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Can affordable housing be eco-friendly? Lessons from a Napa zero-energy project

Opinion

Chris d Craiker, AIA, NCARB, has been designing affordable and sustainable housing for almost 50 years.

After years of planning and design, Napa Creek Village started construction in 2016 for a zero energy project (ZEP) community.

Five years later, it has gone through multiple bankruptcy lawsuits; and with a $12 million bank obligation was sold for around $7 million. It will probably take another $5 million to complete the 46,000-square-foot housing project. Based on the total construction cost, the projected budget would be over $370 per square foot, comparable to a custom single-family home in Napa.

What went wrong? More importantly, can affordable housing be built that is sustainable, affordable and eco-friendly?

Napa Creek Village was intended to provide substantial high-energy conservation, sustainability and zero energy use by collecting energy with extensive solar panels and greywater recycling. It was to be the state-of-the-art of zero energy use while meeting Napa city’s affordability requirements for eight of the total 48 units.

Originally designed as workforce housing and to be sold as condominiums, the project will now be rented at today’s elevated market rates, with eight units kept at low- to medium-income rental levels. So much for workforce housing affordability.

In May, construction restarted with R.D. Olson Construction general contractors. The new owners, OSM Investment Company, purchased the property earlier this year after it languished on the market for months with potential buyers reeling from sticker shock of what needed to be completed.

I spoke with Scott Herron, senior project manager for R.D. Olson about why the project is so over budget. He described the challenges for completing the project, stating, “OSM Investment is dedicated to preserving the original intent of the design to maintain the low-energy usage, high sustainability approved as designed.” These concepts go back almost 10 years.

Some better news: Most of the structural framing has been completed, although in steel studs, a product with a rating for Environment Product Declaration (EPD). Steel studs, and in general all-steel construction, is highly carbon embedded. This means it takes lots of energy to mine, produce, transport and assemble. While touted as a renewable product, it is the most environmentally unfriendly construction product available today. Only concrete is as poor a construction product for EPD rating as steel.

Steel stud construction is often mistaken as fireproof, but unfortunately when heat is applied to steel, it deforms and fails. Believe it or not, heavy timber wood construction has a lower flame spread rating and is more heat resistant than steel.

The design and execution was driven by untested quasi-alternative construction techniques. Sometimes false narratives drive a project rather than well-founded construction techniques. Today, hybrid systems using tried-and-true construction methods and procedures are essential for a project’s success. When all the team is on the same page, the game can be won.

The reason professional builders are able to build tract houses fast and affordable even in today’s market, is because they are well-managed and schedule-driven. While the pandemic has stretched supply lines and seen schedules and costs escalate, most of Napa Creek Village was failing before the shutdowns.

Affordability and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. When construction follows the highest industry practices and provides well-managed construction from the very beginning with a team of dedicated architects, contractors, subcontractors, managers and financial factions, a project can proceed successfully and provide much-needed rental housing our communities desperately need.

Opinion

Chris d Craiker, AIA, NCARB, has been designing affordable and sustainable housing for almost 50 years.

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