The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing about energy efficient, “green” affordable housing and how it is improving health and safety in distressed communities while providing economic and environmental benefits to states. This was the second in a series of EESI briefings examining environmental justice as it relates to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Clean Power Plan (CPP), the nation's first-ever regulation limiting carbon pollution from power plants. This briefing showed how sustainable affordable housing can save money for low-income families and strengthen community resilience while serving as a CPP compliance strategy.

Speakers showcased sustainable affordable housing developments in Pittsburgh, PA, as well as a retrofit in Washington, DC, and discussed the national movement to “green” affordable housing. Pittsburgh-based affordable housing developer ACTION-Housing has partnered with Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) to introduce “passive building” standards into its projects and reduce energy usage by 80-90 percent over conventional construction. The briefing also featured the passive building retrofit of Weinberg Commons, a multifamily housing complex for low-income families in Southeast DC. The nation's capital uses Enterprise Community Partners’ Green Communities Criteria as the baseline green building standard for its public and publicly-financed projects.

States are being encouraged by EPA's Clean Power Plan to reduce energy demand as a way to cut carbon pollution. Though the Plan's implementation has been temporarily suspended by the Supreme Court, at least 22 states have voluntarily decided to press ahead. The CPP rewards states that implement energy efficiency projects in low-income communities through the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP). Building sustainable, resilient and affordable housing and retrofitting existing housing to be more energy efficient, safe and healthful can therefore be key strategies for Clean Power Plan compliance—while also making communities more resilient to extreme weather, economic downturns and other hardships.

This webinar was part of a series examining environmental justice perspectives on the Clean Power Plan:


Ellen Vaughan, Policy Director, Sustainable Buildings, Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI)

  • Moderator Ellen Vaughan noted that making buildings energy efficient and affordable can be a way to comply with the Clean Power Plan (which is currently under court review). In conjunction with the Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published regulations establishing an optional Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP) that rewards states that implement energy efficiency projects in low-income communities.
  • Equally important, sustainable buildings are good for people and communities.
  • Households should not have to spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage. Building retrofits as well as new construction can dramatically cut energy consumption and improve building comfort.
  • Buildings in the United States use about 40 percent of the country's total energy and more than 70 percent of its electricity.


Linda Metropulos, Director of Housing & Neighborhood Development, ACTION-Housing, Inc.

  • ACTION-Housing has a 58-year history of developing high quality, well-managed affordable housing in western Pennsylvania. Examples include the following projects.
  • Mackey Lofts, a 45-unit Low Income Housing Tax Credit building in Pittsburgh which includes geothermal wells for heating and cooling.
  • The Residence at Wood Street (Pittsburgh), a renovated YMCA. Thanks to expanded Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) funding, the building envelope was insulated, a more efficient heating system was installed, air conditioning was added, and total annual costs were reduced by $125,000.
  • McKeesport Downtown Housing, another former YMCA and the first large-scale “passive house” project for ACTION-Housing. It meets the highest standards of energy efficiency (certified by Passive House Institute US) and uses geothermal energy for heating and cooling. The organization invested more in the envelope (insulation of all 6 sides, air sealing…), which lasts the life of the building, than on mechanical systems that are expensive and complicated to maintain. Energy bills were reduced by $40,000 annually.
  • Hazelwood Center, a renovated building redesigned to passive building standards.
  • Uptown Lofts on Fifth, two identical buildings, one of which meets passive house criteria; the other meets the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).
  • Metropulos noted that most states still use older building codes, namely the 2009 IECC. We need to look at adopting the most recent energy code to take full advantage of the progress that has been made. [Ed. note: Not everyone knows how to design/build to passive house standards (yet); therefore energy codes are needed to ensure that all other new buildings and major renovations meet a minimum level of energy efficiency. Codes—updated regularly, adopted by states and enforced locally—“raise the floor” for building performance while high standards like Passive House “raise the ceiling.” We need to do both at the same time.]


Katrin Klingenberg, Executive Director, Passive House Institute US (PHIUS)

  • Passive House Institute US is the longest standing institute promoting this kind of work in the United States.
  • More and more affordable housing developers are becoming interested in passive building design because of the reduction in energy costs it makes possible.
  • Passive building design is effective in reducing energy use by a factor of 8-10. Heating energy in passive buildings is reduced by 80 to 90 percent. Today, passive building standards perform at 80 percent of the 2030 Challenge [Architecture 2030's goal for net-zero energy buildings in 2030].
  • The principles guiding passive building design are: comfort & health, quality, cost effective, efficient, and resilient.
  • Components of passive building design include: air control (air-tightness…), thermal control (high performance insulation…), moisture control (air humidity…), dynamic performance control (HVAC…), and radiation control (shading / daylighting…).
  • Passive buildings are designed to create spaces that can coast through power outages for up to 5 days.
  • Several incentive programs for passive buildings exist in the United States. In Seattle, WA, PHIUS+ projects qualify for expedited permitting under the Priority Green Program. Passive house projects also qualify for expedited permitting in San Francisco, CA.
  • Housing agencies throughout the United States are also beginning to incentivize passive buildings: the Illinois Housing & Development Authority and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency award extra points for passive building projects; the NY State Homes and Community Renewal Agency encourages passive house projects.
  • Passive house standards were originally developed in Germany, but have been adapted to various conditions in the United States. There are now different passive standards for different climates.
  • About 240 U.S. passive housing projects are either under construction or almost completed.


