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Multi-Family, Affordable, Urban and Green
Sarah Rich, 18 Jan 07
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When green building jumped off the hippy boat, it landed on a shore where most homes were the domain of a wealthy elite. As a result, many people still think living in a sustainable home requires a small fortune. While it's true that many green interiors tend towards the high-end, a number of low-income housing developers have recognized the value, and the savings, of building sustainably. In doing so, they've also captured an aspect of sustainability which can be easily overlooked in single-family residential projects: community.

A piece in the New York Times yesterday featured plans for a new development in the Bronx which will utilize green roofs and courtyards as connectors between individual units, offering common ground for facilitating interaction amongst the residents. These green spaces, the article says, will be used "for everything from harvesting rainwater to farming vegetables and fruit." They will also have an outdoor amphitheater, in addition to incorporating numerous renewable energy technologies.

The proposed project emerged from a design competition sponsored by the New York AIA as part of the Bloomberg administration's promise to "create or preserve 165,000 units of low- and moderate-income housing by 2013." The selected site contains 60,000 square feet of formerly condemned and partially contaminated urban land. The use of greenery could, of course, also provide a means of bioremediating the polluted soil, as was done in this Danish multi-family housing design concept.

The complex would include 202 units of mixed size and use, all of which would be rental except for 63 co-op apartments.

The co-ops would be for households making no more than 130 percent of the median income for the city, or roughly $70,000 for a family of four. The rest of the apartments would be rentals for households making less than 40 percent, between 40 and 60 percent, and between 60 and 80 percent of the median income. The low and moderate rents are to be made possible with the help of city, federal and state subsidies.

On the opposite coast, architect David Baker has been in the business of designing beautiful, livable apartments for homeless and low-income residents for some time now. I heard David speak at Dwell on Design last fall, and his projects were an inspiration. Little did I know that an urban market I'd been frequenting for years in SF's SOMA neighborhood sat beneath several stories of light-filled highly affordable apartments set around a courtyard. And right down the street sits Folsom Dore Supportive Apartments, one of David Baker's stand-out projects, both for catering to an urban population in need, and for being highly environmentally-sensitive. Folsom + Dore is a 98-unit complex in a brick building restored to a LEED Silver certification level, "serving households with special needs, such as chronic homelessness, physical or developmental disabilities, and HIV/AIDS illness."

The place has reduced private parking to 70% below the usual standards, and added instead a City CarShare hub and a bike parking lot. This is not only a way to keep ongoing pollution at bay and personal transportation costs low, but a tremendous cost-saver in the building process, where adding parking eats up budgets in a blink. Internal courtyards and a playground offer a safe outdoor space and the design uses open stairways and potted greenery to keep the whole place well ventilated and the air clean. A huge photovoltaic roof array offsets the use and cost of utilities in the building.

This kind of building holds incredible promise in terms of fostering urban density and livability for those who cannot afford the upscale build-outs taking over so many urban corners. It's a great way to keep people physically and mentally healthy, establish safety through community involvement, and ensure that people can live near where they work (and get there with public or shared transit). With a vision like the new one in the Bronx, it's also a way to potentially provide access to fresh, nutritious food by growing gardens on-site, which is one of the most multifariously beneficial additions one could add to housing complex of this kind, improving not only equal access to good food, but also guaranteed community engagement and even rehabilitative therapy through participation in the planting and harvesting process.

The majority of developments like this that I've read about have been coastal, perhaps by happenstance or perhaps because trends tend to make their way inward from the edges. I'd love to hear about models like these in non-coastal (and non-American) cities if any of you have one near you.

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There are all nice projects. In my opinion all the new construction should consider green building principles. I was making a research lately on green building in Romania and here the concept is totally new. Few people know about it (at least from the public administration level) and there are only few NGO's that are active in this area (most of them are active in sustainable development in general or on energy efficiency but there is none that focuses on promoting specificaly the green buildings). However the construction companies are considering the idea and are more interested to develop this types of projects. At this moment there are some significant real estate projects that are "borrowing" green building characterictics but are not entirely green. However, in the near future, I'm pretty sure that I will be able to tell you about some real green building neighbourhoods in Romania.

Posted by: Anca on 19 Jan 07

Sarah, here's one from the great midwest. Single family, but these folks were really working for affordable and more than just a token eco-project to greenwash the funding community. Hopefully this model will replicate locally and elsewhere. There's more to this one than the limited release on the GVSU website lets on. or

Posted by: Siler on 19 Jan 07

I just heard about a cohousing project in Denver, which will be at the Taxi development in the River North district. It's called the Denver Urban Core Cohousing Initiative. They are hoping to get building this year and move in in 2009. Website is at

Posted by: Hugh Graham on 19 Jan 07

Hi! 1/26/07

Rooftop Gardens: I'm looking for projects or regulations/ordinances that facilitate rooftop gardens.

Can you help me with any web links or suggestions?

Thanks! Teresa

Posted by: Teresa on 26 Jan 07

Fantastic article; thank you for your research and bringing attention to this important integration of sustainability and affordability. I work at Folsom Dore Apts and have seen the impact that a well-designed building, coupled with a healthy, "green" living environment, can make on tenants from diverse backgrounds.
Thank you,

Posted by: Kevin on 30 Jan 07



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