‘Boring Crap’ That Can Make Affordable Housing Greener

It’s becoming easier and easier to gin up enthusiasm for high-end green buildings: the glass-and-steel confections bedecked with solar panels and topped with pricey shrubs. But what if you can’t pay for cutting-edge technology? Can housing for the masses be eco-friendly too?

At a Thursday morning conference organized by the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation called "Breaking the Green Ceiling," a panel of experts tried to explain that it could–but only if government fronts the cash, and designers stop thinking about the high-end design tweaks.

Agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the New York City Housing Authority, panelists said, are key to bringing down the cost of green construction. But as Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion argued, the "dormant, somnambulant" HUD has been missing in action.

"I actually had to look up the name of our HUD secretary. Preston? Somebody Preston?" said Mr. Carrion. (Steve Preston, President Bush’s third HUD secretary, took office in June.) "Who’s the HUD secretary? Nobody knows."

Mr. Carrion said he has set up a revolving zero-interest loan program–"free money"–to help developers finance green construction in the Bronx, although there’s no requirement that residential units be "affordable."

Panelist J. Phillip Thompson, an associate professor of urban politics at MIT, said the citywide Housing Authority had to get involved to create demand in a market where green building materials can still be prohibitively expensive.

"Whatever they do is going to have a profound effect on the industry," Mr. Thompson said. It’s also a matter of "energy poverty"–the less efficient buildings are, the more it’s going to hurt as energy costs rise. "We have to do this now, if we want to maintain affordability," he said.

But it’s not just a matter of more money: builders need to get away from the idea of "green" as bells and whistles. Andrew Padian of Steven Winter Associates said that he can halve the energy use of a new building by spending just $1 to $3 extra per square foot, without the extras.

"No ground source heat pumps, no solar panels, no green roofs, no bamboo floors," he said. "It’s boring crap like shower heads, energy efficient lighting, and not using windows as thermostats."

On top of that, they said, green and non-green buildings have to be managed well–and that’s where public housing can often excel.

Mr. Padian’s firm built the Solaire in Battery Park City, arguably one of the greenest new apartment complexes in New York. But he said that, watt for watt, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town–with their 11,000 non-insulated units–has it beat.

"Every aspect of that building is more efficient than the Solaire," Mr. Padian said. "You don’t see windows open." Steven Winter is also in a partnership with the 32BJ union to train building caretakers in green cleaning techniques, energy efficiency upgrades, etc.–all of which can allow landlords to charge an extra ten percent in rent.

The other side of green affordable housing is education and green jobs. By hiring from the communities where affordable buildings are retrofitted and helping them gain the skills for a green economy, Mr. Thompson said, agencies could have a winning political equation as well.

‘Boring Crap’ That Can Make Affordable Housing Greener