Thoughts from Panel discussion on "Sustainable, Affordable, Innovative Housing Design in Cleveland"

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Fri, 12/08/2006 - 18:38.

Green Affordable Housing Panel 

There was an insightful, loosely structured forum on affordable, green housing, held at the Cleveland Institute of art, December 06, 2006, featuring Cleveland City Planning Director Bob Brown, Cleveland-area developer Nate Zaremba, Jeffrey Bowen and Tom Meyer of Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity, architects Beth Blostein and Bart Overly of Blostein Overly Architects, and others for a panel discussion, moderated by Cleveland Plain Dealer Architecture Critic Steven Litt, that did an excellent job of raising consciousness on the future form and substance of our region. This forum, in support of the exceptional “Home House” Exhibition at the Cleveland Institute of Art Reinberger Gallery, took a stab at how to align economics, environmentalism, affordability, urbanism, regionalism and aesthetics, among other essentials of planning a sustainable future for this region.

The dynamic was quite interesting, as Bob Brown, of the City of Cleveland, and Bowen and Meyers, of Habitat for Humanity, brought the solid pragmatism of their respective concerns and experiences – addressing poverty of today's Cleveland – while Zaremba, and Blostein and Overly visioned from some higher ground, while moderator Litt challenged all to attack every status quo and vision to higher synergistic standards.

What developed was a free-form, nondenominational exploration of convergence – how to address the need for truly affordable housing in an impoverished community – how to improve the community in many ways – how to be more green – what is the potential and future of green – how do we make green affordable for all – how to make housing affordable for all – how to address the decay of a city built for 1,000,000, housing 400,000 – how to protect the Great Lakes... like I said, it was loose.

The only conclusion I can draw is that because of the “Home House” Exhibition we have more talented people in this region focused on some of the most important issues for the future of the region than ever before, and the level of dialog about the right things is better than ever. This has led to the right people coming together at the right places, with the right audience to create significant insight. Will that lead to significant change? Here are some loose notes from the panel to seed more thoughts...

Steve Litt was moderator and acknowledges the innovate thinking of the CIA in organizing this exhibition, and stresses this is a timely debate in the context of our understanding of our role on planet earth.

Litt throws out the word Inertia – tenancy for an object to stay in a fixed state – we as a nation are in inertia, largely reflected in the automobile culture. The need for change is evident today in everything we see in papers and hear on media. Points to the Sunshine boys – leader in photo voltaic panels – installing large volumes in China... so polluted it has to go green.

We are here in Cleveland, a shrinking city in the mid-west, but our builders and developers are thinking about the same subjects. Litt says he hopes this discussion is not a celebration in self congratulations.

Steve mentions “Home House” exhibit and affordable green housing concept is about aesthetics – he expresses excitement about the future – Cleveland tends to be a conservative community, about architecture and he future – lets look further – Case new housing facility is not a good example of the forward thinking we need here.

Discussion begins with Bob Brown, Cleveland City Planning Director: He points out this is a city built for 1,000,000 – how do you define the market – we have no problem selling houses in Cleveland as long as they are affordable – major housing affordability issue – how much the housing cost versus how much people can afford – it may be affordable but income is not there to buy it. Affordable is not paying more than 30% of income, and that is way below demographic in Cleveland. Even though housing cost is low, the residents are paying too high a percentage of income on housing.

Cleveland is switching focus to rehab... generally much of the housing in Cleveland can be brought into reuse, but then we have the issue of green.

Two family houses is an issue – also three to nine unit buildings

Tom Meyer, Construction Director for Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity speaks next, starting with issue of what is the market for affordable housing? HFH is based on a concept of affordable homes. See need for more housing than can be met. There is a market for HFH housing – the demand comes from opportunity to own a home and have stability.

Home owners are twice as likely as renters to live in more structurally satisfactory housing, complete school, continue with education, move to higher education, own homes.

Not cutting edge green – why? - that is the purpose of this panel – there are higher up front costs and need to educate the market to increase demand for new technologies. Litt mentions industry is not meeting need for affordable green solutions.

Bolstein Olverly Architects representatives: Columbus architects Beth Blostein and Bart Overly go next to discuss Gradient House, from the “Home House” Exhibition – look at new materials, new approaches to technology – looked at HFH prototypical affordable house meets Philip Johnson Glass House. If we could compress all the utilities into core and prefab? New opportunities for programming? Off the shelf Greenhouse Frame?

They're building 5 houses from the competition in Winston Salem – leveraging a shared geothermal system to make all more cost effective – 1300 sq ft as billed – marketing now and start constructing next year.

