Healthy living is on everyone’s mind now. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the environments we live in and the importance of those environments in our daily lives. Also, the increase in reasonable accommodation requests relating to “multiple chemical sensitivity” has made it clear to housing owners and managers that the chemicals and materials we use in our housing make a difference in the quality of life for both residents and staff.
Currently, most health-related actions taken by owners are reactive – i.e., we make changes when forced to through the fair housing or Section 504 reasonable accommodation process. However, visionary developers are beginning to develop housing that is healthier than any housing developed in the past, greatly reducing the likelihood of complaints and the subsequent revisions to property operations. In short, it is time to consider the health of our residents and staff in the design of multifamily housing.
“Green building” practices have been around for years now, and this should be the starting point for any plan to develop healthy housing. Most people view green building as a series of energy-saving features, and that is certainly the case. But in addition to energy savings, green building techniques promote healthy living through the use of non-toxic building and cleaning materials, which now are generally comparable in cost to the more traditional non-healthy building products.
New design approaches are being utilized by affordable housing architects, including the use of natural light in units and more exercise and activity spaces for residents. Indoor air quality is being dramatically improved with technologically advanced air filters and better mold prevention systems. While the cost of these advanced environmental systems has traditionally been a concern, the greenest HVAC systems now have the lowest life-cycle costs.
It is now possible to develop affordable multifamily housing using sustainability elements that meet the requirements of the National Green Building Standard (NGSB) certification. NGSB is a third party certification ANSI standard. Healthy elements can now be built into housing complexes from top to bottom.
There are now many cost-effective paint options that utilize the HomeFree hazard spectrum. Paint is one of the primary finishes in a home. It covers a large percentage of the interior surface area. Selecting interior paint products that have the fewest hazards possible can have a significant impact on occupants and installers.
Attributes to consider in the selection of interior latex paints are minimizing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and alkylphenol ethoxylate (APE) free paints.
Look for low VOC content in paints – at a minimum, specify paint bases with a VOC content less than 50g/L. Because VOC content misses some VOCs that may be emitted from paints, also look for an emission certification. Colorants can add VOCs and other hazardous content to paints. Select paints with colorants that do not increase the VOC content of the base paint when tinted.
APEs are a high priority to avoid due to their toxicity and potential for widespread exposure. Look for paints that are APE free.
The goal with regard to interior paints should be at least 85% of interior coatings that meet the low VOC content or low VOC emission requirement. Using low VOC paints over an entire apartment complex may add from $40 to $50 per unit in cost, depending on project size.
Combining the relative affordability of the VOC free paint with the clear health benefit such paint affords, all housing operators should consider implementing a requirement for zero VOC paint across entire portfolios – including existing units. Some forward-thinking developers, including Homes for America, have already implemented this change. This change alone will impact employees and residents by decreasing exposure to hazardous volatile chemicals that increase the risk of asthma and chemicals that may interfere with hormone function.
Healthy flooring options include some linoleum flooring and biobased flooring. The biobased flooring is significantly more costly than traditional apartment flooring so may not be a viable option for most affordable housing. While linoleum is more cost-effective, it is prone to denting. For this reason, it may be considered for senior housing but may not be a good option for the heavy use associated with family housing.
Other building elements are also being developed with healthier living in mind, including countertops, cabinetry and millwork, insulation, and drywall.
Going forward, no new affordable housing development should be built that is not green and healthy. In terms of cost, healthy housing is no less feasible than traditional housing that does not take into consideration healthy living. With the development of healthy housing products, new housing will be better suited to withstand the ravages of the next pandemic – which is certain to come. Green housing will also better prepare us for climate change and the more frequent extreme weather events.