Philip Hecht, President & CEO, Transitional Housing Corporation (THC)

  • Transitional Housing Corporation (THC) serves more than 500 families in the District of Columbia who make 50 percent or less of the area's median income, but there are still over 1,000 homeless families remaining in the city. THC has more than 200 affordable housing units, and is in the process of building 150 more. It provides housing, but also the services low-income families need to thrive.
  • Reducing energy consumption is fundamental to the economic sustainability of low-income families. The rise in energy costs (by 22.7 percent nationwide from 2000-2010) was more than three times the increase in rents during that same period. The lowest income renters saw the largest increase in their utility costs, going from 12.7 percent to 17.4 percent of their total housing costs for the same period.
  • Hecht showcased Weinberg Commons, an innovative community that proves affordable housing can be both beautiful and functional. The renovation project transformed run-down apartment buildings into housing with state-of-the-art energy features and affordable rents and services for low-income families. It is the nation’s first certified passive house multi-family retrofit development.
  • By using passive house standards, energy consumption was reduced by 50 percent (and they hope to reduce it by 90 percent over the coming months).
  • The buildings are mainly heated through passive solar techniques and by internal gains from people and electrical equipment. An energy recovery ventilator (ERV) provides a well-distributed, constant and balanced supply of fresh air.
  • Weinberg Commons’ below market rents, including all utilities, are only possible with passive design principles.
  • Renovating the building to passive house standards cost approximately 8 percent more than it would have using traditional techniques and materials.


Matt Fine, Project Manager, Peabody Architects

  • Before joining Peabody Architects, Matt was with Zavos Architecture and Design and the project architect for the Weinberg Commons renovation.
  • Bringing low-energy buildings to the masses is not business as usual. To implement passive house strategies and measures, one must assemble a team that is committed and qualified, recognize the existing limitations of retrofitting a building, adapt to given conditions, and keep resident needs as a priority.
  • The team sought to provide a robust, "above code" building envelope with minimal thermal bridges. A code-compliant wall has an R-Value of R-20; the Weinberg Commons wall is rated at R-39.
  • Weinberg Commons' airtightness is 5 times that of the standard threshold (0.58 ACH50 for Weinberg Commons versus 3.0 ACH50 for the standard).
  • These improvements were achieved in a simple-tech way. It did not take specialists to put the building together. High performance insulation and air sealing created an airtight envelope, and solar gain was managed with design features that optimize shade and sun for year-round comfort and energy efficiency.
  • Energy-efficient building features include an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV), a ground loop heat exchanger, high efficiency heating and cooling (VRF), drain water heat recovery, and a solar thermal collector for domestic hot water. An on-site photovoltaic array was a cost-effective addition to a very energy efficient building.


Krista Egger, Senior Program Director, Green Communities, Enterprise Community Partners, Inc.

  • Enterprise Green Communities (EGC), an initiative of Enterprise Community Partners, provides a framework and resources to help developers build green, affordable homes. It is transforming the way America thinks about, designs, builds, and rehabilitates affordable housing.
  • Green buildings integrate materials and methods that promote environmental quality, economic vitality, and social benefits through design, construction, and operations of the built environment.
  • EGC aligns affordable housing investment strategies with environmentally responsive building practices. It provides certification for affordable housing projects using the following criteria: location + neighborhood fabric, site improvements, water conservation, energy efficiency, materials, healthy living environment, operations, and maintenance + resident engagement.
  • The criteria for new construction are slightly more stringent than those for building rehabilitation. A project must meet all of the mandatory criteria and earn at least 35 optional points (for new construction) or 30 optional points (substantial & moderate rehabilitations).
  • The certification has both prebuild and postbuild components. All submittals are reviewed within 30 days.
  • Egger provided several examples of the criteria that are considered for certification. Examples include whether the design is integrative, and takes into account resident health and wellbeing; whether the location is near public transportation and fresh, local foods; how stormwater is managed; how water is used and leaks prevented; how energy efficient the building is; whether it uses environmentally friendly materials and recycles construction waste; how it promotes physical activity and whether it prohibits smoking; and how it trains residents to operate the building and react in emergencies.
  • The EGC standard is used by state and city housing agencies, and its criteria have been integrated into financing mechanisms for affordable housing in 25 states.