The climate emergency; a nationwide housing shortage; poor public health; restrictive zoning; underserved communities; environmental and social injustice. These are just some of the myriad issues confronting green builders as they strive to make healthier, sustainable living available regardless of income. But without careful balance, it’s all too easy to topple the three-legged stool of sustainability (i.e., the fiscal, environmental, and social impacts of the built environment). This is because the pursuit of ROI often overrides considerations to the crucial third leg of sustainability—cultural and social impacts.
So, how can green builders focus on the socially deleterious effects of industrialization, greed and human activity to ensure smarter, sustainable and healthier living spaces are ultimately realized for everyone?
To unpack that difficult question, five experienced women joined the closing 2021 Passive House for All Conference plenary panel, “Defining sustainable community for all: Discovering new pathways forward.” Ably moderated by founder and CEO of Transformational Village Lori Atwater, each participant spoke of her own passions, successes and challenges within this context. That lively conversation revealed a breadth of points of view, ideas and goals for realizing this laudable endeavor.
The key is to become active wherever and whenever possible, and the Passive House panel identified several issues builders would be wise to address:
- Land allocation and zoning: In many cities, most land is zoned for single-family homes, which limits plans to build for multiple uses (e.g., ADUs, multifamily and rental units) in the future.
- Bureaucratic design intrusions: Cities often limit home designs in a quest for conformity, but this frequently results in inadequate land usage, compromised building safety or inefficient energy use.
- Redlining: A vestige of racist policies primarily impacting poorer communities and those of color, this practice often pushes minority populations into less-desirable areas often struggling with pollution, food and transportation deserts, and high-density, low-quality housing.
- Declining public housing investments: If public housing is not actively being defunded, it is typically chronically underfunded.
- A lack of Black, brown and minority voices: Even in cities like Detroit where people of color comprise a majority, few have a place at planning and development tables where their valuable ideas are heard.
- Energy savings: Passive House standards maximize energy efficiency and savings, a selling point often lost in cost conversations.
- Engaging developers in the effort: While revenue will always be a primary motivation, developers also have the freedom to bring new ideas forward. Encouraging developers to embrace the benefits of sustainability can lead to interesting opportunities.
- Codified incentives: Municipal subsidization, in tandem with government mandates, can motivate developers when nothing else can.
- Healthy housing as infrastructure: Housing is not a luxury, but rather a fundamental human need. Advocating to include sustainable housing in the definition of infrastructure would inject much-needed federal funding.
- Stepping up public outreach efforts: Whether it’s bringing community members to the table during development discussions or simply educating the public on sustainable living, a bit of effort can have a lot of impact.
Like all worthwhile causes, making Passive House for all a reality won’t be easy, but addressing social impacts with the same gravity as financial or environmental considerations will certainly smooth the road ahead.