Impact On Design

The misalignment in affordable housing between who is making the investment and who is benefiting from that investment can inject an added complexity into design decisions. One area that requires particular attention is the metering of utilities. Central heating or central domestic hot-water systems are often more efficient, and can be lower in first costs, than individual systems. In properties where the owner will be responsible for paying the utility bills, such as special needs or senior projects, there can be a strong push for central systems. In other projects, the impetus for individual metering is strong in order to lower the financial risk to developers. People who pay their own utility bills tend to use less energy. A study by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) showed a reduction of 10-26 percent after master-metered buildings were switched to individually metered.4 A study of water savings generated by submetering showed a reduction of 15 percent.5 Because the reduced energy consumption resulting from individual metering may surpass the increased efficiency of a centrally metered energy, determining the best approach can be a difficult balancing act for property managers and design teams—even those experienced in green building.

If already established by the local PHA, using an energy-efficient utility allowance schedule can help push project design teams toward individually metering heat and hot water. But if a project-based utility allowance is required, developers often will not know if the allowance has been approved until well after fundamental design decisions, such as central versus individual metering, must be made, thus creating a barrier to integrated design.

Another design challenge is the misconception that all decisions about building systems and materials must be made at the design development phase. Actually, decisions only need to be made regarding the most substantial or least flexible items, such as the type of structure or major building systems. Final decisions on more flexible items, like finish materials, can be delayed until later in construction by using an "add-alternate" approach. Because affordable housing lenders usually require that a significant contingency fund be set aside for each development, many projects have some contingency funds remaining as construction nears completion. By including green finish materials like flooring, cabinetry, and furniture in the project specifications as add-alternates, green upgrades can be made close to project completion with remaining contingency funds.

This approach is most feasible when the developer is able to work with the same general contractor on several projects, because the general contractor can then ask both subcontractors and suppliers for better pricing based on an increase in both the volume and security of future work.

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