Breaking down the myth that sustainability is a luxury feature
By ASA FOSS
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that indoor air is two to 10 times more polluted than outdoor air. Given that we spend the majority of our time indoors, it is important that the places where we live, learn, work, and play are constructed to be as healthy and sustainable as possible. Green buildings provide better indoor air quality, and save resources and money; for the residential market, these health and financial benefits are a boon to homeowners and developers.
It is a myth that sustainability is a luxury item only for those who can afford it. In fact, it is the one-third of the nation’s families that are considered low-income that benefit the most from living in a green home. These families spend up to 20 percent of their income on energy bills, compared to four percent for the average household. This financial burden is significantly reduced when these families live in an energy-efficient green home, which on average uses 30 to 60 percent less energy.
LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used green building rating system in the world and it includes guidelines specifically for the design and construction of green, energy efficient homes. LEED homes are inherently affordable due to the requirement that they demonstrate a minimum 15 percent savings over energy codes and 20 percent water savings, but certified projects often go far beyond that to achieve or get closer to net zero standards.
A common issue around affordable homes, however, is that they are not truly affordable if the construction costs are cheap but the costs of operation are high. When discussing the benefits of green homes, we cannot just think about the cost savings of operation, like energy and water; it is also about the long-term health benefits for the people who live in these homes.
Affordable housing builders, developers, and policy makers need to shift from focusing on keeping costs low at the onset to a more comprehensive cost valuation; it should include operating expenses over the lifetime of the home, including the health and social costs of the people living in the homes.
This shift is already resulting in affordable homes being truly affordable. Green affordable housing is no longer a fringe concept. According to a 2016 report examining green building criteria in low-income housing tax credit plans, more state housing finance agencies are deploying LEED and other third-party green building rating systems as tools to ensure that the environmental, economic, and social benefits of sustainable building practices are brought to all. That a preponderance of states – some 75 percent – have a green building metric incorporated into their qualified allocation plans is a testament to the capacity and sophistication of affordable housing developers, and to the relevance of green building to the underlying mission of affordable housing.
Currently, there are more than one million residential units participating in LEED across the world, nearly 78,000 of which are considered affordable housing. Recent reports and research have found that investment in green homes can be recouped more quickly than with conventional homes, and can have a resale value between three to eight percent. Based on this, we know that green homes are not only in high demand, but that they are good for people’s bottom line – and for the economy.
In April, registration for LEED v4.1 Residential opened, offering builders and developers a simplified and streamlined approach to achieving sustainable single-family and multifamily homes. The updated rating system prioritizes health and wellbeing, improved comfort, energy and water savings, and the use of green and healthy materials which have a higher value to homeowners and residents.
As LEED evolves, as the demand remains, and as there is more emphasis placed on the comprehensive social costs of a home’s affordability, the availability of green homes to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds will become more and more widespread.
The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) believes access to and the benefits of sustainable, high-performance buildings should be available to all, regardless of income. Families should not have to choose between living in a healthy, sustainable home and affording their monthly bills. The added economic benefits of sustainably constructed homes, and continued ability for people to afford them, will see that number of green, LEED-certified homes continue to grow.
Asa Foss is the Director of Residential Technical Solutions with the U.S. Green Building Council. Foss is a national expert on the single family and multifamily green building industry. To learn more, please visit www.usgbc.org.