Is Green Affordable? It Is Now.

Most of us in the field of green building have been asked at one time or another that critical question: “Is green affordable?”  This question was soundly answered in the WREF 2012 Built Environment Forum “Housing that Merges Sustainability and Affordability” – presented by a unique partnership between the Denver Housing Authority and B+Y Architects.  The project presented here comprises 89 units of mixed-income housing in downtown Denver, and it is an architect’s dream – sustainable design, high technology, great urban planning and gorgeous landscaping.

Benedict Park Place 5B [Photo Credit: B+Y Architects
The mission of Denver Housing Authority is to provide “safe, decent and affordable housing in a manner that promotes thriving communities.” In this project, the design team has extended this goal to its modern conclusion, ranging the interpretation of public welfare from the residential to the global scale.  Their budget matrix incorporates nontoxic materials as well as energy-saving features in recognition that no one of any income should be exposed to toxicity or the effects of environmental degradation.  By treating “green” features as standard specifications, and by bringing them to an affordable market, this project moves one step closer to positioning them in the mainstream.

Benedict Park Place street view [Photo Credit: B+Y Architects
The Benedict Park Place 5B projectis a checklist of sustainable building features more often seen in high-end residential buildings.  Much of the effort goes to lowering energy bills for tenants.  The envelope is sealed and blown full with insulation; Energy Star appliances are standard.

The lighting design lowers lighting loads by 75% while daylighting (with high-performance windows) brightens the space.  Low electric loads are backed up by a highly efficient, all-electric mechanical design rooted in a ground-source heat pump.  This type of deep investment is frequently passed over on more high-budget projects, but here it is even partnered with a nearly 100kW photovoltaic system covering common area electric usage plus 15% of needs in the units.  This design achieves 54% energy cost savings relative to an ASHRAE 90.1‐2004 baseline.  The Benedict Park Place portion of the project claimed a LEED Platinum certification for these and other achievements, with the highest score in the area of Energy and Atmosphere.   The project is currently performing very close to design values.

Bridges over the detention system buffer ground-level units from the street [Photo Credit: B+Y Architects
Bridges over the detention system buffer ground-level units from the street [Photo Credit: B+Y Architects
The team does not work the project around these features, but takes their many advantages to create a space that is a pleasure to live in.  They color outside the property lines by aligning circulation routes to reestablish pedestrian routes and reintegrate the area into the surrounding urban fabric and light rail transportation.  The site work is part of the comprehensive sustainability package, incorporating native landscaping.  Drainage swales are bridged by walkways, creating a graceful entryway to each unit.


14 rowhouses used modular construction; they were transported only 46 miles, and set up in 6 days. Photo Credit: B+Y Architects

How does a dream project like this come together for the affordable market?  Public-private partnerships and incentive savvy are the key.  DHA leveraged applicable grant and loan funds, tax credits, as well as rebates available to the general market, such as Xcel Energy’s Energy Design Assistance and rebate programs.   Ultimately, the project pays for itself in record time.  The team figures that the “green” premium is around 6%.  This includes the PV system, which will pay back in 7 years, and thereafter an reap an internal rate of return of 14%.  Most measures are under 25 cents per square foot.  In their detailed ranking of the sustainable options they considered, the highest-cost measure was not for high technology, but to go from low-VOC paints to no-VOC paints.

As technology matures, it slips into the mainstream in price as well as in practice.  The design team cited Ed Mazria’s Architecture 2030 prediction that much of our building stock will be new or retrofitted by the 2030 goal, making new construction essential to the broader goal of – retrofitting the urban fabric block by block.  Denver Housing Authority will reinvest their profits in their next piece of the urban puzzle:  “We must develop green communities, not just green buildings.”  Having put my own heart into the architecture of some low-energy affordable projects, I am thrilled to see a project of this quality, on this scale.  The design team prefaced their presentation with a quote from the heart:  “Architecture is a concrete reflection of our ethics and aesthetics.”  If this project is any indication, we are in good hands.

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