The Butterfly Effect: Retrofitting Low-Income Housing | Features

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America’s low-income housing stock is aging. The human health, social, economic, and environmental consequences of substandard housing is felt not just by their inhabitants, but by the general public. However, a growing number of architects, researchers, and policymakers are identifying a solution: retrofitting. In this article, we take a […]


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America’s low-income housing stock is aging. The human health, social, economic, and environmental consequences of substandard housing is felt not just by their inhabitants, but by the general public. However, a growing number of architects, researchers, and policymakers are identifying a solution: retrofitting. In this article, we take a closer look at the current status of America’s low-income and public housing stock, as well as the benefits, methods, and potential futures for a large-scale retrofit campaign that transforms both lives and living conditions. 

In Chaos Theory, the “Butterfly Effect” is a concept used to describe the major effects of small actions. Just as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world, the Butterfly Effect suggests that a seemingly insignificant act can compound over time and result in major consequences, positive and/or negative, which seemed alien to that original act. For architects and urbanists, who shape the spaces and places that in turn shape the trajectory of a person, a society, or a civilization, the Butterfly Effect is an intriguing phenomenon. How can seemingly mundane interventions in the built environment, out of sight and out of mind, compound over time to effect notable, meaningful change?

In architectural discourse, retrofitting can seem like the butterfly’s wing. Flying beneath the radar of the glossy, gravity-defying new structures that captivate the architectural community, media, and general public, retrofit projects garner relatively less acclaim. However, as affirmed by Pritzker laureates and retrofit champions Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, the calculated, intricate upgrading of existing buildings can bare major health, environmental, and social benefits. While retrofitting as a design consideration is translatable across all scales, typologies, and intensities, a growing number of architects, researchers, and policymakers are intensifying their focus on the long-term, broad-reaching effects of retrofitting low-income housing.

In the United States, low-income households spend about three times more of their income on energy costs as other households, while 25% of low-income households are unable to pay energy bills.

This effort is not without merit. In the United States, 60% of multifamily buildings were built before 1980, while half of available rentals are at least 50 years old. In the years since their construction, many of these buildings have been poorly maintained, and in some cases, no longer ensure safe, comfortable living conditions. The 2019 American Housing Survey, for instance, uncovered significant deficiencies in the houses of those living below the poverty line, including exposed wiring (7% households), mold (5%), and broken plaster (4%).

“Living in these environments creates health risks from exposure to lead paint, allergens and indoor air pollution,” says Jonathan Levy, Professor of Environmental Health at Boston University. “The economic challenges of the pandemic, with people spending much more time at home, have heightened these risks. Poor conditions also plague many chronically underfunded public housing developments. Given how vulnerable many public housing residents are, I see upgrading these buildings as critical.”

Residents of the Jacob Riis Settlement in New York City hold photographs of leaks, mold, peeling paint and other issues during a community town hall meeting on March 7, 2019. Image: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

This lack of maintenance of low-income housing also creates a significant energy drain. In the United States, low-income households spend about three times more of their income on energy costs as other households, while 25% of low-income households are unable to pay energy bills. “Families may be forced to cut necessities like food or medicine to pay energy bills, or endure unhealthy temperatures,” Professor Levy points out. “As a changing climate lengthens summer, and there are more scorching hot days, those who lack air conditioning or can’t afford it are in danger.” With 20% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions deriving from residential energy use, the poor thermal and electric performance of low-income housing units causes distress not just for inhabitants, but also for the environment.

Public housing, in particular, is suffering from deterioration and disinvestment. The Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA) notes that a majority of public housing was built over 45 years ago. While policymakers on both sides of the aisle agree on the importance of investing in housing infrastructure, the CLPHA calculates that the total backlog for public housing funding needs is $26 billion. While programs such as the federal government’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) fund has enabled the retrofitting of more than 60,000 public housing units since its inception in 2012, RAD allocation funds are currently capped at only 185,000 units nationwide. For context, approximately 1.2 million American households live in public housing.  

Researchers believe that 265,000 fewer children under the age of five have contracted blood poisoning from in-home toxin exposure as a result of HUD healthy home programs.

Given the current state of low-income housing in the United States, the case for a dedicated retrofitting campaign is clear. In their 2013 study on the topic, leading architecture firm ARUP categorized the benefits of retrofitting in six items: increasing energy and fuel security, enhancing property values, reducing public health costs of poor-quality housing, improving the quality of life of residents, stimulating jobs and economic activity, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. ARUP’s report, titled Delivery and Funding Housing Retrofit, notes that “For countries and communities around the world, the opportunities for retrofit are massive. According to Recovery through Retrofit [a U.S. government program initiated in 2009], energy efficiency retrofitting in the United States could reduce household energy use by up to 40%, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 160 million metric tons a year by 2020 and save households up to $21 billion in energy bills every year.” The Recovery through Retrofit program also noted that a national strategy for retrofitting existing buildings could create thousands of jobs, reinvigorate local economies, and improve local supply chains of materials.

