Is Green Affordable Housing an Oxymoron?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the goal of sustainable community development is “to advance the creation of livable and vibrant communities through comprehensive approaches that coordinate economic, physical, environmental, community and human development.” In affordable housing developments, the implementation of sustainable design principles can have multiple beneficial effects on communities, their economy and the environment.  Developers often shy away from green developments, believing that the green features will increase spending, making it cost-prohibitive for low-income developments.  When done properly, however, greening of affordable housing actually saves money through lower operating costs, while simultaneously raising the quality of life for residents.

“I get tired of people saying ‘green is more,’” remarks Henry Hanson, president of Hanson Design Group, Ltd. and a panelist at a recent affordable housing workshop offered by the Green Building Alliance.  “Many times, doing what is responsible has no implication in dollars and cents.  It’s a choice that has to be made.  So what if it’s less expensive to build in a particular way?  It doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do.  You simply shouldn’t do it if it’s wrong environmentally, even if it is financially expedient.”

In the publication A Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing by Global Green USA, low- to no-cost strategies are outlined for developers that can significantly decrease energy and resource use and their resulting environmental impacts, while enhancing economics, community well-being and safety.  Many of these effective techniques are very simple to accomplish, yet require a shift in the way we look at our buildings and the communities to which they belong.

When seeking ways to cut costs, energy efficiency seems like the most appropriate option as it has direct, easily realized savings in operation costs.  Also, using durable materials that do not need replaced frequently saves money in the long run.  No- to low-cost considerations in green affordable housing include:

  • Daylighting
  • Designing the building and landscape for passive solar heating and cooling
  • Recycling lumber in existing buildings or from a demolition site
  • Using 24-inch spacing instead of 16-inch spacing in wood framing projects, which saves 30% on wood use
  • Using fly ash, a waste product that is stronger and environmentally preferable to cement, in concrete

For further information on this subject, refer to A Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing: Developer Guidelines for Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Communities, distributed by Global Green USA and available in the Green Building Alliance library.  Also see

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