Why Sustainability Is Pivotal to Affordable Housing

Bright Power’s Avery Gray discusses how sustainable design grants access to more affordable, comfortable and healthier housing options.

Avery Gray, Senior Project Manager, Bright Power. Image courtesy of Bright Power

The coronavirus outbreak has put the U.S. housing crisis in the spotlight and underscored the need for affordable housing. With COVID-19, it has also become more apparent that housing quality can significantly impact an individual’s overall health. Therefore, multifamily developers need to focus on creating housing that addresses health, safety and comfort, and strives for lower operations costs.

Multi-Housing News reached out to Avery Gray, senior project manager at Bright Power, to discuss the possibilities of minimizing costs and improving resident comfort by implementing sustainable features. Gray also provides insights on the company’s new project with The Community Builders, Park Haven, a 178-unit affordable housing development in the Bronx, which aims to provide high-quality, sustainably designed housing to low-income renters.

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How do the concepts of sustainability and affordability complement each other?

Gray: Energy-efficient, high-performing properties consume less energy, which leads to lower utilities and operations costs. By developing an efficient property with consistent, non-volatile energy usage, affordable housing owners can better predict their spending. Paired with lower operations costs, affordable housing owners are better equipped to preserve affordable housing units for their tenants.

When a high-performance building is well-built and designed by an experienced team, it can even lead to lower ongoing costs. Building to this higher standard involves more care in design and construction, and a greater degree of quality control and assurance. This translates into more airtight envelopes, fewer leaks, and lower maintenance and repair costs. Beyond just saving on operating costs, high-efficiency buildings with moderately sized solar photovoltaic systems can actually create an income stream by selling electricity back to the grid.

How has the pandemic affected your approach to sustainability and affordable housing?

Gray: If anything, the pandemic has made it even more clear that there is a need for quality affordable housing in most, if not all, major metropolitan areas, and that those buildings need to have energy-efficient features to keep operating costs lower for the building owner and for tenants’ utility bills—when applicable.

With many Americans losing their jobs, it is important that they have access to affordable, safe, and comfortable homes and lower energy bills. There is also an interesting analysis being done, arguing that the ventilation strategies and air filtration used in passive house design can reduce respiratory virus spread. This reinforces how important our built environment can be to our health and well-being and the importance of striving to use the best building practices available.

How can low-income renters benefit from sustainable design?

Gray: With a sustainable design like Park Haven, there’s a more holistic approach where health, community, energy efficiency, aesthetics and comfort are taken into consideration. Organizations like The Community Builders are moving the needle in creating new high-quality, affordable homes for low-income renters. Additionally, an energy-efficient property consumes less energy and water, thus making utility costs lower for renters. Sustainable buildings like Park Haven not only save on resources, but they also provide important health and quality-of-life benefits for residents.

The air quality in a high-performance building like Park Haven is much better than average because the energy recovery ventilation system provides continuous filtered fresh air, unlike a conventional ventilation system, and the airtight and thermal bridge free envelope prevents moisture buildup and mold. The constant fresh air, high R-value walls, and high-performance windows also result in a more comfortable interior temperature without drafts. When this is combined with low volatile organic compound materials, it can really make an impact on the health and well-being of residents, especially in an area like the Bronx, where asthma rates are higher than the national average.

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What are the costs of implementing and operating sustainable design features at affordable housing projects?

Gray: The conversation around construction costs for sustainable buildings is interesting, and it is constantly evolving. Two main factors often drive the cost premiums for sustainable design: lack of availability and competition for high-performance building products, and a cost premium charged when contractors have to do something unfamiliar that they have a hard time cost estimating.

Very sustainable buildings are becoming more and more common every year, and as more are built, contractors gain experience and are able to become more cost-competitive in the future. As demand increases, manufacturers are also able to come up with more cost-effective products and expand distribution. All of this adds up to reduced premiums for this type of construction.

Passive house design is one of the most stringent energy performance standards around. Large multifamily buildings built to this standard typically come in at up to 5 percent higher than typical construction costs, before accounting for all long-term savings. These premiums continue to fall every year, which is very exciting, and the reduced operating costs make these kinds of projects lower net cost savings overall.

Park Haven is a recipient of the Buildings of Excellence Award administered by The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which recognizes and supports the design, construction and operation of low carbon-emitting multifamily buildings in New York. The Buildings of Excellence provided funding for the project to add more sustainability features.

Park Haven. Image courtesy of Bright Power

Tell us more about the sustainable features at Park Haven.

Gray: Park Haven will be a high-performing, energy-efficient project built to meet the Enterprise Green Communities—NYSERDA’s new construction program—standard, and following passive house design strategies. The project utilizes an extremely efficient HVAC system, with central rooftop energy recovery ventilators for ventilation and a variable refrigerant flow heat pump heating and cooling system.

The building is designed with a highly insulated envelope, high-performance windows, reduced thermal bridges and improved envelope airtightness. The building will also have a solar power system installed to offset electricity costs.

Another feature that Park Haven will have is Bright Power’s MoBIUS, a real-time energy management service. This feature will help maintain and operate Park Haven at peak performance, allowing it to keep carbon emissions low—once the building is occupied—and create a seamless transition from the construction phase to the handoff to the local operations team as the building is brought online and occupied.

How do you expect sustainability trends to evolve in the future, considering the current push toward safer and cleaner communities?

Gray: More and more real estate owners and developers see the connection between sustainability, effective operations and lower operations costs. We anticipate more new developments will have high-performance design features and real-time energy monitoring like Park Haven.

Real-time energy management will ensure buildings operate and function optimally once occupied, while keeping energy consumption and costs consistent and lower than those without real-time energy management. Ultimately, we expect sustainable, high-performance buildings like Park Haven to become the norm. Building codes, programs like NYSERDA’s Buildings of Excellence, and legislation like New York City’s new law capping building’s carbon emissions drive the market to develop more cost-effective and sustainable solutions.

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