As Green as It Gets

Affordable housing took center stage on day one of GreenBuild 2011 in Toronto.

Affordable Housing Summit charrette

By Diana Mosher, Editor-in-Chief

Affordable housing took center stage on day one of GreenBuild 2011 in Toronto. The popular Affordable Housing Summit was an educational marathon that culminated in a series of charrettes where attendees brainstormed, contributing from their own experiences and also drawing from new knowledge they had learned during the day.

It’s interesting that the ideas that seemed far-fetched or simply too impractical to implement five or 10 years ago have gradually become viable options that more and more developers are thinking about incorporating into their new and retrofit housing products in order to stay competitive in the marketplace.

In the end, it’s all about what will the renters want. In the affordable housing arena, healthy spaces and green go hand-in-hand. That seems like a good formula for market-rate as well.

Some of the solutions that emerged from the break-out groups include: zero net energy, native fruit trees incorporated into landscaping, community supported agriculture, rainwater harvesting, replacing conventional sewage treatment plants with those using algae and resident integration (and integrating diverse generations) with the material world and with agriculture/food production.

The multi-housing sector was well represented among the panelists and attendees, and many of the industry’s most influential were seen trading observations and exchanging business cards. We chatted with building system consultant Steven Winter, FAIA, president of Steven Winter Associates Inc. A past chairman of the Green Building Council, Winter has been to every GreenBuild since the first one in 2002 in Austin, Texas. Watch our interviews later this week on MHN TV with Steven Winter, as well as Drew Ades and Chrissa Pagistas, who lead Fannie Mae’s multifamily green initiative.

Green is not only a growing business opportunity, it’s also a continually changing discipline. Every green conference is a valuable investment. This is still the biggest and the best, but new contenders emerge all the time. In fact, you can expect to be hearing more about the Living Building Challenge, a Portland, Ore.-based organization that has come up with a new rating system (and a new conference of its own in May 2012) designed to help building projects to actually heal the eco-system as well as their communities.

The Living Building Challenge is seeking “a visionary path to a restorative future” and is encouraging buildings to act like a flower that is beautiful, adapted to its climate and site, and (except for house plants and a few others) responsible for its own water and energy. This is the most interesting thing to come out of the first day of GreenBuild. The standard looks at seven “petals” of sustainability, including site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.

For example, it requires “limits to growth,” and projects must not impeach on “the right to nature” by blocking another project’s ability to enjoy the natural surroundings; only grayfield or brownfield sites are allowed; and projects must be on a human scale rather than on a car scale—so gated communities are never an option.

Many will say it isn’t possible (especially the part about no PVC), but LEED was also met with skepticism, and so many of its requirements are now being incorporated willingly, even by projects not seeking certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Since green is always a work in progress, The Living Building Challenge does issue half petals. “But our requirements are simple. All seven of the requirements are required,” explained Amanda Sturgeon, who presented highlights of the program to Affordable Housing Summit attendees at GreenBuild. Sturgeon has taught sustainable design at the University of Washington’s School of Architecture and co-directs Perkins+Will’s Sustainable Design Initiative.

Testing and verification is done after the builidng has been up and running. “We send a third party to check one year after it has opened,” said Sturgeon. “We want to pull the market forward,” she added. “LEED is a fabulous program to get us all on board, but our goals go a bit further.”