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Affordable, Prefab, and Core-Certified

Could this be the future of high-quality regenerative housing?

Photo courtesy of Ecocraft

Imagine a housing solution that is not only affordable and prefabricated but also Core Green Building Certified. When you hear these terms, what thoughts and images come to mind? For one of the teams participating in an Affordable Housing Pilot Project by the International Living Future Institute, it signifies an incredible opportunity. Their goal is to offer housing that not only promotes the health and well-being of its occupants but also reduces long-term operating costs for owners and minimizes the impact of construction on local communities. Furthermore, they aim to address the pressing need for resilient and affordable housing in today’s challenging market conditions.

The Hazelwood Community Land Trust Homes project (Hazelwood) is a 25,000 square foot affordable housing project of multiple buildings in Pittsburgh. The team behind this project have set the Institute’s Core Green Building Standard as their target. 

The Institute’s Director of the Buildings Team, Lisa Carey Moore, spent time with Julie Nigro, Senior Real Estate Project Manager at City of Bridges Community Land Trust, and Project Architect Michael Gwin, Principal, Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, to learn more about the Hazelwood project and why affordable + prefabrication + Core could be one path forward for providing high-quality regenerative housing.

At present, you are constructing the first four units, built as two duplexes, that will be situated in an in-fill lot in the Hazelwood neighborhood. While certification is one goal when approaching this particular project, what has been a key objective for both of you?

Julie: As an affordable housing developer, these units must be not only affordable to purchase, but also affordable to live in. City of Bridges works to get parcels transferred from urban redevelopment authorities and oversees all the construction, but ultimately, we help connect buyers to these homes. So the Core Certification Imperatives of energy efficiency and water efficiency help reduce the operating costs for the lower income occupants who will own these units.

Mike: We saw an opportunity to bring together two organizations with shared goals of creating affordable and sustainable housing. The Community Land Trust in Hazelwood represents a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate high-quality and healthy living environments while creating a permanently affordable home ownership program. Through participation in the Institute’s Affordable Housing Program, we came to understand that the goals of Core Certification were within reach.

What’s the future of prefabrication and sustainability in affordable housing?

Mike: Prefabrication is a delivery system with the potential to impact things on a greater scale. By building in a factory, you are ensuring high-quality work due to the controlled environment conditions without rain and weather variations. It also helps timing: you can move more quickly in building the homes, and this can reduce construction costs and time. You can also impact industry standards and methods to drive efficiency in material use and reduce waste.

Julie: We also tried to think of surrounding community impacts. Modular construction is less disruptive to the community. There’s some site prep work, but then there’s a hole in the ground and within days, a whole house is there. There’s less noise, fewer vehicles, and emissions. We get housing to people who need it, faster.

How does it impact the design/construction timeline? 

Mike: The early upfront integration is key. It requires a strong relationship between the architect, prefab builder, and owner. In a factory setting they have established standards and materials, and we had to work with them to apply the Core Materials requirements, focusing on the Red List Free Declare products, and we used the Affordable Housing Materials list to guide our work to ensure healthier materials.

Most materials selections have to be made early and baked into the construction documents–paint, carpet, finishes—because all the work is done in the facility rather than onsite. We also had to work with the manufacturer on waste reduction, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood procurement, and targeting as many materials from the local economy as possible. It involves a lot more early planning to ensure the goals can be met at the price needed.

It sounds like there were many pre-existing relationships going into this project, including the manufacturer of the units. How much did that impact the process?

Julie: Rothschild Doyno Collaborative and Ecocraft were both involved in other Living Building Challenge (LBC)–certified projects including projects at the Phipps Conservatory. Phipps has been a leader in this region providing many professionals the opportunity to learn and practice regenerative building principles, and then go on to apply them in other projects. These experiences laid the foundation for our work.

Mike: If we hadn’t had steps as a team to build on, it might have been too far out of reach; we would have had to accomplish too many things at once.

As you begin construction shortly, with an anticipated delivery to site early in the fall, what are some aspects of the project’s design you’re most proud of?

Mike: We are proudest of the ways that through these affordable home designs we were able to address regional and larger scale issues. For example, our region’s air quality is often impaired due to nearby industry. By creating airtight, highly-efficient homes combined with ERVs and filters, we are managing indoor air quality for people exposed to poor air quality outside.

By using Declare and Living Product Challenge Products, and materials from the Institute’s Affordable Housing Materials list, we’re also ensuring that we’re not introducing harmful chemicals into these homes. I can’t say enough good things about the Institute’s Affordable Housing Program. They provided essential tools and knowledge support in areas that often are barriers to design due to the amount of research and time necessary to accomplish the goals.

Julie: The City of Bridges has long-term maintenance and replacement goals. We have a 99-year ground lease on these properties which renews automatically, so there are essentially 200 years of affordability that we are building in these homes. The mechanical equipment and the roof are big-ticket items that will need to be replaced by the homeowners. While a metal roof has a higher upfront cost, the long-term affordability is worth it because it will last three times as long as asphalt shingles. We’re saving the owners money. We became convinced of the value of this product through Mike’s life cycle work.

