Green Building for All: Green Building is Key to Affordable Housing

Clingman Avenue Lofts are Green Built Homes-certified affordable housing built by Mountain Housing Opportunities near downtown Asheville. Photo courtesy of Nest Realty.

Green-built homes afford their residents countless benefits. Healthier indoor air quality, lower energy bills, and increased comfort top the list. 

These benefits should be available to all people, especially our lower-income neighbors who are more likely to suffer from health problems like asthma and be energy burdened, meaning they pay a disproportionate share of their income on energy bills. 

Smart design and the healthier materials utilized by green building yield results including better indoor air quality, reduced allergens, lower utility bills, and higher quality of residenceall of which are social determinants of health.

Concerns with code

Esteemed architect William McDonough is famously credited with saying, “The building code defines the worst house allowable by law.” When one thinks of affordable housing, an uninspired housing stock is more likely to come to mind than green building. More often than not, affordable housing is built to minimum building code standards; is constructed from cheap materials; has cookie-cutter designs; and falls into disrepair more quickly due to poor construction, design and deferred maintenance. These strategies keep costs low, ensuring maximum profitability for developers and homebuyers alike. 

On the other hand, green-built construction utilizes materials that are durable and long lasting, sustainably sourced, and made of healthier, non-toxic components. Energy- and water-saving appliances and fixtures are used. Designs are more innovative and exciting. These green-building features form the building blocks of homes and structures that will be comfortable, long lasting, less expensive over their lifetime, and likely to emit fewer greenhouse-gas emissions due to increased energy efficiency. 

Mountain Housing Opportunities’ LEED Gold development, Glen Rock Depot in Asheville’s River Arts District. Photo courtesy of Sitework Studios.

These benefits translate to healthier homes, as well as lower operating costs for residents. More than eight million American households pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing. It is a short-sighted disservice to our communities and planet to build code-built affordable housing. The traditional mindset of building to code overlooks the myriad long-term benefits of green building, and it has been demonstrated that green building saves money while increasing occupant health and comfort. 

Saving green by going green

In 2016, Virginia Tech’s Virginia Center for Housing Research and Southface Institute collaborated on a study on the impact of green-certified affordable housing. The study found that when affordable housing is green-certified (whether through Green Built Homes, LEED, Energy Star, or another program), developers construct higher-quality housing at a lower cost while low-income residents save more energy and money. 

Families residing in green developments saved an average of $96 per year, and seniors saved more than $122 per year more on energy costs when compared to non-green developments. Green developments saved nearly $5,000 per year on owner-paid utility costs when compared to non-green developments, and total construction costs are nearly five percent less than their non-green counterparts. Soft construction cost savings (architectural, engineering, financing, and legal fees, and other pre- and post-construction expenses) were even greater, costing 13 percent less than non-green developments due to increased coordination on the front end of design and planning. 

An Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity house under construction. All of their homes are certified through Green Built Homes. Photo courtesy of Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity.

The majority of developers surveyed in the study indicated that green buildings provide benefits in terms of quality of end product and achieving their firm’s objectives and mission. The study admits that green buildings can be more expensive on the front end than traditional construction projects, but cost-benefits are achieved on the operations side once people are living in and using these homes. Green spaces are frequently included as criteria for green-building certifications and have been shown to reduce tenant turnover and reduce crime in multifamily developments.

In the Northeast, where the winters can be long and cold, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority helped finance energy improvements at nearly 100,000 apartments across the state, bringing both new construction and existing buildings up to the federal ENERGY STAR® standards and cutting their energy costs by a quarter on average. All of these apartments were tested on their actual utility expenses as part of the program, and savings were nearly $400 per unit annually.

Commitments for the future

What does this mean for our beloved Western North Carolina mountain communities? 

My work on the Blue Horizons Project focuses on energy efficiency for all residents and businesses of Buncombe County. Increasing the energy efficiency of new construction of all types helps meet our region’s shared goal of creating a cleaner energy future. The less energy used to operate a building, the less natural gas is burned at Duke Energy’s Lake Julian power planta win for us and a win for the climate. 

Incorporating green and energy-efficient building standards into affordable housing can help further many local municipalities’ focus areas such as climate resilience, equity, and health. Green-built affordable housing checks many boxes. There are multiple financial incentives for green building and energy efficiency, including City of Asheville development application fee rebates, North Carolina Housing Finance Agency System Vision, and Duke Energy new construction rebates. Many other states offer points for affordable housing developments built to green standards, but unfortunately, North Carolina is not one of them.

Locally, Mountain Housing Opportunities and Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity stand out in their commitment to building green-built affordable housing developments. 

Mountain Housing Opportunities’ green vision statement is, “By educating our community and ourselves about green-building practices, we can build more efficient, well-located homes. In this way we conserve natural resources, protect the environment, and serve our primary mission, to build and improve homes, neighborhoods, communities and lives.” 

To date, Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity has certified 163 projects through the Green Built Homes system, more than any other home builder in the whole state of North Carolina. 

“Habitat has made a commitment to green building and sustainable standards for all homes we construct around the country,” Asheville Area Habitat Director of Construction Services Paul Reeves said.

I am heartened that affordable housing seems to be increasingly thoughtfully planned while incorporating green and sustainable features. Certified green-built and sustainably-built homes are what people want and deserve. I dream of the day when all of North Carolina’s affordable housing is certified as green. Building green and sustainable affordable housing benefits everyone involved — landlords, developers, tenants, and neighborsand it’s the right thing to do for our community.

Sophie Mullinax manages the Blue Horizons Project, a community-wide campaign to help residents and businesses of Buncombe County adopt energy efficiency and renewable energy. Before moving home to Asheville in 2018, she spent nine years working in the nonprofit sector while living in Washington DC. Connect with Sophie at

You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 14-15 of the 2020-2021 edition of the directory.