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Professor Levy is equally clear on the compounding benefits of retrofitting low-income housing for the nation’s healthcare system. “It’s rare for health care providers to consider housing upgrades as an approved clinical intervention,” he says. “But that could change. A recent study showed that providing stable, affordable housing improved physical and mental health for both children and adults. Green building strategies have been shown to improve health, lessen asthma symptoms and reduce health care costs.” Professor Levy points to a 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that federal programs helping families to afford better housing led to reduced emergency department visits for asthmatic children, and a reduced burden on the Medicaid system. Researchers also believe that 265,000 fewer children under the age of five have contracted blood poisoning from in-home toxin exposure as a result of HUD healthy home programs. The health benefits derived from higher quality affordable housing speaks to the broader human potential which could be unlocked if the residents of affordable or public housing were equipped with improved living conditions.

In the United Kingdom, 10% of national emissions are derived from embodied carbon in buildings, while almost 70% of the total carbon emissions emitted by a residential project throughout a 60-year time span are caused before or during the construction process.

If enacted on a large, federal-driven scale advocated for in the Green New Deal, retrofitting low-income housing would not only unlock human and economic potential but also form an integral part of the United States’ environmental strategy. In addition to reducing the operational carbon emissions of low-income housing through improved heating, cooling, and electrical efficiency, retrofitting existing housing would also reduce the demand for constructing new housing units. This in turn would cut the level of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the construction of new buildings, known as embodied carbon. In the United Kingdom, 10% of national emissions are derived from embodied carbon in buildings, while almost 70% of the total carbon emissions produced by a residential project throughout a 60-year time span are caused before or during the construction process. Lessening the demand for new construction by retrofitting existing housing is therefore fundamental to any impactful fight against climate change.

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Among the many benefits of retrofitting low-income housing, there are hidden dangers and challenges. Professor Levy stresses the need for home upgrades to be planned, considered, and comprehensive, in order to avoid unintended risks. “Upgrades can be done well or badly,” he says. “We found that weatherization alone, without other improvements, may actually increase indoor air pollution in low income, multifamily housing, especially in homes where people smoke or cook frequently with gas stoves. That is because steps like adding insulation and sealing cracks trap indoor air pollutants inside. Coupling weatherization with steps such as adding kitchen exhaust fans and high-efficiency particle filters in heating and air conditioning systems produces healthier results.” ARUP meanwhile points to logistic and economic challenges, which include engaging multiple stakeholders with varying needs, and the difficulty of creating an “economy of scale” for what can often be bespoke case-by-case circumstances.

While a “community-led” model to low-income residential retrofits departs from our traditional “public versus private” interpretation of economic decisions, this novel approach is gaining traction.

These challenges, though significant, are surmountable through a competent delivery process. By studying dozens of residential retrofit projects across the United States, Europe, and Australia, ARUP identifies three possible delivery models. A “public-sector-led” model offers avenues for state and local governments to directly fund the retrofit of public housing. Such programs can allow for significant time and investment in stakeholder engagement, as well as allowing for replication across similar legislative contexts. A “market-based” model, meanwhile, can offer public aid or subsidies to individual homeowners, enabling occupier-led improvements. Finally, a more innovative “community-led” model can offer a mixture of public and private funding sources, which are allocated or distributed through close engagement with local community groups.

While a “community-led” model to low-income residential retrofits departs from our traditional “public versus private” interpretation of economic decisions, this novel approach is gaining traction. In Oakland, California, the California Energy Commission and UC Berkeley are leading a project aimed at demonstrating technical, social, legal, and financial methods for community retrofitting. The “Oakland EcoBlock” neighborhood retrofit project is currently connecting a group of residential units under a block-level microgrid, while also upgrading insulation, water systems, and installing shared electric vehicle ports. To realize the project, the delivery team has worked with the local community to establish the “EcoBlock Trust;” a board of property owners that oversees shared community assets along with a legal and financing structure.

In a media and political cycle that thrives on sensationalism and controversy, the unassuming, surgical perception of retrofitting may in fact enable its bi-partisan appeal.

Regardless of which delivery models are adopted, any major campaign that champions low-income housing upgrades will likely require the public sector to act as the instigator, be it for overseeing retrofit projects directly, or establishing financial incentives for private or community-led retrofits. There is however growing precedent for such action from the federal government. President Biden’s flagship Infrastructure Bill, for example, has allocated $40 billion to repair and upgrade public housing, in addition to a pledge to build and retrofit 500,000 homes for low to middle-income buyers, and 1 million homes for renters. Meanwhile, President Biden also intends to create a $27 billion Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator which encompasses the retrofit of residential buildings in disadvantaged communities.

Within the hyper-partisan arena of American politics, a commitment to low-income housing improvements transcends party lines. In Republican-leaning Texas, for example, the Travis County Housing Services offers free weatherization improvements for low-income housing, including solar screens, attic insulation, HVAC improvements, and roof coating. In the Republican-led states of Texas, South Carolina, Missouri, and Utah, energy efficiency construction jobs make up between 10% and 24% of all construction jobs. Meanwhile, 20 states currently offer programs to help lower-income households install solar panels, with the Democrat-led California offering the largest budget for such programs, at over $1 billion.

In a media and political cycle that thrives on sensationalism and controversy, the unassuming, surgical perception of retrofitting may in fact enable its bi-partisan appeal. Away from ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new bridges, or active skylines of cranes giving birth to record-breaking skyscrapers, intricate upgrades to the nation’s low-income or public housing flies under the radar of partisan symbolism. Nevertheless, this “Butterfly Effect” of upgrading low-income housing gives way to compounding social, urban, economic, and environmental benefits for all citizens, regardless of political, social, or economic circumstance. 

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