Integrating Resident Health into Green Retrofits
Across the US, low-income households are more likely to live with environmental health and safety hazards in their home than middle- and upper-income households, with adults aged 65 years or older being the largest demographic to live in inadequate housing. Nearly a third of residents in federally assisted housing are aged 62 years or older, and that number will likely increase as the general population ages. Through green construction and building retro commissioning, affordable housing providers can reduce or eliminate the negative health impacts of older buildings on their residents by implementing energy efficiency measures.
Resident health and well-being is a top priority for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides grants to reduce lead-based paint hazards and researches ways to improve the cost-effectiveness of healthy home interventions. Similarly, the Economic Development Authority of Mankato, Minn., (EDA Mankato) emphasizes healthy living for its residents. Acknowledging the wealth of research and experience that have linked housing quality to health outcomes, the organization invests in creating clean and comfortable environments for its properties.
EDA Mankato manages 179 public housing units, 101 of which are located in Orness Plaza, a high-rise building where nearly 80 percent of residents are elderly and approximately 45 percent have a disability. The building fell into serious disrepair over time, but EDA Mankato secured funding for renovations in 2009. The agency partnered with the National Center for Healthy Housing, which successfully obtained a grant from the HUD Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes to measure self-reported health outcomes among public housing residents before and after the retrofits. EDA Mankato’s approach to its green retrofit, which included extensive resident engagement and consultation from public health and building design experts, resulted in a building that is not only LEED Silver certified, but also much more welcoming and healthier for its residents.
Financing the Project
Orness Plaza is a public housing building with 101 units arranged around a 7-story rectangular open atrium. Originally constructed in 1971, the building had fallen into very poor condition by the early 2000s. The building’s primary energy efficiency and indoor air quality (IAQ) deficiencies included:
- Major water infiltration through leaky windows;
- Degraded exterior concrete wall panels;
- Ineffectual wastewater collection system;
- Lack of central air conditioning; and
- Exhaust-only ventilation system.
Although EDA Mankato receives annual funding from HUD to maintain its properties, the amount was insufficient to cover the rising costs of maintaining its aging building stock. The agency hired Rick Goodemann, Executive Director of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, who successfully applied for Low-income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) in 2008 from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. After receiving the credits, EDA Mankato struggled to find someone to purchase its debt because of the economic recession. When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act made funding available for unfunded shovel-ready tax credit projects, EDA Mankato applied for and received funding to begin renovations. Rick Goodemann invited Dr. David Jacobs, Chief Scientist at the National Center for Healthy Housing and an expert on healthy living and sustainable building design, to join the project.
Dr. Jacobs obtained a Healthy Homes grant from the HUD Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes that allowed him to provide health-based consultation to EDA Mankato in the design phase. These funds also allowed Dr. Jacobs to assess residents’ self-reported physical and mental health statuses before and after the green building retrofits, and to publish this information to benefit peer organizations. The study, which was published in 2015 in Public Health Management Practice, built on previous research by collecting self-reported information on residents’ physical and mental health, rather than focusing exclusively on their physical safety. In addition, much of the previous research on the link between health and building renovation focused on children in family settings, whereas the present study evaluated the impacts on a primarily elderly and disabled population.
Planning and Construction
Prior to beginning construction in 2010, EDA Mankato held a series of resident information meetings to educate them about the process and get their feedback on proposed designs. The design and construction team included architects, engineers, commissioning agents, researchers in building science and public health, and EDA Mankato staff. The interdisciplinary team developed a scope of work that achieved both the energy efficiency and resident health objectives for Orness Plaza. EDA Mankato obtained approval from the Chesapeake Research Review Institutional Review Board to conduct the resident health study and then interviewed residents to get their baseline self-reported health status. Researchers also installed temperature, humidity, and CO2 monitors in 21 units approximately two months before beginning construction to measure the baseline air quality.
