Sustainable design and affordable housing are a natural fit for each other, and I believe that greening the nation’s housing stock is at least partially within reach.

Affordable housing developers tend to be in business for altruistic reasons, so their values are already primed for “doing good.” And since they tend to own their properties over the long term—often for 50 years or more—they have good reason to pursue energy and water efficiency and to keep operating costs down. Affordable housing developers can be reluctant to incorporate new, untested technologies for fear they will not be as durable as conventional options, but there are plenty of tried-and-true technologies that will go a long way toward greening the nation’s housing.

What Works

Many affordable housing projects are already very sustainable, with smaller units, higher densities, fewer parking spaces (as lower-income residents may not have cars), and better access to transit (to better serve those car-free residents). Without looking too hard, a good architect-developer-contractor team can find many proven sustainable technologies and materials that are readily available, inexpensive, and easy to incorporate. For example, solar water-heating systems have been in use for decades and are both sturdy and relatively easy to design and build. Standard domestic hot water use represents about 30 percent of a residential building’s total energy consumption. These systems can cut that percentage in half and may also pay for themselves within five to seven years depending on use—which is a large incentive for affordable-housing developers.

Improving indoor air quality is another easy-to-implement option. Getting adequate airflow through a smaller unit can be achieved by using a bathroom fan that operates continuously at a low level and that automatically increases speed when a resident enters the room. Essentially inaudible, these fans pull enough air through the unit to meet ASHRAE 62.2 standards. Flushing the unit before people move in is simple and can make a large difference in air quality. But the most important decision that affects air quality is choosing products such as paint with low VOCs and cabinets with no added urea-formaldehyde. A few years ago, these products might have been hard to find and more expensive, but today there is no excuse for not including them in all new projects.

Construction waste recycling is also easy, especially in the Bay Area—where my firm, David Baker + Partners Architects is based—which has some of the most sophisticated waste management companies in the world. If asked, these companies can recycle 90 percent, or more, of construction waste, often with no cost premium.