5 Considerations for Resilient Affordable Housing Design

Stephen Finkelman

The U.S. experienced 20 separate billion-dollar climate disasters in 2021 alone. As the effects of costly natural disasters become more prominent across the nation, the term “resilient design” is quickly becoming a key trend in the multifamily housing industry.

However, resilient design is more than just a buzzword. Resiliency in affordable and multifamily residential design means incorporating advanced infrastructure and creative design strategies, such as emergency generators or enhanced stormwater management, to proactively help property owners withstand extreme weather events and mitigate extensive property damage. Resilient design is especially critical for affordable housing developers to protect their investment and deliver a sustainable product that will serve residents for generations to come.

With the focus on resilient design only expected to increase, here are five considerations for developers to keep in mind:

All homes will need to be prepared for flooding, not just coastal properties

With storms continuing to wreak havoc even in some traditionally low-risk communities—such as Winter Storm Uri in Texas and the most recent flooding in Yellowstone—developers should be aware that all regions may be at an increased risk of storm damage, not just those within today’s flood zones.

This is likely why many coastal mitigation strategies are moving inland. For example, in response to Hurricane Ida, which caused unprecedented flooding in areas previously viewed as having minimal or no flood hazard, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recently announced plans to raise the base flood elevation by two feet in non-tidal areas, meaning the first finished floor must be three feet above existing elevations. The implications of this change are very significant for developers and owners in New Jersey, especially in affordable housing development, where project plans and funding are often determined years in advance.

Navigating compliance regulations

In 2020, the Journal of the American Planning Association published a study that found only 24 states and territories had disaster-related provisions in their qualified allocation plans (QAP) for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). If funding agencies continue to adapt resilient design standards, as they have with energy efficiency and environmental sustainability, affordable housing developers will need to reevaluate everything from site selection to project design and building systems.

However, resilient design strategies also need to be carefully and creatively implemented to avoid conflicts with building codes, government regulations, zoning, design standards and more. For instance, current accessibility codes generally require no-step access to common areas and ground floor apartments, which needs to be considered when developing projects designed to be raised off the ground to reduce flooding. While this need can often be accommodated through ramps and grading, tighter urban sites may struggle to address these conflicting requirements.

Creative space utilization

Mary Johannesen

An interesting benefit that has resulted from an increase in resilient design implementation is the focus on creative design and space utilization. This is especially important in affordable housing, where there are often many site constraints. For example, we’ve seen developers incorporate parking podiums to place apartment floors at higher elevations and reduce the potential for in-unit flooding, and municipalities allowing developers to transform previously-unused podium roof space into vibrant outdoor green areas with passive and active recreation opportunities.

Increase cost of doing business

Developers should be prepared for the emphasis on resilient design to slowly drive up the cost of the development process from current expectations. Whether it’s certain building materials to withstand wildfires, back-up generators for emergency power, enhanced heating systems that can function at subzero temperatures, or multiple elevators for maintaining accessibility, resiliency unfortunately often comes at a price. Similar to a local street tree fund, we anticipate many cities and regions will establish regional resiliency funds, with developers required to contribute.

An emphasis on collaboration

Mitigating the impact of natural disasters is not just one developer’s problem and needs to be addressed community-wide to have the most impact. For example, even if your property implements best-in-class solutions for managing stormwater runoff, it won’t make much of a difference if your next-door neighbors haven’t taken preventative steps to manage their stormwater equally well.

We anticipate—and encourage—increased collaboration among developers, project partners and local municipalities to work together to identify and implement collective solutions. As an example, sustainable and resilient power solutions could be achieved through groups of neighboring developments participating in a combined heat and power system, which would allow those developments to share the costs and benefits of such investments together.

What makes resilient design tricky is not only reviewing historic data and patterns to anticipate potential vulnerabilities in your building’s design today, but also anticipating future concerns that may arise 10 or 15 years down the road. Today resilient design is seen as “additive” in terms of the costs and the benefits it provides, but as our country faces a severe shortage of affordable housing it will become increasingly important that we design and build in ways that will help ensure the homes we create will remain healthy and available for people to live in for decades to come.

Stephen Finkelman, PE, LEED®AP, CEM is principal & director of engineering at Kitchen & Associates (K&A). He leads the firm’s integrated mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection engineering disciplines, as well as the energy consulting and commissioning groups. Mary M. Johannesen, AIA, LEED®AP is a principal at Kitchen & Associates, where she leads the studio specializing in the design of affordable housing.

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