The green retrofits occurred in four phases, which minimized the negative effects of construction on residents. Movers placed residents’ belongings into temporary units exactly as they were arranged in the original unit and, when construction was over, moved them back into their original unit. Contractors were specifically instructed to limit dust as much as possible during construction to protect residents’ health. Some of the renovations and policies specifically targeted at improving residents’ health included:
- Fresh air apartment and building ventilation supplied by two rooftop units with maximum efficiency;
- A geothermal HVAC system that provides air conditioning and allows apartments that receive afternoon sun to turn on air conditioning while units on the east receive heat, which increases resident comfort and reduces energy usage;
- Asbestos and mold abatement;
- Use of low volatile organic chemical paints, sealants, and adhesives;
- Installation of green label carpet and moisture-resistant tub and shower enclosure materials;
- New exercise enhancements for elderly residents and those with disabilities;
- No-smoking policy indoors and near all building entrances and windows;
- Tenant education programs to show residents how to clean their apartments without using harmful chemicals; and
- A copy of the Healthy Homes Handbook for all residents that outlines how to care for energy saving appliances and fixtures and includes information regarding light bulb replacement.
Past research suggests that residents thrive in communities that are walkable and accessible to people with disabilities. For this reason, EDA Mankato added indoor ponds and gardens, a variety of sitting areas for socializing, and walkable outdoor areas. Immediately following the building renovation in 2012, researchers moved residents back into their original apartments and re-installed temperature, humidity, and CO2 monitors to test post-renovation air quality. They also interviewed residents to assess their post-renovation mental and physical health.
Resident outreach was an important factor in the success of Orness Plaza’s renovations. Some of the key steps in the resident engagement process are outlined below:
- In early meetings, EDA Mankato showed residents slides with design options for various parts of the building such as the atrium, game room, and private kitchens. Residents then provided their feedback on preferred designs by completing written surveys.
- The American Lung Association met with residents to explain the health benefits of smoke-free buildings. The organization offered smoking cessation services to residents and solicited their feedback on preferred outdoor smoking areas on the building’s campus.
- EDA Mankato hosted four meetings—one at the start of each building phase—with residents and the moving company to explain the logistics of the moving process. Movers were required to place everything in the new unit exactly as it appeared in the old one.
Tools & Resources
EDA Mankato successfully reduced Orness Plaza’s energy and water consumption through these green retrofits. As demonstrated in the graph below, energy consumption dropped by 44 percent post-renovation, placing Orness Plaza well below the average site energy kBtu/SF/Year rating for a new multifamily building modeled after the 2009 Minnesota building code, and just short of the Architecture 2030 Challenge national design goal. While the graph shows the improvement between calendar years 2009 and 2012, the building’s performance has continued to improve as evidenced by its Better Buildings Challenge data submissions, which show an additional energy improvement of 13 percent since 2012. Also, water usage per resident dropped by 54 percent, placing the building’s water usage well below the national average.
As stated at the outset of the renovations, another one of EDA Mankato’s primary motivations in renovating Orness Plaza was to improve the mental and physical health wellbeing of its residents. Post-renovation, residents overwhelmingly rated their apartments as easier to clean, more comfortable, and safer. Residents reported fewer problems with cockroaches and rodents, and both residents and maintenance personnel reported dramatically reduced insecticide use in the building.
Residents describing their general health as either very good or excellent increased from 33 percent to 62 percent after building renovations. In addition, residents reported fewer health issues post-renovation, as displayed below.
Health issue Pre-renovation Post-renovation Chronic bronchitis 10% 0% Hay fever 12% 4% Sinusitis 12% 2% Asthma 12% 4% Hypertension 10% 4%
The improved health outcomes are likely correlated to mitigating health and safety concerns, such as moisture and mildew, in residents’ units during the renovation process. Residents also gained new opportunities for recreation with the renovated common areas and addition of gym equipment and walking trails. EDA Mankato’s experience renovating Orness Plaza suggests that affordable housing providers can reap multiple benefits of green retrofits if they engage residents throughout the process and assemble a multidisciplinary project team that can link building interventions to the organization’s objectives.
For more details on any of the outcomes, please see the full research study, which is linked to this Implementation Model as a resource.
The Economic Development Authority of Mankato, Minnesota obtained funding to assess the health impacts of retrofitting 101 units of low-income housing for primarily elderly and disabled residents.
Public Housing Authority
Lack of funding to rehabilitate dilapidated public housing for elderly and disabled residents
Obtain funding and assemble a multidisciplinary team to implement green retrofits that benefit resident health
44% reduction in energy use and improved resident comfort and health