Notes from Greenbuild 2015’s “Communities & Affordable Housing Summit”

I really enjoyed the Communities & Affordable Housing Summit at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo because it places a different perspective on the issues we discuss during the week at the conference, and those we work on every day back at the office.

Aspects of high-performing buildings like durability, lower operating costs, and healthier indoor spaces are especially important to low-income communities and families:

  • Durability because longer lasting, lower maintenance homes mean money saved.
  • Lower operating costs because low-income families spend a disproportionate amount of their incomes on utilities (14% compared with average-income households which spend 6%).
  • Healthier indoor spaces because low-income children tend to be more susceptible to building-related health issues like asthma and exposure to toxins like lead.

Luckily, many practitioners – both locally in Pittsburgh and internationally – are already using greener building practices in affordable housing developments. During the summit’s opening plenary , U.S. Green Building Council CEO Rick Fedrizzi pointed out that more than half of the LEED for Homes certified projects are in the affordable housing sector. I’m especially interested in this evolution because I serve on the sustainable construction committee for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh, where we’re working to develop short-term and long-term solutions for integrating green building practices into the affiliate’s work. The great thing about this summit is learning about methods that work in other locations around the country, and how they might be applied back in Pittsburgh both in my work with HFHGP and in other corners of our community. Here are some of my favorite parts of the summit:

  • When married couple Courtney Martin and John Cary (a writer and an architect) presented the opening plenary together, they left us with three main takeaways:
    • Living communally is not just for hippies: The couple, who recently moved into a co-housing community, described the joys of sharing meal preparation with neighbors and raising children in a close-knit community.
    • Small is beautiful again: Courtney pointed out that sharing communities and localism represent the new economy (consider this: when you invest $1 locally, 45 cents stays in your community).
    • Neighborhoods are people: The couple points to Theaster Gates (a Chicago-based artist and founder of the Rebuild Foundation) who mixes public art and space development as a way to enrich his community. Courtney and John predict a future where communities become more interdependent, and they say “the American Dream of the future acknowledges our limitations and sets us free.”
  • I was really blown away in one breakout session by a man named Ely Flores, whose experience with AmeriCorps and YouthBuild led him to work with a group called GRID Alternatives in California, where he laid the groundwork for the single Family Affordable Solar Homes Program (SASH). In this capacity, Ely and GRID Alternatives successfully installed over 800 solar electric systems at no-cost to low-income homeowners which was an investment of over $15 million dollars into under-served communities. How can we bring something like this to Pittsburgh??
  • In addition to the talented architects, planners, developers, and educators I learned from during the Summit, I also got to hear really interesting perspectives from Sarah Dunham (EPA’s Director of Atmospheric Programs), Dr. Andrew Steer (CEO of the World Resources Institute), and Deepak Chopra (author of more than 80 books and Huffington Post’s #1 most influential thinker in the medical industry). What an amazing day!

In addition to all the cool things I learned at the Summit, here are my other favorite parts of Greenbuild this year:

  1. I loved touring the Unity Home (featured as one of BuildingGreen’s Top 10 products for 2016!) on the Expo Hall floor. I like looking at all the materials and systems, snapping pics for later reference.
  2. I always see people I know at Greenbuild – both Pittsburgh colleagues and friends from other USGBC chapters and organizations across the country. But what a delightful surprise that I ran into Tall Alexey, GBA’s host in Yekaterinburg, Russia while we were on our green building cultural exchange trip this past May. I had a chance to catch up with Alexey, who told me all about his current experience studying construction management near Chicago–and plans to take his LEED Green Associate exam. So cool!
  3. I enjoyed all of my Greenbuild education sessions, but the one I found most compelling was called “The Affordability Gap: Bringing Net Zero to the 99%.” In this session, presenters explained how a Wisconsin affiliate of Habitat for Humanity developed a community of more than a dozen net-zero homes for low-income families.
  4. I’m always impressed with the storytellers at GBA’s special set on the Power of Storytelling. We spend months preparing for this set, and experiencing the final product is always satisfying. A BIG thanks to all of this year’s storytellers, and to our staff and volunteers who helped make it one of this year’s coolest and most innovative sessions!
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