“Materials, health, equity: everyone should have a healthy place to live, regardless of income.”
-James Lehnhoff, vice president of housing development at Aeon
When The Rose, an affordable housing project in South Minneapolis, opened in October 2015, it was lauded by a number of publications and professionals as the future of sustainable building. For developers at Aeon and designers at MSR Design, it was simply the next logical step.
Several of Aeon’s previous projects—carried out with technical assistance from the Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR)—had achieved impressive water and energy savings: their Alliance Apartments had even been certified LEED Platinum. But they wanted to expand their goals beyond prescriptive standards. “The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is more performance-based and human-focused. It’s not just about the energy, it’s about materials, water, site design, health, beauty, and equity. It’s about the overall experience, not just meeting a particular checklist,” explained Aeon vice president of housing development James Lehnhoff (BA Geography ‘02, MURP ‘04).
It was no easy task to follow the LBC guidelines on a limited budget. Gina Ciganik (BS Housing Studies ’94), who served as Aeon’s vice president of housing development through The Rose’s planning and construction, noted that “for a number of reasons—mostly our climate—it was a stretch. We almost gave up, but decided to do it on our budget in the best way possible.” Rather than aiming for LBC certification, the team set a goal to design the healthiest, most efficient, highest quality homes they could.
Aeon and CSBR hosted a series of community meetings to introduce the Living Building Challenge and collaboratively rethink what it means to undertake an affordable housing project. In addition to their usual stakeholders, the team brought in new voices from the school district, public works, elected officials, funders, nonprofits, the county, and public transit. “We were thinking very broadly: how do we tackle this in a new way that will honor everybody’s expertise and knowledge? We brought people together with the designers so they could share their knowledge and research, and explain what makes a difference to the people using the buildings,” said CSBR senior researcher William Weber (BA Arch ’97, MArch ‘02).
In other words, The Rose expanded the definition of a sustainable building by bringing social and economic factors to the forefront. The Living Building Challenge presents certification seekers with standards in seven themes: energy, water, health & happiness, beauty, materials, place, and—critically for this project—equity. As Weber explained, “putting equity to the side isn’t going to work for an affordable housing project. You constantly have to ask questions of equity and access, keep the residents in mind, and be cognizant of the people who are going to be moving in.”
Harmful building materials disproportionately harm low income and other vulnerable communities—both the residents of buildings furnished with the materials, and the workers who manufacture and install them. However, it can be challenging to make an economic case for safe and healthy materials. Because there is no established method to underwrite health savings, there is no clear-cut way to calculate the ROI of healthy materials. Unlike energy improvements, which lower the operating costs of a building for its owner, investing in a less-harmful material creates a cost savings for individual tenants.
The material research completed by this project has the potential to influence designers and affordable housing developers. Lehnhoff noted that the early stages of the project demonstrated just how little information most people have about how building materials impact their health. “If you went to a grocery store and picked up a package of food that didn’t list the ingredients and nutrition facts, you’d probably pause. So why don’t we behave the same way with buildings?” he asked.
Simona Fischer (MArch ’10, MS Sustainable Design ’13) of MSR Design, the architecture firm on The Rose, spearheaded the materials research. “Architecture today is a products-based design form, for better or worse, and design teams and their clients have a powerful influence on the changing marketplace of products,“ she said. Her research revealed a number of new materials for use on the project. For example, the wood shelving in each unit’s closets is FSC-certified and free of formaldehyde glue; and a number of PVC and plasticizer-free flooring options entered the market during the project. “By disclosing ingredients and life cycle analysis results, these manufacturers are demonstrating a commitment to transparency in their supply chain, which we hope to eventually see in all product lines,” she explained.
Fischer’s interest in building materials dates back to her graduate studies in the School of Architecture. “I realized that no set of parameters will ever lead to a perfect material. Instead, we in the building industry need to be thinking in terms of big-picture goals—removing the 50 worst toxic substance categories from the environment and humans, for example, or drastically reducing the embodied carbon in entire buildings and developments—and the early design choices and regulatory structures that will help our industry meet them.”
Weber agreed that while this project may well represent the first of a new generation of buildings, a number of barriers remain: “a single project can make headway, but we need to move across projects and sectors to address some of the larger systemic blocks to innovation.”
To ensure that the Rose isn’t simply a successful one-off project, the team is sharing lessons learned and empowering communities across the country take on the LBC at a scale appropriate for their funding and goals. Ciganik is now the senior advisor for housing innovation at Healthy Building Network. Her team will soon publish HomeFree, a list of recommended products and best practices to help affordable housing developers select healthier materials. “Money is a scarce resource, just like fossil fuels and water. It can inhibit creativity and get in the way of equity,” Ciganik explained. “But if only the elite can access sustainable, healthy places, then they are by definition not sustainable.”
All photos courtesy of Aeon.