Green Building: Location, Location, Location…and Price

Sara Olsen laments that green, affordable housing isn’t as sexy as cleantech, but its popularity and demand are still on the rise. The housing crash and ongoing mortgage woes certainly hurt its cause, but green housing pioneers are marching forward. According to industry speakers at the National Association of Home Builders International Show in Orlando in early January 2011, affordable, green housing will make up an increasing percentage of the future housing market in direct relation to its price. The other common denominator they’ve found between all housing, green or otherwise? Location. But are they mutually exclusive?

Real estate in desirable locations has always garnered a higher price. Offices and housing near public transportation in urban areas rent and sell at a premium. Now, however, research shows that for buildings to be truly green, they need strategic locations to reduce the biggest carbon factor – commuting. More than measuring how much energy the building itself uses, now sustainability experts and planners are trying to gauge how much energy people use to reach that location.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago compared commute costs and carbon emissions of the same green Exelon headquarters in its downtown Chicago location and if it was moved to an Illinois suburb. They found that downtown, only 45% of employees drive to work, while in the suburb, it’s 99%. Energy spent commuting was double to the suburb as opposed to downtown.

The EPA reports that transportation emissions account for 29% of total U.S. greenhouse emissions. ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) proposed green standards requiring a building to be located in developed areas or within walking distance of at least 10 services (grocery stores, restaurants, banks, etc.), a train or subway station, a bus stop or apartments or condominiums.

So what about companies who purchased affordable land outside of urban areas? Can their buildings still be considered green? If a house is built with green materials and technology in a suburb, is it still green? Does green building prohibit suburban sprawl or promote wider-spread public transportation?

 Olsen translates green affordable housing into a social return on investment, and calculates that every $1 spent equals $10 in social ROI. She takes into account lower healthcare costs for seniors who can delay moving into a nursing home due to closer proximity to family, and reduced energy use and carbon emissions as a result of better locations and green design. “The trick is to create housing developments that are mixed into economically solid communities so that residents have access to good schools, jobs, services and transportation.”

Green or not, isn’t that desirable in all housing? And, consequently, that usually drives up the price. Building in desirable areas near services and transportation is expensive, yet now, more than ever, Americans need affordable, energy-efficient homes and offices. So can housing actually be green AND affordable?

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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