The Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership is a nonprofit community development corporation serving 30 counties in rural Minnesota. Its motto is to “build strong and healthy places to live so that the communities of our region thrive.” Their efforts were recognized last year as the National Safe and Healthy Housing Coalition’s 2011 Safe and Healthy Housing Award Winner, at the NSHHC conference in Denver last June.

For us at Vision 2020, emerging public and industry awareness of how green building relates to indoor environmental quality and occupant health is being pioneered through the kind of educational outreach and project research conducted in public housing by the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) and other groups. How builders and consumers respond will determine how much concern and effort will go into creating better building systems that positively impact indoor environmental quality.

I spoke with Rick Goodemannn, CEO of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, and George Lopez, director of construction services. Goodemannn began the conversation by telling me about his background in public housing, “I’ve been in the field since 1979, and spent most of my career using federal dollars to fix poorly built federal housing.” This frontline view of wasted money and poor results led Goodemannn to look for a better approach. The opportunity came in 1998 following a devastating F-5 tornado that slammed Saint Peter, Minn., wiping out about 50% of the city. “We had the opportunity to look at smarter ways of building, and we were looking at green approaches and how we could test some building models that we had been discussing with the University of Minnesota Center for Sustainable Building Research,” he explained. Soon the Partnership became one of state’s leading proponents of green, energy-efficient building.

But several years passed before Goodemannn realized the strong relationship between building science and public health. In 2004, the Partnership acquired a 60-unit apartment building in Worthington, Minn., that he describes being in terrible condition, with mold, mildew, and lots of damage, “We took one look and understood it required a total gut rehab, we had to take what was there and make it better. So we started doing some computer modeling around sealing, insulation, upgraded climate control, and ventilation, and began to discuss how the building would breathe properly when the conversation veered to the more important question: How well would the people inside the building breathe?”

George Lopez, construction director, chimed in enthusiastically at this point in the conversation, “There was a philosophical disconnect between health and housing. We knew about lead, and its effect on children, but there came this moment of epiphany when we realized that we had the means to improve untold measures of health by providing a healthier environment.” Meanwhile, a similar philosophical discussion was taking place between two philanthropic housing foundations that had started looking at green communities, and because of Goodemannn and Lopez’s inquiries into the relationship between housing and health, the Partnership was brought into the discussion with the National Center for Healthy Homes and the University of Minnesota Center for Sustainable Building Research.

“As long as you’re doing all this planning around green, they said, why not consider the health impacts of the buildings?” said Lopez. This is how the Partnership, and their troubled new asset, Viking Terrace, came to be the first in a pilot project for the Center for Sustainable research specifically designed to test the socioeconomic health impact of green building.

“To start, we had to do an assessment of the health problems related to the existing buildings, along with the health history of all the tenants that would move back into the units after the remodeling,” said Goodemann. This was a new layer of preconstruction modeling that required a new set of lenses and priorities in design and specifications. Not only would the health analysis center on pre-construction data gathering and modeling, but also post-occupancy health surveys and medical expense records. This expensive research was funded by the EPA and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, but the related increase in construction costs still had to come out of the same pockets that would fund a traditional project.

Fortunately, the Partnership had already developed a sharp focus on green value engineering through its work on several other high-performance buildings and the realization set in that, just as with energy efficiency, there was plenty of low-hanging fruit to start with. The biggest culprits in structure-related health hazards were the same ones that affected energy efficiency, namely infiltration and moisture. “There’s a lot you can do without adding costs, such as properly draining the condensate lines to prevent mildew, and using a studied approach to sealing and mechanical ventilation, all things we were doing anyway, but now did more deliberately.”

Other than hypervigilance in the use of low-VOC and nontoxic interior finishes along with a redoubled effort on moisture management and ventilation, healthy building and green building are practically synonymous. What is not yet firmly established in scientific research is the causal relationship between green building and health outcomes. While it’s easy to know if the energy- and water-saving aspects of green building work by simply comparing before and after utility bills, similar assessments of human health require more extensive research and will prove out only after multiple studies come to the same conclusion. Those studies are now occurring, and the results, if positive, will do much to bolster the argument in favor of healthy building systems and nontoxic materials.

New Priorities and a New Approach

Back at the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, they are not waiting for the test results. They are already convinced, and engaged in a completely new approach to design and construction, now that human health is a leading consideration. Once accustomed to pinching pennies even in planning, the Partnership now spends $60,000 or more up front in design charrettes alone. “We bring the NCHH to the table from the very beginning, we hire HVAC engineers, and IAQ consultants so that when we’re looking at the design, we look at everything in great detail, especially when working on an existing building. We do modeling, and also higher high-tech commissioning agents to thoroughly test the existing ventilation systems. We make sure every element related to health is addressed from the outset and then performance testing is done in phases before, during, and after construction, to make sure the systems actually work,” explains Lopez.

The Partnership is currently in the commissioning phase of its latest cooperation with the NCHH, a seven-story senior complex. Orness Plaza, in Mankato, Minn., will be the first project in the U.S. to evaluate specific health outcomes of green building among older Americans. Building on the Viking Terrace project’s focus on eliminating moisture, pests, and indoor pollutants and improving ventilation, the Orness Plaza design also emphasizes interior lighting and indoor spaces that feel like the outdoors to improve resident mood. Other features include exercise options built into the quotidian environment, a temperature control system sensitive to the needs of older adults, and extensive mitigation of low vision and hearing hazards, such as high-contrast colors to distinguish surfaces, clear directional signage, and visual as well auditory cues for doorbells and elevator controls.

The project also focuses on the new dimension of aesthetics as a health criteria. “We wanted to see how to create better aesthetic experiences, so we used color panels, greater contrasts, more light, and more landscape. We’re trying to design environments that calm people with phobias, and moderate mood for those with depression. We reduced the institutional feel, taking care to eliminate all of the elements that make people cringe and say, ‘I never want to end up in a place like this!’” said Goodemann.

But not everyone agreed. “We were criticized for spending too much, creating too much quality for our residents,” said Goodemann. But he argues that the Partnership sees an economic benefit to the green, healthy approach, even when it entails some added, upfront cost. “We are here in business for the long haul, and we don’t want to do what we used to do, tear down or gut rehab buildings every 10 years--this building will last. We also look at it from the operational side, which includes the health of our clients, whom we care for. We have different motivations, and they are actually more real than just the initial financial impact. If we reduce the need for people to go to the hospital, if we start eliminating public health issues, the financial benefits are enormous--does it make sense to create public housing that makes people sick, wastes energy, and has to be torn down and rebuilt in 10 years?” The answer is self evident. The real question is, why build any other way?

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