The 19 buildings housing some 50 units of affordable housing near Codman Square in Dorchester are already sporting a rainbow of colors on their exterior walls. But beneath those coats of paint, they’re all green.

Affordable housing has traditionally been associated with lower-end construction materials chosen to meet strict budget guidelines. But those poking around the construction site at Erie-Ellington Homes will find Pella Windows, high-grade insulation, and Energy Star appliances being installed as the neighborhood is set to become home to some of the first environmentally sensitive, energy-efficient affordable housing in the nation.

Because of a partnership among affordable housing developers, local organizations and utility companies, the terms environmentally friendly and affordable can now be used in the same sentence, according to the project’s architect.

I strongly believe in building something that’s affordable in the sense of the word affordable, said architect Bruce Hampton. Something that’s cheap at first cost might not be in the best interest of the home owner down the road. I like to take a longer view and balance things out.

Hampton, a lead architect with Green Village – an area consortium of professionals working to come up with environmentally friendly housing ideas – said Erie-Ellington Homes was the first completely affordable development he has worked on that fully incorporates ecodynamic products and technologies, but added that the trend is catching on.

The ecodynamic concept pioneered by Hampton uses specific technologies to reduce both environmental pollution and energy consumption.

So-called green technologies are being incorporated into the latest Auburn Court mixed-income housing development in Cambridge, as well as the Mission Main development in Roxbury. In a sign that the trend is spreading, Hampton was invited to speak about the Erie-Ellington project and green affordable housing at a conference in Connecticut last week

In the past, environmentally friendly technologies weren’t used in affordable housing projects because of the prohibitive cost, Hampton said. However, with rebate programs and creative planning, he said projects can be built that are friendly to both the earth and the pocketbook.

It was a meeting of the minds was how Hampton termed his collaboration with the project’s owners, the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp., to bring in green housing.

One of the reasons we were attractive to the developers was that we brought a lot of knowledge and experience to the job. I’ve been doing energy-efficient housing for 20 years, he said. Most architects that work with affordable housing don’t have the luxury to dabble in [energy-efficient technology] when money is your guiding factor.

One example Hampton gave of compromise on the project was with the windows. He said he insisted on using wood-framed windows because they’re more energy-efficient than vinyl-clad windows.

Using vinyl instead of wood would mean about $25,000 to $30,000 in savings up front, which is very tempting, he said. But the higher-quality windows will pay back in the first and second year in energy savings. To make up for the extra cost, Hampton said it was decided that the housing units would be outfitted with lower-cost vinyl baseboards instead of wooden ones.

If we’re talking strictly dollars, vinyl baseboard I can live with, he said. As long as the baseboard stays in place, there’s no environmental damage with using the vinyl, but energy dollars are irreplaceable.

Concessions were also made in other areas, such as the flooring. Though wood is a renewable resource and more environmentally friendly, in an affordable housing project you don’t have wood floors throughout, Hampton said. Even if you could afford wood, the first thing people do is throw a carpet over it. So who are we fooling? Hampton instead opted for a durable carpet. But we didn’t get top-of-the-line carpet, because we know the owners will have to replace it every seven years, and the heaviest carpet would be a waste of money.

Other environmental aspects of the project include using low-flow toilets and shower heads, installing energy-efficient lighting, siding made of recycled materials and using foam to insulate the buildings’ corners.

Also, simple techniques such as not compressing insulation when installing it go a long way toward making the buildings more energy efficient.

When you compress the insulation even a little bit, you lose some of its R-value, said Karen Blomquist, referring to its insulating potential. She works with CWC Builders of Newton, one of the project’s two builders. We have to make sure we fluff it up, and then we cover it with a vapor barrier, she said.

All of these factors add up to a building that is so tight, a three-unit building can be serviced by one boiler instead of three, Hampton said.

Combining a tight building envelope with Energy Star appliances means Erie-Ellington residents could save as much as 40 percent on the cost of water, heat and electricity.

Grants and Rebates
To help finance the energy-efficient portions of the $6.4 million project, the developers worked with the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, a community action agency that among other things works on energy conservation.

We know that affordable housing projects are borderline when it comes to budgets, said Arthur Willcox, conservation project manager. We provide costs between what is needed for meeting code to what is needed for meeting Energy Star standards. We also provide the cost of analytic services associated with the upgrade. Depending on the financial strain of the project, we have the capacity to pay more than just the incremental costs.

The project also received rebates for using Energy Star products in the home, such as $250 for each refrigerator, $150 per dishwasher and $20 for fluorescent lights.

Funding to help make affordable housing projects more energy efficient comes from a systems benefit charge on electricity bills, Willcox said.

He added that the idea of marrying energy-efficiency and affordability is beginning to catch on.

We’re very pleased with where we’ve gotten over the past year, he said of his organization’s efforts. Right now we’re working with other agencies, and we’re trying to build a statewide team to reach as many of these projects as we can.

If the sky’s the limit in terms of budget, you can pretty much do anything to be energy efficient and environmentally friendly, Hampton said. On the affordable end, you have to be very tough on your priorities, but I think we’ll be seeing more projects like this throughout the country and around the world.

Construction on Erie-Ellington Homes, which contains units ranging from one- to four-bedroom units, has reached the halfway point, and occupancy is expected as early as May.

Dorchester Project Marries Efficiency and Affordability

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min