Hannah Wilber

A few weeks back I presented the case for why you should care whether or not your home is green, highlighting a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health on the importance of indoor air quality (IAQ).

If you'll recall, we at USGBC were pretty pumped about the results of that study, which found that, when compared to non-certified homes, inhabitants of LEED-certified residential units experienced fewer incidents of sick building syndrome symptoms, and enjoyed air with lower concentrations of harmful particulate matter and other undesirable substances proven to have adverse effects on our well-being.

Well, there's another reason we’re jumping for joy after reading this study: it focuses on the affordable housing sector, underscoring what we have long believed – that high-performance homes should be well within the reach of all members of society.

Communities at greater risk

Health risks associated with poor IAQ are amplified by some of the socioeconomic obstacles faced by low-income communities. For example, residents often lack the ability (or right) to rigorously maintain the structural integrity of their spaces, and are statistically more likely to use tobacco products. Additionally, low-income communities tend to be located in closer proximity to industrial sources of pollution.

Combined, these socioeconomic conditions create indoor environments where the air is worringly saturated with harmful particulates. As if this situation wasn’t troubling enough, the report points out that low-income neighborhoods tend to experience higher levels of violence, forcing residents to spend larger portions of their time inside poorly ventilated, increasingly polluted spaces.

Clearly, these disparities must be addressed. In fact, given the ample evidence for IAQ having a significant influence on wellness, the World Bank considers healthy air an essential human right, saying “[the] quality of indoor air not only has a bearing on health but also on the quality of life... Exposure to pollutants that qualitatively decrease the health, functioning, or comfort of occupants is therefore unacceptable.”

Luckily, as the HSPH study shows, green homes are a viable solution.

Towards socially equitable sustainability

I sometimes hear complaints about green building being luxury expense — something that is nice for a very niche market, but isn't applicable to or attainable for the population writ large. I think I speak for all of us at USGBC when I say that's simply not true.

Since LEED for Homes was officially launched in 2008, we've been striving to make the LEED residential program even more accessible and utilized all over the world. We're thrilled to see the green residential market is on the rise, and have celebrated newly certified LEED for Homes projects in China, the Caymans, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It doesn't stop there: we're over the moon about the fact that over a third of all LEED Homes projects are in the affordable housing sector.

In fact, our commitment to inclusivity is right there in our Strategic Plan: we're on a mission to “transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life for all” (emphasis added).

Taking that a step further, one of our strategies that specifically addresses the need for socially equitable, ubiquitous green building is to “establish a program to implement community-scale restorative strategies in vulnerable or underserved neighborhoods,” where an underserved neighborhood is one “characterized by long-term disinvestment in human, environmental and physical capital as demonstrated by health disparities, chronic unemployment/underemployment, high incarceration rates, poor educational outcomes, disproportionate shares of environmental burdens and disinvested building stock.”

Walking the talk

Given the importance of addressing IAQ and health-related concerns for the most vulnerable communities, it's great to see that the green residential market is gaining traction globally. But it's even greater to be able to point to examples of sustainable homes making a difference for those who need it most.

Look at Los Angeles, where homelessness is a significant issue, and where many of those who are chronically homeless also experience mental health issues. Recognizing a serious need, Step Up on Second has emerged as a real game-changer; in 2010, the organization made a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to “sustainably end homelessness in Hollywood.” To that end, they've created Step Up on Vine, which renovated a historic three-story hotel into 34 units of LEED Platinum supportive housing, providing permanent living for those in need.

A key goal of the project was to improve the building’s existing energy efficiency by at least 20 percent, freeing up additional funds for the organizations supportive services. This was accomplished through the use of ENERGY STAR rated appliances, the addition of a cool roof equipped with a photovoltaic array, a solar thermal hot water system and several other energy conserving strategies.

Or look at New Orleans, where Make It Right is building 100 LEED Platinum homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas that suffered the most in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The results of the project are impressive, and the response from community members has been overwhelmingly positive.

A key aspect of Make it Right's success is the recognition that, all too often, an insistence on keeping costs low trumps safety and durability considerations when it comes to building design and construction. Firmly believing that everyone deserves a comfortable, healthy place to live, the organization has set out to build the best homes possible, keeping them affordable without compromising quality.

These two examples illustrate that green residences aren't just for the very well-off—they're for everyone. You can learn more about both of these great initiatives in our recent LEED in Motion: Residential report, where you'll also find numbers detailing the rise of the green residential market, and a deep dive into the LEED for Homes program more broadly.