Driving toward the Greater Good

Image courtesy of Mercy Housing

March 28, 2019-

That energy and water efficiency upgrades have benefits beyond the consumption and savings buried somewhere on a utility bill is well known to both affordable housing providers and energy efficiency implementers.  What’s more, a growing body of research documents the range and value of these so-called “non-energy benefits”.  Yet for all their recognized value, the myriad benefits that accrue to residents from energy and water upgrades are rarely taken into account when evaluating different upgrade options.  

With energy expert Elizabeth Chant and invaluable insights from multiple housing and industry experts, Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future has produced a white paper, Driving toward the Greater Good, which documents the benefits that accrue from different types of building upgrades and puts forward a framework for incorporating those benefits into retrofit decision making.  The accompanying Resident Benefits Indicator tool builds on that framework, allowing stakeholders who are reviewing audit reports and deciding on scopes of work to evaluate different retrofit packages for their levels of resident benefits. This pair of resources allows affordable housing providers to bring resident benefits directly into the upgrade decision-making process and better address the needs and priorities of the families they serve. 

Research into the many benefits of efficiency upgrades uncovered no less than 48 distinct benefits that flow to residents from building system upgrades!  The benefits are associated with seven different categories of building upgrades: building shell, HVAC, hot water, water, lighting, appliances, and renewables.  Benefits from each of these building upgrade types are mapped to five broad categories of benefits: financial, health and safety, comfort, education and learning, and social and resiliency benefits.  Some benefits are the direct result of an efficiency upgrade, and others are cascading and interactive.

While utility bill savings are frequently a focus of upgrade decisions, efficiency measures can also lead to other financial benefits, including increased energy security and financial benefits from improved health such as greater work productivity, fewer out-of-work days, and reduced medical expenses.  Health benefits include reductions in asthma triggers, thermal stress, headaches, arthritis pain, and carbon monoxide poisoning.  Comfort benefits include reduced noise levels, improved control of building systems, reductions in disruptions for repairs, and better lighting quality and distribution.  Indeed, Mercy Housing’s Caitlin Rood reports that seniors in particular often comment that better lighting quality gives them a greater sense of ease after she’s implemented an LED lighting upgrade.  Improved health and comfort can lead to benefits to education and learning for students and adults through fewer out-of-school days, improvements in reading and test scores, increased productivity, and improved behavior at school.  Finally, efficiency and renewable energy measures can lead to higher levels of resiliency for people, buildings, and community as buildings decrease their risk of power disruptions and greater comfort and stability at home improves social cohesion and improves community resilience. 

In addition to mapping the many benefits of efficiency upgrades, Driving toward the Greater Good also puts forward a framework for developing scopes of work, funding upgrades, and implementing improvements to drive greater benefit to residents.  Aspects of the framework include:

  • Prioritization principles such as maximizing resident benefits within the bounds of cost effectiveness, prioritizing measures with no natural lifecycle, and encouraging resident-led upgrades
  • Approaches to funding upgrades such as obtaining outside resources, leveraging existing internal resources, and partnering with health care organizations
  • Implementation best practices such as engaging residents, revolving savings, and training on how to use newly-installed systems

As an example of engaging residents, The Good Samaritan Society’s Zachary Jacobson reported working with residents to create a wish list in advance of a retrofit project.  That the retrofit project addressed some of their concerns and desires led to happier and more involved residents, and a smoother retrofit process. 

As an added implementation tool, the Resident Benefits Indicator can help owners and managers compare upgrade scenarios.  The Indicator tool is an interactive spreadsheet that calls for just a few simple inputs about who pays which utilities and the local climate.  The tool’s indicators help people developing retrofit scopes of work to compare the benefits to residents from different upgrade options and ensure that these valuable building improvements are truly driving toward the greater good.

-Rebecca Schaaf and Tawechote Wongbuphanimitr