A New Prescription for Healthy Building Retrofits

Not all building materials are created equal when it comes to people's health. A coalition of partners has created a resource to improve energy efficiency by using healthy retrofits in multifamily homes.
Unhealthy building materials in homes have been shown to cause respiratory problems
Credit: iStock

Upgrading multi-family affordable housing with energy efficiency (EE) retrofits such as better appliances, lighting and insulation means low-income residents can enjoy the benefits of lower utility bills, better air quality and improved health while reducing energy waste—a boon for all of us, including the most vulnerable.

Unfortunately, some of the materials used to make these upgrades pose significant health risks to residents, workers, and the surrounding community, contributing to cancer, respiratory disease and developmental and reproductive harm.   

A new report by Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA)Making Affordable Multifamily Housing More Energy Efficient: A Guide to Healthier Upgrade Materialsoffers a comprehensive guide for builders and policymakers in the use of readily available, healthier insulation and sealing materials, presenting policy frameworks to accelerate these materials’ adoption and improve air quality, both inside homes and outside, for better community health.

Not All Building Materials Are Equal

The report, developed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Elevate Energy in collaboration with The Healthy Building Network (HBN), Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, Three3, and the International Living Future Institute, fills the information gap faced by builders in trying to determine the chemical makeup and risks of commonly used materials, presenting a comprehensive and accessible compendium of alternative, safer products.

It found that in some cases business-as-usual is the right approach. For example, some of the best insulation materials from a health perspective are commonly used fiber glass and cellulose insulation.

But other widely used products such as spray foam and modified polymer and polyurethane sealants commonly contain isocyanates, flame retardants, and phthalates that have been linked to severe health problems and reproductive health issues.

The report focuses on affordable multifamily rental stock, which provides housing for nearly 10 million people in the United States and often includes poorly maintained buildings that waste energy and mean potential health risks and higher utility bills for residents.

How Materials Are Chosen

Looking specifically into what shapes building material choices by affordable housing stakeholders in 12 states, it highlights frameworks that inform choices at both the state and local level, finding:

  • The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) is by far the most common financing source for building, renovating, and retrofitting affordable multifamily housing and consequently is a critical driver in materials decisions. Criteria for allocating this highly competitive resource are set at the state level.
  • Performance level, not product type, is cited uniformly as the basis of insulation and air sealing work specifications. The better a product performed the more likely a contractor was to rely on the product in completing the work.
  • It is challenging to influence purchasing decisions in a centralized manner. Any attempt to influence material selection must be undertaken early in the process and include independent contractors.
  • The most common green standards used in the target states’ LIHTC funding criteria are Enterprise Green Communities (EGC), LEED, and EarthCraft. These standards make it possible for LIHTC applicants to improve their rankings but each could go much further.
  • Although there are clearly opportunities to incentivize or promote healthier retrofit materials through green standards, a broad industry discussion is needed to build consensus around a common approach.

Persuasion Techniques

The report also highlights various ways the LIHTC could be used to persuade multifamily affordable housing developers to use heathier building materials, such as:

  • Disclosure: LIHTC can require material manufacturers to disclose the chemical ingredients in retrofit materials to promote more informed decision-making, which may in turn encourage manufacturers to reformulate products to make them healthier.
  • Product Category Improvement Incentives: For those materials without a readily available nontoxic alternative, this approach provides incentives for LIHTC-funded retrofits to drive healthier choices by subsidizing some portion of the incremental cost. It is likely that as healthier products become more available, their cost will decrease.
  • Red List: Under this strategy, contractors funded through LIHTC must avoid all building materials containing any chemicals on a prohibited “red list.”
  • Product Selection Optimization: This approach, which would address hazards that have not yet been identified, requires that all ingredients in materials used for LIHTC-subsidized retrofits are assessed through a chemicals assessment protocol (e.g., GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals or the Cradle to Cradle assessment protocol).

State-level Solutions

In order for the market for healthy building materials to change, EE advocates, builders and residents have to proactively seek state-level policy solutions to help builders use the healthiest possible materials.

The report outlines key state-level opportunities, including:

  • Utility commission proceedings focused on requirements for building materials and cost-effectiveness testing.
  • Legislative committee hearings with oversight over public health, housing and community development, and energy policy.
  • State building and energy code development, either when newly introduced or when poised for improvement and revision.
  • Professional certifications award decisions at the state level that focus on the building industry.
  • State-owned or managed building improvement decisions and design changes to meet green certifications.
  • Funding or financing allocation processes that could involve healthier materials specifications.

This report shows that a new, holistic vision of building improvements is possible. When we consider the health impacts of building materials on communities where retrofits are needed most—for residents, neighbors and workers alike—we can attain a more sustainable future for all.

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