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Green Advocate

Affordable Housing Retrofits

Southface Institute leverages the intersection of building performance and human health to promote social equity

When I first hopped on the phone with Shane Totten, I asked him for the nutshell explanation of Southface Institute’s work because what I was gathering felt impossible to condense into an introductory paragraph. He packaged it up neatly for me, explaining that the Atlanta, Georgia−based nonprofit’s mission is to promote sustainable homes, workplaces, and communities through education, research, advocacy, and technical assistance. That’s the tagline, anyway.

As Director of Education, Leadership, and Research, Totten articulates the myriad ways in which Southface considers people and the homes they occupy. “We conduct research into building performance and materials—for their integrity, safety, and applications; we research how building systems impact human health through their management of heating/cooling, humidity, ventilation, and filtration; and we take what we have learned and implement it through our policy efforts.” They also educate professionals by offering continuing education on building performance, regenerative design, and the nexus of human health and the built environment. And they provide consultancy services to municipalities looking to adopt clean-energy goals or green building ordinances—among other, seemingly innumerable, endeavors.

I was particularly interested in their efforts to develop a scalable and replicable model for affordable housing retrofits—and specifically how that work promotes social equity, which the American Planning Association defines, in part, as the “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.” 

Since its inception during the 1970s energy crisis, Southface has made empirical connections between energy efficiency, resource conservation, and the role of the built environment in human health and social equity. “People have to live within balanced systems,” Totten says, “and a person’s home is the most palpable example of humanity’s reliance on a healthy and safe built environment—that drives a lot of…

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