When affordable housing is not energy efficient, it hurts the residents as well as the environment. TM Associates, developers of The Coile in Newport News, Virginia, are out to change that.
To start, they are conducting an experiment in real time. With a $637,500 acquisition and pre-development loan from BlueHub, they are constructing twin buildings that are alike in almost every respect — each with 31 affordable apartments and a roof-top garden — except one will use traditional materials, whereas the other will be made from insulated structural panels. Then a team from the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech will conduct a three-phase 10-year study analyzing a range of factors — from energy use and thermal comfort to construction performance — to determine the impact of panelization.
The project was sparked when the Virginia Housing Development Authority announced a challenge. Applicants were asked for ideas that push innovation in the construction space that are replicable, with the potential to change the industry going forward. As Development Associate at TM Associates, Michael Giannopulos observes, “This fit perfectly.”
He explains, “In standard construction, two-by-fours frame the building; that creates gaps where heat can escape. These panels are two pieces of oriented strand board with foam injected between them; they are one flush piece of insulation creating a much more complete envelope.” Of course, panelized construction is not a new idea — but these panels are. “They are made of polyurethane, which is denser, studier, and stronger than typical panels. One of the only houses to withstand Hurricane Irma was made with these panels,” Giannopulos continues. “But it is just as light as the typical panels, so we expect the same ease of construction. You put them up, lock them in place, and move on. They are like playing with Legos.”
That is important. Faster construction both saves direct construction costs and lowers accrued construction interest. TM Associates wants to be able to use those savings to add market-rate-comparable amenities and finishes to their affordable housing. Giannopulos states, “We want to give tenants a sense of pride.”
“Energy efficiency is a huge thing in the industry right now, due to climate change and also the sheer cost of energy usage. A lot of affordable housing that is cheaply built is extremely energy inefficient, which is an added burden on tenants. Utility allowances are factored into rent, so if utilities exceed expectations the tenants bear the burden. We hope to be able maintain rents and financial feasibility while providing tenants with a much higher quality product.”
Although different construction techniques will be used on the two buildings, both will be Earthcraft certified, with WaterSense- and Energy Star-certified appliances — including solar-powered water heaters. They will also be filled with “green” elements: A solar-powered bench where tenants can charge their phones while they sit. The first bike share in Newport News. Pavegen kinetic tiles that harness the power of every footstep to provide clean, off-grid electricity. And roof gardens with views of the James River. As Giannopulos notes, “You just don’t see that in the affordable space — but we’re trying to make sure we hit all the boxes.”