As technology disrupts the building industry, it's good news for affordable housing

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Mon, 2017-04-17 14:30 -- Compassionate C...

If affordable housing is a huge problem today – and most would agree it is – how are we going to accommodate the additional 106 million low-income households that McKinsey Global Institute anticipates there will be by 2025? As you'll read below, a very interesting CNBC piece suggests disruption in the building industry will help -- and signs of it already exist. – Philip Bane

The Dow Chemical Company just entered its 35th year partnering with Habitat for Humanity and announced plans to add new technologies as company volunteers work with Habitat on 42 projects in 19 countries this year.

It's another sign of innovation in the building industry, where new technologies are helping make communities healthier and homes more sustainable for families in need of decent and affordable housing. Here are a few examples:

  • Dow will support Habitat builds in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar by donating water filtration systems in the towns of Thanatpin and Dala, where 28% of homes get their drinking water from unsafe sources
  • In another build in Tenjo, Colombia, Dow will pilot a project where its polyurethane materials will be used in PVC panels to build walls
  • In addition to building a home, volunteers in South Africa will use soap containing Dow technology in an educational campaign to reinforce the importance of hand-washing to help curb the spread of infectious diseases

A quiet revolution
Writing for CNBC, Elizabeth MacBride calls what's happening in the construction industry today "a quiet revolution." She cites experts who say in the last decade, new technologies -- from better land mapping to cheaper solar power – are starting to bring the cost of housing down 20% to 30%.

The idea behind land mapping is to make more available land available for development. Using geographic, ownership and zoning data, some cities have been able to identify "lost" parcels that may be owned by a government entity, for instance.

The CNBC piece points to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia where 40 square kilometers of land zoned residential and with access to suitable infrastructure had sat idle for two decades. And in Monterrey, California, a former military base is being redeveloped with an emphasis on affordable housing.

For some time now developers have been repurposing existing buildings to create affordable housing. Many schools have been converted to housing around the country; a recent example is a former high school in Eaton, Ohio, that recently opened its remodeled space as affordable housing for seniors. And in Providence, Rhode Island, upper floor storefronts in a historic mall were converted into micro-apartments a couple years ago, renting for $550 a month.

Energy savings lower housing costs
The continuing decline in solar photovoltaics costs and faster ROI is leading to more investment in energy by governments and the private sector, the CNBC piece points out. A couple of examples:

  • The Indian government announced a solar lighting project to help families living in poorly lit shanties and slums in Kolkata last fall.
  • Vermont opened its first net zero energy affordable housing development on a blighted mobile home park located in Waltham with a slew of energy-efficient technologies, including solar.

Meanwhile New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) launched the first phase of a large-scale Energy Performance Contract which will reduce annual utility costs by more than $3.5 million by improving energy and water efficiency. Ameresco is the performance contractor on the $56 million project, which includes lighting, water conservation and heating upgrades that will benefit more than 45,000 residents at 16 NYCHA developments citywide.

"This first phase will also provide employment opportunities for NYCHA residents as well as local businesses, thereby contributing to construction jobs that remain in the community," noted Ameresco Executive Vice President David J. Anderson. "This entire initiative will improve efficiency as well as resident security and comfort while supporting NYCHA’s sustainability goals.”

Better homes by computer
That is the mission of an Israeli architecture student who for her thesis, Inhabitat reports, developed a computer program to help marginalized Bedouin communities design decent affordable and environmentally friendly homes without needing an architect.

Nof Nathansohn's Home Made software is user friendly with lots of step-by-step guidance. It also provides several designs and layouts to choose from, all of which are easily assembled and disassembled, according to Inhabitat. Nathansohn tested her app in the village of Al-Sara, where she designed multiple structures, even a community center for children.

Computer modeling is another technology that can help lower housing costs by estimating the strength and durability of different materials more precisely, CNBC explains. That way developers and architects can choose materials that cost less but are of the same or higher quality.


This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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