Designing for Density: Green Affordable Homes at East Haven Apartments

The answers to these questions often define green buildings. But as we expand our thinking about how to create green communities, we must think more holistically. Progressive municipalities across the country are endorsing the proposition that the greenest building material that we have at our disposal is not a natural resource, but an artificial one: density.

The defining green feature at East Haven Apartments — and there are several we are proud of — is its density. In Swannanoa, with an official population of fewer than 5,000, we created one of the densest new apartment developments in Buncombe County. So how did this happen?

East Haven has several green features including a 46-panel, 17.94-kW photovoltaic solar array. Photo courtesy of Mountain Housing Opportunities.

Settling in Swannanoa

It starts with place. Swannanoa has a rich tradition of innovation. In 1936, Charles D. Owen II moved Beacon Manufacturing to the Swannanoa Valley, creating what would become the largest mill in the world. Just a few years prior and up the road from the Beacon Mill, a group of experimental artists led by John Andrew Rice formed Black Mountain College, which became an enclave for exiled Bauhaus artists chased out of Germany by the Nazis. And a few years prior to that, EW Grove, who made millions off of his wildly popular Tasteless Chill Tonic, moved to Asheville, attracted by the healthy mountain air. Grove used his fortune to build the Grove Park Inn, the Grove Arcade, and the planned community of Grovemont in Swannanoa.

All of these things — global industry, experimental arts education, a town planning experiment — happened in the context of the rural community of Swannanoa. When it comes to innovation, Swannanoa proves that “rural” is far from synonymous with “small.”

In 2013, we started evaluating the potential for building affordable apartments east of Asheville. For many reasons, we felt that Swannanoa made a lot of sense. Despite the area’s growing employment centers — particularly the Veterans Administration Medical Center, Ingles Markets’ warehouse, and Buncombe County Schools — no new affordable rental development had been built east of Asheville in quite some time. The French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2007 US-70 Corridor Study also painted a future vision for this stretch of US-70 transitioning from strip commercial to mixed-use.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Housing Opportunities.

Policy and planning
In the early stages of planning East Haven Apartments, we held a community-planning charrette, consulted with the Friends and Neighbors of Swannanoa group, and developed a plan to build what seemed like reasonable density for a small commercial parcel of 3.18 acres in a rural part of the county. With Buncombe County’s support, we were able to secure approval to exceed the underlying zoning (12 units per acre) and create a plan for 60 units (18.9 units per acre) of affordable housing.

Housing Tax Credits are the financial tool that enables us to build attractive apartments with rents well below market rate, and the process for obtaining them is highly competitive and can often turn into a multi-year exercise in patience. Our application for East Haven proved no different. Every year, the number of projects that apply for Housing Tax Credit funding in North Carolina exceeds the amount of available tax credits by about a three-to-one margin. We applied for tax-credit funding unsuccessfully in three consecutive years before winning an allocation on our fourth attempt in 2017.

The delays, however, ended up working in our favor. In 2016, the Buncombe County Planning Department developed an innovative density bonus called Community-Oriented Development. When Buncombe County adopted Community-Oriented Development, we were first in line and secured approval to build 95 apartments, a 250 percent density bonus (29.9 units per acre).

Photo courtesy of Mountain Housing Opportunities.

Buncombe County’s Community-Oriented Development policy is an innovative approach to incentivizing denser development in certain well-located areas, particularly those served by transit. The policy awards points for including sustainable features such as rainwater capture, renewable energy, and open space and wetland conservation. The policy’s largest bonus is awarded to developments that include affordable housing, in alignment with Buncombe County’s high need and the County Commission’s recognition of affordable housing as one of its six strategic priorities. By definition, the policy incentivizes moderately dense green affordable housing.

Green features

In addition to its density, East Haven has several green features including a 46-panel, 17.94-kW photovoltaic solar array, ENERGY STAR® appliances, WaterSense low-flow plumbing fixtures, and ceiling fans and large operable windows to help reduce energy consumption by extending the season for natural ventilation. The buildings were constructed using prefabricated wood frame wall panels to eliminate construction waste and reduce on-site erection time.

East Haven Apartments contains a mix of one, two and three-bedroom apartments in two four-story L-shaped buildings that enclose a large courtyard. The 95 apartments at East Haven have monthly rents ranging from $250 to $700. We have committed to maintaining the affordability of the apartments for at least 50 years, and we have reserved 10 of the apartments for veterans. Onsite amenities include a playground, laundry facility, fitness center, and picnic area with grills. The primary cladding materials are fiber cement siding and brick.

Accommodating multi-modal transportation options can be a bit of a challenge outside of denser urban areas, but we aimed to make East Haven part of a transition to multi-modal transportation. We provided a right-sized parking ratio (0.7 parking spaces per bedroom) to try to limit the size of our parking areas. Buncombe County installed a new bus shelter on ART’s 170 bus line in front of East Haven, which will provide our residents with access to jobs and services without relying on a car.

Through the assistance of a recent grant, we will also be helping Buncombe County and the North Carolina Department of Transportation develop pedestrian-safety improvements in collaboration with Friends and Neighbors of Swannanoa. East Haven is also located near the planned route for the Swannanoa River Greenway that aspires to connect Asheville’s greenway network with Black Mountain.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Housing Opportunities.

Sensible rural density

A four-story building built along a five-lane regional thoroughfare will rarely feel out of scale, and demonstrates that even rural communities have commercial areas that can handle sensitively developed density.

Despite the imperative to accommodate a growing population while protecting ridgelines from development, proposals to exceed the underlying zoning in a rural community by 250 percent would rarely get off the ground without innovative green development tools like Buncombe County’s Community-Oriented Development policy.

A sensible model for rural density, East Haven Apartments provides an optimistic vision for the future: affordable homes in green buildings situated in green communities.

Project Team breakout box:
Developer — Mountain Housing Opportunities
Architect — Housing Studio, PA
Civil Engineer — Civil Design Concepts
Landscape Architect — Sitework Studios
Structural Engineer — Structural Consulting Group
M/E/P Engineer — VP Engineering
General Contractor — WeaverCooke Construction
Solar PV System Contractor — Renewable Design Associates
Energy Testing and Verification — Performance Point

East Haven Apartments – Swannanoa, NC from Lisa Keeter on Vimeo.

Geoffrey Barton is the director of real estate development at Mountain Housing Opportunities, a nonprofit community-development organization founded in 1988 with the mission of building and improving homes, neighborhoods, communities and lives. A licensed architect, Geoffrey works to plan and construct green affordable apartment communities in Western North Carolina. Connect with Geoffrey at

You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 20-21 of the 2020-2021 edition of the directory.