Nate Zaremba, of Zaremba, Inc. has been building residential single family housing in the urban core of Cleveland. He will partner with MRN Inc, developer of East 4th Street, to collaborate on the Triangle and Beach development projects at University Circle, and include MOCA and the expanded CIA construct. Suburbs price things to the $80-100 k a lot and justify with $300+ K home. Laymans terms for affordability: buy used home in inner ring suburb... when city of Cleveland offers free land – not really free, but there are costs to a suburban development people do not know about. Need link of world class architecture to bring custom homes to everyday people. design a house to the specs of the owners.

Behind the facade is surprising variability. Find a way to mfg a custom design and custom build home to be affordable (150K). Pitching to middle class families on the way up. 2 income families, aspiring to have children and still want to live in city of Cleveland. 60 percent sold to suburbanites or migrants from cities like Boston – people from out of town looking for the urban experience. Life boring in Hudson... suburban exp: so there is an urban experience market.. Key aspect of design is how to we design mixed use, higher density communities.. TND – zoning is progressive, mixed use in midtown.. mandates 3 stories, planned unit development to promote walkable , mixed use communities.

Zeremba is becoming a believer – recycled plan – transforming industrial sites – looking to move to LEEDS – people are responding to that – audience at Avenue District is responding to the sustainability concept and respond to a survey on their webpage where they ask would you like a green home and how much would you pay for it and 60% said they want green and would pay 10% more for it.

Litt says it would be better if people didn't have to pay more for it.

Question is raised does it cost more? There are ways to go green that do not cost more. One more piece to fit in the puzzle. One more step that makes it a harder project. No infrastructure for this that “gets” this – typically use the same architect and they say it will cost more without understanding – they just say it will cost more because they don't want to think about it.

Some components are expensive but other issues are in the realm of possibilities – Native Americans were excellent at designing sustainable housing – we can deal with this in innovative ways.

Regarding aesthetics, it is a mark of our historical condition and part of the task is what kind of mark are we going to leave on our current condition – what mark are we going to leave for the future?

Litt – where are the clients going to come from to push the marketplace to make for housing that is greener and hire people to give housing a greener image.

Jeffrey Bowen, Executive Director of Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity makes some closing coments – honored to join City of Cleveland and advocacy organizations in this debate... HFH is presenting its program with agile elders, law students, volunteers from wealthy suburbs, college students – they seek energy star certification, min waste, max recycling – everything here (at Home House) is a great idea – we need to look at strategies that provide zero toxicity, long term viability, affordability to the working poor – how do we make this all work.. how does anyone pay the gas bill in this community, how to make recyclable, nontoxic... people can't afford to live in rentals... look at viability to homeownership, resources of the homeowner... fabric of the community is typically boarded homes, rentals.. consider rainbarrels and disconnecting downspouts... deconstructed materials should put the applicant at the front of the line... we need to understand this is a whole system, we can't throw stuff away and spew bad water into Lake Erie. We live in Cleveland, so we need to preserve Cleveland, support the city of Cleveland. We have the minds, willpower, expertise to lift us up into a realm where we can be the place in the country to figure out how to fix a train wreck, not have one. We need to be mean, lean and green. why can't we all provide safe, housing, affordably for everyone in the city.

There are two different Americas – professionals + inner city typical family. Are the constituents in on the conversation at all – what can we do? Poor woman and her families – where do you put me in Cleveland. Women are still economically mature, and ready to be part of the solution.

London features a 7 story building that's 11 ft wide – what is the potential for strawbale , cobb – vs ICFs – what are the implications. There is a permits issue with strawbale..

Audience asks, how is inertia different from 30 yrs ago, and green of 30 years ago? Overtly: new technologies, building integrated pv systems, green modulated pv systems, much more modulated and advanced and integrated 'hyperverde hypotheses' planning methodologies occurring today in new urbanism. Technolgies have become off the shelf affordable, or at least more affordable. Stick built construction has been perfected since the civil war – need to move to 99 percent recycled materials. Prefab options take less time to build structures, what would make these technologies more affordable to most of the economy. Impact of tax base, ripple effect from tax abated projects - with economy of scale, impact has been a very positive thing .. non tax abated houses can be found for 80-100 k – in new tax abated homes – getting taxes off the land and abated vertical structure for 15 years. All kinds of modifications to homes that inevitably raise property values.

Duplexes are a challenge. Saving house and rehabbing it is the environmentally conscious way to go – so how to bring it back to marketability?? tax abatement needed for city and school dist - in 1980's there were 20 new housing units per year built in Cleveland – now 800-1500 units a year, due to tax abatement. For people to choose Cleveland, provide superior services, can't do it without tax revenues – the schools need to attract the people... the residents... otherwise you just have singles, nonfamily residents, renters, etc.