildings Implementation Model, to create replicable blueprints to support the collection and exchange of solutions that advance budget-conscious, environmentally healthy buildings throughout the affordable housing sector.

Read more about the latest from the multifamily sector on the Better Buildings Solution Center.