Mike: We applied [tallyCat software] to help evaluate ways to achieve the 20% reduction in primary material embodied carbon over a typical project of this type. We were surprised to find significant savings—both in cost and greenhouse gas potential—over the entire life span of the project between asphalt shingles and the selected metal roof.

We also saw huge improvements when switching from conventional concrete and CMU foundations to an open-air solution that sits the prefab homes on concrete piers and a steel frame. This also provided space below the homes to integrate the on-site storm water infiltration system. We were also able to evaluate many other material choices to think about long-term life cycles and emissions over the life of a project. All in all, the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) work allowed us to make good choices economically and for the environment.

Julie: Another exciting aspect is that our project served as a catalyst for local makers. Our goal was to integrate as many local products in all of their buildings. For Hazelwood in particular, Monmade worked with some newer artists and really pushed sustainability and recycled materials. These products are funded to get a Declare label. The Green Leap program within Monmade provides mentorship and technical assistance, acting as an incubator. So in addition to healthy materials, the project will feature some cool lighting, tiles, and bath accessories.

What are you both looking forward to as you think about projects beyond Hazelwood?

Julie: Now we have a template for City of Bridges, and we can modify it as required to reflect the unique aspects of each neighborhood by engaging with each community and assessing their needs.

Mike: Hopefully this work goes beyond City of Bridges, resulting in transformative change for others to build sustainable communities. It will be an even greater success if this work provides examples of how to create high-quality healthy living environments within reach for everyone. From materials that last longer, to lower long-term maintenance and lower utility bills, every part adds up to create more sustainable communities.

In closing, what is the value of the Institute’s certifications and labels to your work?

Julie: I like to think that the aspirational goals helped a lot. There’s an affordable housing crisis in Pittsburgh. The City has awful air quality. After the last few years and with all the extreme weather, people are now recognizing the intersection of improving healthy living and creating affordable housing in neighborhoods that have been systemically underinvested in. Having the certification goals that addressed so many issues likely attracted a lot of funders to the project.

While there’s a premium on FSC wood and healthy materials (primarily in soft costs), it’s up to City of Bridges to make the case that this is a quality of life issue that these homes are going to help address. In the future, we need to do better at reporting back about how homeowners are doing so we can clearly demonstrate how the investment results in healthier outcomes and provides affordability to people over time.

Mike: We have the template. While every site and community brings new challenges, we believe we can build more of these, and we can stretch to achieve more parameters of the LBC program in the pursuit of even more affordable living environments.

Hazelwood Material Highlights

The Core requirements demand the project team uses a minimum of two Declare-labeled products. The team included 11 products that are either Red List Free or Red List–approved. You can find products listed below using the Institute’s Declare database.

The project also has sourced a large number of the building materials regionally, between PA and OH.

  • Lumber – FSC Lumber, UFP Industries, Gordon, PA facility
  • Insulation – Owens Corning fiberglass insulation, manufactured in Ohio
  • Drywall – USG Drywall, manufactured in Aliquippa, PA
  • Exterior Foam – Halo Exterra, manufactured in Beach City, OH
  • Windows – Ventana, manufactured in the Westmoreland Industrial Park near Greensburg, PA
  • Exterior doors – Therma Tru doors assembled at Ben-Bilt/Woodgrain in Greensburg, PA.  The actual door slabs from Therma Tru are manufactured in Butler, IN, which is within 330 miles of the site.
  • Kitchen cabinets – Wolf Designer cabinets are manufactured in York, PA.
  • Vanity tops  – North Coast Cultured vanity tops are manufactured in Bridgeville, PA.

The project has been an excellent catalyst for the local maker and sustainable product design community in Pittsburgh. As Julie mentioned, four of these local products now have Declare labels:

Inspired to explore how your affordable housing project can incorporate healthier materials and reduced long-term operating costs for tenants?

Download the Red List Free Affordable Housing Guidebook

Lisa Carey Moore is the Director of the Buildings Team, one of the three pillars of ILFI’s Impact Group. This article appeared in Trim Tab and has been published here with permission from the International Living Future Institute.



  1. Eric_U | | #1

    I'll be interested to see the price. I've been following these types for companies for several years now. They all promise cheaper building due to how efficient (time and lack of waste) it is, but I've yet to see one under $300/sqft which is simply way out of budget for the average under 45 year old.

    1. Expert Member
      Michael Maines | | #2

      In my experience, including having worked at a similar prefabricator, the delivered costs are comparable to site-built projects with similar quality and details. The difference (to the client) is quality control and time. In theory, factory-built homes should be higher quality than site-built homes, and sometimes that's actually the case. Not having your building exposed to the elements for weeks or months of rainy weather, or paying extra for working the in the snow, can be worth a lot.

      Unfortunately, perhaps, the idea that every American deserves their own, brand-new, single-family home is simply not realistic. Most of the world lives in multi-families, multi-generational homes or old homes--very few have the luxury of building a new home. A good quality new home, whether built in a factory or on site, in my area costs at least $350/sf and more often more than that. I can't afford most of the homes I design, and they aren't particularly fancy.

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