Affordable Housing project tops 2030 reporting performers

Aaron Swain
By Aaron Swain

Senior Associate, Aaron Swain was project manager during design of Solis, Weber Thompson’s Certified Passive House project in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. He is currently the Senior Project Architect on Laurel Village, a 340 unit family-oriented student-housing project.

As fellow signatories to the 2030 commitment know, March is often a big push to report on the predicted performance of projects worked on during the prior year. Now in June, we’ve had some time to reflect on the reported data and trends to identify successful design approaches we can incorporate across our portfolio to raise the performance of all our projects.

First, let’s look at the data we reported.

In 2023, Weber Thompson reported data on 32 projects. Nine of these were “Interior Only” projects, which is more than in previous years. Most of the other projects were multi-family housing, with about 25% of these being Affordable Housing projects—these were the best performers in our portfolio, with Projected Energy Use Intensity (pEUI) values as low as 19 and an average pEUI of about 35. This average shows a 55% improvement over the baseline, which is still short of the 2030 target of an 80% reduction.

However, it’s a success and a small improvement over previous years. With this in mind, we asked, “How are these projects—likely limited by tighter budgets to keep rents low—achieving higher performance? What methods, tools, and mechanisms are helping them reach this level of success?”

Simply put, we see two main trends in affordable housing supporting this performance: a focus on residents’ health and wellness, and unique funding mechanisms and incentives.

A focus on health & wellness

Focusing on health and wellness brings mutual benefits with energy performance investments. These goals include providing clean, filtered air, and quiet, insulated units that offer a sanctuary from the noisy urban environment. Features like triple-pane windows, which residents appreciate for sound separation, also enhance the thermal envelope’s energy performance. Additionally, Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERVs) required by current energy codes, provide air filtration and consistent temperature control, improving residents’ comfort while reducing energy use.

When health and wellness are prioritized, energy efficiency becomes a natural side effect, justifying any additional upfront costs. Providing filtered air, thermal comfort, and acoustically private living spaces benefit every project by meeting specific goals in both health and energy efficiency.

Unique funding & incentives

In recent years, we have seen more incentive-based policies for Affordable Housing projects, promoting aggressive energy performance goals. These goals are being realized in projects currently under construction, notably through the Housing Design Consortium’s “Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard” (ESDS) point system required for projects seeking funding from the WA State Housing Trust Fund, and through pilot funding programs like Seattle City Light’s now-expired Exemplary Buildings program.

Photo of three of the affordable housing projects reported in the 2023 reporting include: (left) The Rise on Madison / Blake House, New Hope Family Housing, and Patsy Surh Place in Tacoma.

Three of the affordable housing projects reported in the 2023 reporting include: (left) The Rise on Madison / Blake House, New Hope Family Housing, and Patsy Surh Place in Tacoma are ESDS certified or pursuing ESDS certification.

At the current construction stage of these projects, we are seeing proof that incorporating high-performance strategies is achievable. Incentives and funding mechanisms effectively encourage their integration into standard design practices. In contrast, while energy codes mandate minimum performance and ensure slow progress toward performance targets, they are starting to show limitations in meeting the rigorous schedule of the 2030 commitment toward achieving net-zero energy and preventing global temperature rise above 1.5°C.

A look at Beacon Pacific Village

Photo of Beacon Pacific Village currently under construction

Phase 1 of Beacon Pacific Village is expected to be completed in August 2024.

Beacon Pacific Village, developed by the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) and designed by Weber Thompson, is our best performer in the 2030 portfolio this year. Scheduled for residents to move in by August 2024, this 270-unit community consists of two seven-story buildings with adult and childcare facilities, located just north of Seattle’s landmarked Pacific Tower. The project features two-story podium buildings with Type 1 construction below five stories of Type V construction, complying with the 2015 Seattle Building and Energy Codes.

During design, the Exemplary Building’s Pilot program helped cover energy modeling costs, allowing the team to identify the best investment value. This provided specific energy performance data that Affordable Housing projects often lack, resulting in higher quality design without extra construction costs. Unlike prescriptive compliance, which can misallocate costs, energy modeling is a flexible tool that allows for “tuning” the building to its specific context and layout. Early modeling helps assess costs and make decisions sooner, preventing rework and motivating the team to exceed baseline standards.

Multi-faceted building components like the envelope can offer mutual benefits for project goals and energy performance. Located above the I-5/I-90 interchange, SCIDpda was concerned about air and acoustic quality for their tenants. Investments in triple-pane windows and thicker exterior walls improved performance in both areas.

Photo of the windows from the interior looking out.

Investments in triple-pane windows and thicker exterior walls improved energy performance in both areas.

Combined with the improved thermal envelope, the project includes in-unit ERVs for air filtration, which also reclaim energy from conditioned exhaust air. Another component, the air barrier, targets 0.17 CFM/SF, enhancing health and wellness by minimizing uncontrolled infiltration, ensuring clean, filtered air regardless of outdoor air conditions. These measures were not required for residential uses under the 2015 code that the project followed, but the health and wellness benefits proved essential to incorporating this technology.

These improvements work together to create healthy living spaces, right-size mechanical equipment, and reduce overall HVAC energy needs—a major energy expense for residential projects. The project’s health-focused goals align well with energy performance benefits, adding value to the energy improvements beyond their cost.

In addition, the large rooftop PV array provides a net EUI benefit of about 2. This might seem small, but over the project’s life, it generates around 104,000 kWh per year, saving about $13,500 annually at the current rate of $0.13 per kWh. On-site production means this energy can be subtracted from overall consumption, reducing residents’ costs. As solar technology improves and costs decrease, broader adoption becomes more feasible. Widespread rooftop PV use could also stabilize energy costs and reduce the losses associated with long-distance energy transport from large power facilities.

As intended by the Exemplary Building’s Pilot program, Beacon Pacific Village highlights what’s possible for any project—not just affordable housing projects—when goals are clearly defined and happen to align well with energy performance incentives and financing criteria.

Looking ahead

Beacon Pacific Village is only one project where we were able to come close to 2030 targets to minimize climate change this past year—and in my opinion—this isn’t good enough.  We need to recognize that reducing climate change impacts benefits everyone globally and long-term. More than late adoption of prescriptive energy codes is needed to avoid the harshest realities of climate change, and the cost burden can’t rest solely on the Commercial Real Estate development industry.

Looking to the future, navigating incentives—such as acts of Congress, federal grants, state policies, and regional utility incentives—will be critical for constructing buildings that meet 2030 energy performance targets. These incentives are crucial for bridging the 5-10% premium of building better buildings and standardizing practices. I look forward to sharing our success in navigating these incentives and applying them to our projects next year!

Special thanks to my colleagues Stephanie Farrell and Emily Evenson, as well as our clients at SCIDpda, Joel Ing and Josh Park, for your contributions to this article.

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