Say green design, and what comes to mind are geothermal heat pumps, tankless hot water heaters, and roofs that plug into the sun. The most recognizable green features are also the priciest, and sustainable design is still viewed as an upgrade that only the well-off can afford. While there's some truth in that perception, the reality is changing as low-income housing developers join the party. They're on a mission to find high-performing, low-cost solutions, since green design can make a big difference in the lives of the poor. Families who are struggling financially have a greater need for clean air and low utility bills, and reducing a building's maintenance and energy loads benefits nonprofit landlords long-term.

If high-end green products have made the environmental movement cool, designers of housing priced below market rate are making it practical—not only for low-income folks but for the middle market too. As recipients of grants and subsidies, their clients are charged with tracking energy performance and return on investment—data that's crucial to architects entrusted with modest budgets of any project type. So while elite early adopters play an important role in advancing green ideas, so does design at the other end of the spectrum. Architects of affordable housing are helping to put the emphasis where it ultimately belongs, making eco-conscious gestures less of a status symbol and more accessible for everyone.

There are financial hurdles, to be sure. But for some architects, the new green consciousness has simply made it easier to perform high-quality work for a niche population that needs extra care. Paul Freitag, LEED AP, development studio director for Jonathan Rose Companies in New York City, says that a year and a half ago, the nearly 20-year-old for-profit development company decided it no longer had to explain what sustainable design is, because people know. “For developers striving to do high-quality affordable housing, the shift to making sure it's also green isn't that dramatic,” he says. Tight building envelopes and high-efficiency mechanical systems are nonnegotiable in its projects. So are nontoxic materials, since the company serves a population burdened by health issues such as asthma and AIDS. “Before green was codified, our ideas were the same,” Freitag says. “It just hadn't been attached to a rating system.”

Freitag figures that the green cost differential of his projects is no more than 2 percent when compared to other quality work, and over the years he's seen those higher first costs pay off. That's because his company's clients are as concerned about a project's long-term operation as they are about solving the problems of getting it built. “Right up front, you want to make sure you spec the right systems and have them installed and running properly,” Freitag says. “Later on there might not be the sophistication you have in market-rate housing to tweak those systems. This is your chance to get it right, because the project struggles with a very tight operating budget.”

Jonathan Rose Companies often works with Columbia, Md.-based Enterprise Community Partners (ECP), whose Green Communities arm dispenses advice and funding to low-income housing developers. Recognizing a market gap in green guidelines that address affordable housing's unique challenges, Green Communities worked with groups such as the AIA, the U.S. Green Building Council, the EPA, and the National Center for Healthy Housing to establish a nationally applied point system for low-income housing. “The initial questions to grapple with are not so much about throwing some green bling onto the next project to get a plaque,” says Dana Bourland, senior director of the Green Communities Initiative at ECP, which awards $1.2 million in grants annually. “Rather, it's asking what benefits of green building we can apply to this project to make it more affordable in the long run and to positively benefit the environment. It's the starting point for an integrated design approach.”

By that she means putting together a robust design team that ideally includes the owner, project manager, engineer, construction manager, building operations team, residents, and financing institutions. To tout the importance of collaborative first steps, ECP awards points for green charrettes. “Everyone needs to understand that this building is being designed to perform better and implement the best of what can be applied,” Bourland says. “Set the tone that this building will be done differently—it will cost more and may need special attention to get the best performance.”

Part of the beauty of green development is in how the specs play off of each other, and the team experts can help finesse these trade-offs. For example, a more efficient HVAC unit might free up space for an extra closet or room. Spend a bit more to capture stormwater, and the owner will save on fees to the city. Having everyone involved creates synergy, and the opportunity to save leads to better design. In the last three years, Bourland says, this team approach is what has distinguished green from conventional design. “You can slap [photovoltaics] on and make it work, but the building won't necessarily perform better or be healthier or reduce construction waste,” she says. “It won't be green in the sense of being more sustainable overall; it will just have this cool technology.”

a bottom-up approach

The goal is to hit the sweet spot of environmental health and economic return. And what that amounts to is helping nonprofits work through a set of complex decisions having to do with costs, benefits, strategy, and available funding, based on the project type and what they are trying to accomplish. California, for example, offers a big incentive for energy efficiency. To qualify for funding programs for affordable housing, developers have to beat Title 24 Energy Code regulations by 15 percent. “The tax credit funding often pays for 50 percent to 60 percent of the total building cost, so it pays for much more than the additional cost of energy upgrades,” says Peter Waller, AIA, a principal at Pyatok Architects in Oakland, Calif. The firm is designing a project with structural insulated panels for a Fresno, Calif., housing authority. Springing for SIPs instead of stick framing will get them to the energy threshold needed to compete for funding.

Architects are constantly playing costs against value to get a sense of what works and what doesn't. While there are no tax credits for clean indoor air, items such as low-VOC paints and adhesives and formaldehyde-free carpeting require a relatively small investment. By contrast, FSC-certified framing lumber and sophisticated materials with a lot of recycled content do not have a direct cost benefit for the residents, Waller says. Neither do PV panels, with their 15-year to 20-year payback, or green roofs, which require more intense maintenance.

But nonprofits are very good at building densely, which puts them ahead in the green game. They often build on infill sites close to transit and shopping, thus reducing the need for cars and parking and allowing for more living units or open space on a site. “There's a huge amount of efficiency just in the programming of these affordable projects, before you start talking about energy efficiency,” Waller says. He's seen several nonprofit developers in California designate a couple of parking spaces for a car-share program operated by an outside company, in lieu of 10 regular spots.