Photo Credit: Glen Canyon Dam and Colorado River - Page, Arizona by Flickr.com user Jim Trodel

Building the Green Community Around the Green Building

So, you're approaching green as part of your mission, you're using the integrated design process, and you've tweaked the financing structure to cover the added costs. Voila! A solid green project, right? No quite. There's one more, often ignored, element needed to guarantee the long-term success of a green affordable housing project. Resident and operator behavior has great influence on the ultimate environmental performance of a project. Ignoring or working against the green features knowingly or inadvertently, can quickly erode the green value brought in through good design and construction. Let's look for example, at a project I know well through Global Green's involvement over the past three years. The SOLARA apartments in Poway (north San Diego County), is an award-winning development of Community Housing Works. Often described as a milestone in green affordable housing, this 56 unit affordable housing development was designed to be completely powered by the sun! SOLARA illustrates how the topics we've covered in the last few weeks can take a project from innovative concept to inspirational reality. Specifically:

• The design process was highly integrated. Starting with the green building charrette in early schematic design, Community Housing Works required all team members on board to "go green" from the beginning and work closely with one another throughout the process.

• There are a variety of green elements of varying scales. Though solar is the biggest green feature, the design team didn't start or stop there. The initial approach to sustainable development focused on large-scale issues like community access, walkability, and proper building orientation. Energy efficiency was another core value, with the photovoltaic system (PV) taking the energy strategy to the next level. Looking beyond the energy systems the project incorporated simple, cost-effective approaches to improve indoor environmental quality, water efficiency and conserve resources.

• On the financial side, the developers worked closely with the tax credit investors and the permanent lenders to demonstrate that the extra cost of green could be largely offset if not eliminated. Specifically the additional cost of the PV system ($1.1 million) was almost entirely covered (92%) by tax credit and rebate funding sources that are available to most new affordable projects in California.

While this is impressive, perhaps what SOLARA truly does best is highlight the importance of occupant behavioral in meeting or missing sustainability targets. Returning to the first paragraph, notice the "designed to be" language in the last sentence. It seems that design and reality remain somewhat out of sync. Though the PV system has the capacity to generate all of the energy the property needs on an annual basis, 11 months later, technically it doesn't. This is not caused by design error, malfunction of the panels, or even to an unknowledgeable maintenance staff (staff was trained on upkeep and to date have done an excellent job — describing the process as an "easy additional task"). Rather it is the behavior patterns of the residents that is throwing things out of whack. Most tenants are using energy within the parameters used in the design. But a few are grossly over-consuming. Data from June of this year for two identical units shows them producing roughly same amount of energy from the PV panels. After deducting the electricity pulled from the grid, Unit A not only met all of its energy needs but generated a 30% surplus. Unit B on the other hand, had to pull an additional 48% from the utility grid. The reason for this simple, the tenants aren't on the hook for their electricity bill so there is no financial penalty for wasting energy. But to be fair the entire blame can't be put on them. In an attempt to promote energy efficient practices, California energy code requires that each apartment unit be individually metered for electricity - central or master metering is not permitted. For SOLARA this meant that each unit then needed its own solar PV panels and inverter, this added cost and precluded the aggregation of energy use and generation among the various units. Furthermore, utility allowance regulations in place at the time project was designed, required the developer - if they wanted to recoup their investment in the PV system - to agree to pay the electricity bills for all of the units, even thought the individual meters were required. The result is counterproductive all around. There is no incentive for the over-consuming family to change their behavior as they never see the costs, but there is also no incentive for the other tenants to consider conserving either, because they never see the savings. Fortunately, the energy abusers at SOLARA are few. For the most part, the residents show a deep pride of ‘ownership' in their new green homes. Such ownership is often hard to foster in a rental situation but thanks to an extensive green curriculum for the residents and property staff, there is an understanding that they are living and working somewhere "special" and thus treat it that way. Creating this spirit and sense of community through education about the unique aspects of the project is a critical first step. But it must be combined with frequent information so the tenants can understand how they use energy and what they can do to conserve. Still, without the financial incentive, the ability to maintain the anticipated levels of energy use over the long-term remains an elusive challenge. The good news is that the SOLARA's struggle with the intricacies of metering regulations and utility allowances has not been in vain. Prompted by the experiences in Poway, regulatory changes are in the works to provide more flexibility on metering and a more rational approach to utility allowances for projects. With these changes in place it will not just be easier to build leading edge developments but also much easier for the tenants to be part of the green equation. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Walker Wells, AICP LEED AP, is Director of the Green Urbanism Program at Global Green USA and the editor and co-author of Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing.