Smarter Business: Green Building

Too often, affordable housing has meant living in drab, institutional buildings located far from jobs, stores and other conveniences. What if instead of using this old, institutional blueprint, affordable developments followed modern, environmentally friendly design principles? What if the homes were drenched with sunlight to reduce energy costs, and the floors and cabinets were made from recycled materials in sleek and contemporary designs? And what if homes were clustered around public transit, schools, and shops, and featured porches and community parks to make it easy for neighbors to gather together?

 New San Marco; Duluth, Minnesota
New San Marco; Duluth, Minnesota
Illustration: Enterprise Community Partners
Sound too good to be true? Well it's not. In September 2004, NRDC and Enterprise Community Partners (formerly the Enterprise Foundation) launched the Green Communities Initiative, a five-year, $550 million commitment to build more than 8,500 environmentally friendly affordable homes across the country. That means low-income families will have greater access to comfortable, attractive homes that promote health, conserve natural resources, provide easy access to services and save residents hundreds of dollars a year in energy and transportation costs.

The Need for Green in Affordable Housing

Buildings and associated development have an enormous impact on the environment. Buildings account for 40 percent of all raw materials used in the United States. Housing and related transportation also account for around 40 percent of global-warming emissions. Standard low-income housing poses additional hazards.

  • Poor ventilation, pest problems, and toxic building materials can lead to serious health problems. Studies estimate that 40 percent of doctor-diagnosed asthma cases among U.S. children are due to risks children face in their own homes. And more than 400,000 children have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood from indoor paint.

  • Energy costs for poor families have increased much faster than their incomes in recent years: low-income families will spend 17 percent of their income on energy per year, and the portion could climb much higher with rapidly increasing fuel costs. Studies show that high energy bills force poor families to spend less money on food.

  • Housing in sprawling neighborhoods is an added burden to low-income families. People at the poverty level pay nearly 40 cents of every dollar they earn for transportation. Sprawl also leads to more pollution and health problems: the Center for Disease Control has found that sprawl is a contributing factor to rising rates of obesity.

A Blueprint for Healthier Housing

 The Wellstone; Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Wellstone; Minneapolis, Minnesota
Illustration: Enterprise Community Partners
The Green Communities Initiative was created to address these problems through a combination of environmentally friendly building designs and convenient locations that avoid the problems associated with sprawl. Not only will the Green Communities projects create appealing, livable homes, but they will also:

  • Slash energy use by at least 30 percent. Proper insulation, energy efficient appliances, and skylights and high-performance windows can bring dramatic savings in energy bills -- and keep pollution from power plants out of the air.

  • Reduce health hazards. Green buildings use carpets, paints, wall coverings, and adhesives that emit low levels of potentially harmful volatile organic compounds, which can cause eye and lung irritation and other health problems.

  • Bring residents closer to transit and jobs. To cut down on sprawl and reduce transportation costs, Green Communities homes will be located within walking distance of public transit, day care, shopping and job opportunities.

Environmental Benefits for Everyone

 Ripley Gardens; Minneapolis, Minnesota
Ripley Gardens; Minneapolis, Minnesota
Illustration: Enterprise Community Partners
The benefits of green building and smart, well-planned development do not end with the residents and owners who enjoy the pleasing surroundings and the lower utility bills. All of us benefit from the way green communities reduce pollution and preserve our natural resources. Smart, green developments:

  • Keep forests intact. Recycling wood from old buildings, using materials made from agricultural waste, and purchasing wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as coming from sustainable forests helps reduce the drain on our nation's forests. Smart-growth communities that prevent sprawl also conserve land and reduce pressure on wildlife habitat.

  • Cut water consumption by up to 50 percent. By installing efficient fixtures and using recycled site water to flush toilets and irrigate plants, building owners can cut water use and still maintain attractive landscaping.

  • Reduce the need for driving. Smart growth cuts oil use, greenhouse gas emissions, and other pollution from transportation by as much as 50 percent compared to conventional sprawl.

  • Reduce pollution runoff into our waterways. Stormwater that drags pollution off roofs, driveways and hard surfaces is the leading cause of coastal water contamination and beach closings. Surrounding homes with permeable surfaces like plantings, grassy channels, and soil allow stormwater to seep into the ground instead of into our waterways. And locating homes in previously developed areas prevents the spread of pavement into new watersheds.

For more information about Green Communities, visit the project's website at:

last revised 1/26/2006

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