The Impact of Green Affordable Housing
By Alex Trachtenberg, Associate, Community Sustainability Services, Southface
The subject of green building leads people to think of drowning in guidelines, checklists and expensive upgrades. The subject of affordable housing conjures thoughts of code compliant, cost conscious construction that allows for minimal enhancements of any kind. At face value, the two are seemingly incompatible ideas. Southface’s Alex Trachtenberg and Sarah Hill, along with the Virginia Center for Housing and Research at Virginia Tech, are aiming to upend the notion that green building can’t also be affordable, especially for those who need it most.
Southface and the Virginia Center for Housing and Research produced a report entitled “The Impact of Green Affordable Housing” in 2016. Trachtenberg then led a session on the results of the report at Southface’s annual sustainability conference, Greenprints. The session, “The Dollars and Sense of Green Affordable Housing,” was attended by architects, builders, designers, city planners, government representatives and nonprofit executives.
Many construction companies assume green building practices are prohibitively expensive in all but the most luxurious developments. However, this new report shows that even for affordable housing developments, the numbers tell a different story; total construction costs for green developments are about five percent less than traditional developments.
When expenses are broken down into hard costs (being materials, labor and equipment used in construction), and soft costs (design and construction fees associated with management), hard costs are only two percent more for green developments and soft costs wind up being six percent less. While these percentages may seem inconsequential, they show the amounts spent on construction costs between green and non-green developments vary so slightly that it barely pays to prefer non-green developments over green ones.
Survey data revealed the assumptions of stakeholder groups other than builders related to the development process. According to a survey of property managers, 38 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Above code green buildings are more energy efficient than energy-code compliant buildings.” Housing finance authorities responded more favorably, with 50 percent agreeing that green developments are more energy efficient and 75 percent agreeing that green building practices lower utility costs.
The study found that green buildings do lower utility costs by more than 14 percent. Estimated monthly utility bills save resident families $100 per year, and $120 per year for senior citizens. Just as important, though less quantifiable, is that the study shows that green building certifications may lead to a more consistent end product and more predictable energy bills for low-income residents across a state’s portfolio of affordable housing developments.
Administration and maintenance costs were somewhat higher for green buildings versus non-green buildings. This is surprising and contradicts the literature and many goals of green building. Anecdotal evidence suggests that increased operations, maintenance and administration costs may be due to staff and resident education about the equipment and technologies used in the developments.
Per year, green developments save $5,000 on owner-paid utility costs. In addition to stakeholders agreeing that green developments are more energy efficient, most of the developers in this study also believe that green buildings provide a higher quality end product and residents report comfortable living conditions in their green dwellings.